President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly clashed over Russia’s response to the Western-led military action in Libya. This is the first major open rift in the tandem that has ruled Russia since 2008 and it may be much more important than the problem of how to oust Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and stop the bloodshed in Libya. It is about who controls Russian foreign policy and what direction the nation will take: eventual Westernization or authoritarian isolationism.
Speaking with workers at the Votkinsk missile factory in Udmurtia, Putin strongly denounced the Western “military intervention” in Libya. Putin called the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that allowed the enforcement of the no-fly zone in Libya “flawed and defective.” Putin accused the US of constant aggression, bombing Yugoslavia in 1999, invading Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 “under a contrived and completely false pretext.” Putin also accused the US of “eliminating” Saddam Hussein, killing members of his family and government. Now, according to Putin, “it is Libya’s turn.” Putin spoke about US’ hypocrisy, bombing and killing Libyan civilians under the pretext of protecting them. Putin described UN Resolution 1973 as “a medieval call for a crusade.” Putin agreed with Medvedev that “the Libyan regime is not democratic by any criteria,” but somewhat excused Gaddafi by pointing out: “Libya is a complex country based on relations between tribes, which require special regulation.” Under the Russian constitution foreign policy is directed by the president and Putin announced he was expressing his personal opinion about Libya (https://premier.gov.ru, March 21).
Nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) Topol-M and Yars (RS-24), submarine-based Bulava missiles and shorter-range Iskander-M missiles are assembled in Votkinsk. Putin told the workers: “what is happening in Libya today” proves the need to reinforce Russia’s defenses “under the new government armament program.” Putin announced that by 2013 “the production of ballistic missiles will double in Russia” (https://premier.gov.ru, March 21).
On the same day Medvedev told journalists that he gave specific instructions to the foreign ministry not to use Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council to stop UN Resolution 1973, “Because I do not believe it is wrong and on the whole reflects our understanding of what is happening in Libya.” The term “crusaders” is constantly used by Islamist radicals and by Gaddafi in his anti-Western propaganda and Medvedev declared, “It is unacceptable to talk of crusades,” since this may further aggravate the situation. Medvedev stressed that the alleged killing of innocent civilians by Western air attacks has not yet been proved and that the Libyan crisis was caused by “the crimes of the Libyan regime against its own people” (www.kremlin.ru, March 21).
As resolution 1973 was discussed in New York, the Russian foreign ministry planned to stop it by threatening to use the veto, apparently supported by Putin. Russia’s permanent representative at the UN, Vitaly Churkin, defended an alternative call for an immediate ceasefire (Interfax, March 18). As the vote in New York was nearing, Medvedev suddenly fired the Russian Ambassador in Tripoli, Vladimir Chamov, for allegedly supporting Gaddafi (ITAR TASS, March 23).
After UN Resolution1973 was adopted, Gaddafi announced a unilateral ceasefire, while in fact ordering an all-out assault on the rebel capital of Benghazi. It is possible, Russian diplomats and intelligence representatives in Tripoli were acting in coordination with Gaddafi, who was awaiting some UN ceasefire resolution while preparing a final attack to ravage Benghazi, sending the self-styled rebel leaders fleeing to Egypt and crushing any hope of organized resistance, making the coalition intervention pointless.
Russian diplomats continued to publicly attack the UN resolution and the implementation of the no-fly zone after the firing of Chamov. The Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, called UN Resolution 1973 “hurriedly adopted” and “highly questionable,” while accusing the coalition of killing civilians and demanded that the West “stop using indiscriminant force” (RIA Novosti, March 20). On March 23, Chamov returned to Moscow from Tripoli and told reporters he did not send Medvedev a letter accusing him of treason, as it was alleged, and “on the whole” he supported Medvedev’s policies. The foreign ministry told reporters that Chamov will be offered an important diplomatic job (ITAR TASS, March 23).
Today, the ruling Russian bureaucracy is in some disarray on which side to take. Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, during a press conference with visiting US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, while declaring his allegiance to Medvedev, accused the coalition of killing Libyan civilians and demanded an immediate end to hostilities (Interfax, March 23). The Duma adopted a resolution that accused the coalition of using “indiscriminate force,” attacking and killing civilians and demanded an immediate ceasefire. The decision to abstain from vetoing the UN resolution was described by the Duma as “adequate” in apparent reverence to Medvedev. The communists did not vote and the nationalist Liberal Democratic faction voted against in the Duma because of the resolution’s allegedly weak wording and tacit support for not vetoing Resolution 1973 (Interfax, March 23).
Putin during a visit to the Balkans announced he had no conflict with Medvedev, but continued to attack Western actions in Libya. Putin contended his views were the same as Medvedev’s, but the president’s position requires him to use more civil language (Interfax, March 23). An official in Putin’s offices insists Moscow’s stance on the Libya conflict must be changed and Putin will continue to press for it (Vedomosti, March 22).
Russia cannot do anything to influence the situation in Libya. Its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is being repaired and cannot appear in the Mediterranean; the contract to build the Mistral assault ships in France has not been signed. The Libya discourse in Moscow is about Russia: what is the future overall direction of internal and foreign policy? Putin seems to identify himself and Russia with Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya, fearing a possible Western-inspired democratic regime change that may deal him personally the same fate as Saddam Hussein or the former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Putin seems to believe the best defense is to build more nuclear ballistic missiles, while suppressing political dissent – the same remedy proscribed by the communist rulers of Russia during the Cold War. Medvedev apparently believes internal stability requires swift modernization coupled with measured liberalization and a friendlier foreign policy – to ensure Western support. This policy disagreement is fundamental and is pulling the tandem apart.