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Libya became an arena for battle within Russia’s ruling “tandem” on Monday after comments by the prime minister, Vladimir Putin, likening western air strikes on the country to “crusades” were immediately criticised by the president, Dmitry Medvedev.
Speaking at a ballistic missile factory in southern Russia, Mr Putin said the UN Security Council supporting intervention by the US, UK and France reminded him of a “mediaeval call for crusades”. The resolution was “defective and erroneous”, he added.
Hours later, Mr Medvedev appeared to rap the premier’s choice of words.
“In no event is it permissible to use expressions which could lead to a clash of civilisations, such as ‘crusaders’ approach’, and so on. It is unacceptable,” Mr Medvedev said.
The clash over wording was the latest of a series of apparent disagreements between the two leaders in recent months.
The tone of Mr Putin’s remarks had surprised western observers as Russia was one of five countries, including Brazil, China, India and Germany, that abstained in last week’s UN vote endorsing a no-fly zone over Libya.
The decision to abstain marked a break with the Kremlin’s traditional policy of vetoing western military attacks on foreign states. It was understood to have been driven by Mr Medvedev, usually seen as less powerful than his prime minister.
Recalling US air strikes against Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Putin said attacks on foreign states had become an “established trend” in US foreign policy.
Action by the western coalition against Libya provided an endorsement for Russia’s plans to strengthen its own defence capabilities, he added. Sergei Ivanov, deputy prime minister, said on Monday the country would spend Rbs3,000bn ($100bn) to modernise its defence industry by 2020.
Medvedev said Russia’s UN abstention reflected “our understanding of events in Libya, because we did not use our power of veto”.
Analysts said Mr Putin’s outburst, coming as Robert Gates, US defence secretary, visited Russia for talks about military co-operation, risked rocking confidence in the Kremlin’s ability to forge a consistent response to US attempts to reset relations with Russia.
‘It demonstrates once again that [Russian] foreign policy is inconsistent and more of a matter of internal relations than one might hope,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. He said that after abstaining in the UN vote, it was “stupid” for Russia to criticise military strikes against Libya.
Russian diplomats made clear last week that Moscow opposed intervention in any country’s internal affairs, but said their main concern had been a lack of detail in the UN resolution and the many questions it left open.
“You can’t just do something from the air, that means countries could end up being sucked into Libya, said one diplomat. “We are afraid this could destabilise the situation in the Middle East.”
Mr Lukyanov suggested Mr Putin’s outburst reflected resentment that Mr Medvedev was becoming increasingly independent in the run-up to Russia’s presidential poll next year. Mr Putin has said that he and Mr Medvedev will decide among themselves who will stand for the presidency in 2012.
“This is about the balance of influence inside the tandem before a final decision about the next constellation of power in Russia has been taken,” Mr Lukyanov said.