Who’s Crusading Now?

MOSCOW — Those scouring the tea leaves for hints about how Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shares power with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were richly rewarded on Monday with a rare bit of public sniping between the two.

As bombs rained down on Libya, Putin toured a plant east of Moscow that makes Russia’s array of ballistic and intercontinental missiles, like the Bulava and the Iskander. A worker asked Putin what he thought of the situation in Libya, and the prime minister told him, as bluntly and saltily as ever.

“This resolution of the Security Council is clearly incomplete and flawed,” he said, referring to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to stop Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s attacks on civilians, short of an occupation of Libya. Russia, along with the other BRIC countries and Germany, had abstained from the vote. Putin didn’t stop there, though. If you really read the resolution, said Putin, “it becomes clear that it allows anyone to take any action against a sovereign state.” He went on: “And anyway, it reminds me of a medieval call for the Crusades, when someone would call on someone to go to some place and liberate something.”

A few hours later, Medvedev chastised his partner. “It is unacceptable to use language that, in essence, can lead to a clash of civilizations, like the Crusades and such,” he said, while bemoaning the loss of civilian life in the coalition airstrikes. “It is unacceptable.”

Unacceptable? Did Medvedev, clearly the junior member in the ruling “tandem,” really publicly call Putin’s words “unacceptable”? Was this a rare indication that Medvedev has a political backbone of his own and might be capable of standing up to Putin’s more steely will? And, because there is only a year left until the presidential election — er, decision — of 2012, what does this mean for both candidates’ backroom plans? Was it a sign that Medvedev would want to remain in the presidency, and contest Putin’s rumored plan to take back his seat?

No such luck, dear tea readers. Although public disagreement in the tandem is a rarity, this is not the first time the two heads of state have sparred. (Whenever they do so, it’s also worth remembering the good-cop, bad-cop setup of the ruling tandem.) Moreover, the verbal disagreement seems much bigger than it actually is, given Russia’s generally permissive position on Operation Odyssey Dawn. Russia could easily have vetoed Resolution 1973, but chose to abstain, thereby enabling the operation.

So why is Putin so upset? The abstention puts Russia in an uncomfortable position. Russia does not like it when “someone” tells “someone” to go and “liberate something.” In 1999, for instance, when a NATO coalition bombed Yugoslavia to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovars, Russia took its complaint to the United Nations. It tried to pass a resolution stating that “such unilateral use of force constitutes a flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter.” The bid was unsuccessful, but the Western intervention in that war continues to rankle Russia, which still feels threatened by the expansion of NATO, an alliance that was created to confront (Soviet) Moscow.

Perhaps because of this history, any intervention seems to hit a Russian nerve, however reflexive, that it could be next in line. But it also bears mentioning that there are frequently rubles at stake: The countries invaded are often Russian allies, and lucrative ones at that. Qaddafi was such an ally. Under his auspices, Russia and Libya forged a fruitful economic alliance. Just a year ago, Libya bought nearly $2 billion worth of weapons in a high-profile deal. Sources have told the Russian daily Kommersant that not only was Libya expected to be one of the first buyers of Russia’s new generation of fighter planes, but that another $2 billion in planes and anti-aircraft weaponry was in the pipeline. Russian Railways, one of the biggest government monopolies, had just won a $3 billion tender to build a railroad linking Libyan cities on the Mediterranean coast. Now, U.S. and European rockets are landing dangerously close to the Russian Railways factory at Ras Lanuf. They could also threaten to damage the installations of Gazprom and oil company Tatneft.

It’s no coincidence that Putin spoke at a factory that could be hurt by any drop-off in Russian arms deals: He promised workers at the factory, Russia’s main rocket producer, that he would double government orders, partly to compensate for any drop-off in smaller arms deals with Libya.

“[Putin’s] trademark colorful rhetoric was to compensate constituents who lost money because of the Security Council resolution,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “This was absolutely for internal consumption.”

Medvedev’s response, on the other hand, was for external consumption. It was also no coincidence that he stepped into the fray just as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was speaking to Russian Navy officers in St. Petersburg, praising U.S.-Russia cooperation and the Kremlin’s decision to abstain rather than veto the Security Council resolution. There were even reports that Medvedev was leaning toward supporting the resolution.

Clearly, the Kremlin’s calculation was that there was no use propping up Libya’s sinking ship at the risk of seriously alienating Europe, still Russia’s biggest trading partner, and the United States. Russia was never going to support the intervention in Libya, but, in this case, it clearly calculated that remaining silent would reap the far bigger fruit. Not to mention all this disorder has sent the prices of oil and gold — two major Russian commodities — through the roof, and Russia has a not insignificant budget deficit to fill.

Major decisions like not vetoing in a classic veto situation are not generally reached without the agreement of both halves of the diuumvirate. “Of course they would have reached the decision together,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who runs a think tank closely linked to the Kremlin. And, at the end of the day, with such a major guest wheeling around the country, the message for external consumption won out. Russian television covered only Medvedev’s statement. “On the whole, this resolution reflects our understanding of the situation in Libya, which is why we didn’t use our veto power,” the president said, after registering the standard reservations about the futility of using force. (Russia also took the unusual step of abruptly firing its ambassador to Libya on the eve of the Security Council vote, for “not having an adequate understanding of Russian interests in Libya.” Allegedly, he was advocating for Russia to veto the resolution.) Medvedev’s press secretary, Natalia Timakova, as well as others close to the administration, tried to paper over the difference between the two leaders, saying that the president’s anti-Crusades slap was not aimed at Putin at all. “He meant Qaddafi and everyone who uses such expressions,” Timakova said. (Qaddafi had earlier called the attack on his country a “colonial crusade.”)

As for Putin’s statement on the Crusades, it was simply his personal opinion, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. Russia’s position on these things is the one voiced by Medvedev, Peskov said, “which is why he is more balanced in his reasoning on this topic.”

Who’s Crusading Now? [FP]

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