Thursday, March 31, 2011

Russian Leaders' Libya Fight

The conflict in Libya is also sparking another battle, this time between Russia's ruling tandem: President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Putin sparked the infighting between the two last Monday when he gave an interview condemning United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing the Libyan no-fly zone that Medvedev had given his tacit support (at least by not having Russia veto it in the Security Council). Putin questioned the whole concept of a bombing campaign designed to prevent a humanitarian disaster and spoke out against a coalition of nations interfering in the internal security situation of another country, before finally comparing the current intervention in Libya to the Medieval Crusades. This last statement set Medvedev off – he said that given the existing tension between the Arab and Western worlds, it was not helpful for Putin to compare the current situation to centuries of Christian vs. Muslim warfare. Russia's now former ambassador to Libya, Vladimir Chamov, then tossed gasoline onto the smoldering fire between the two by saying he not only supported Putin's “Crusades” comment upon his return to Moscow from Tripoli, but adding that failing to oppose the UNSC resolution to launch the no-fly zone was a “betrayal of Russian interests”, noting that Russian companies have billions of dollars worth of contracts with Libyan firms, mostly in the energy sector, that are now in jeopardy (see this post for more on Russian business in Libya).

All of this has observers wondering what is really going on between Russia's two leaders. The optimistic view is that this is yet another case of the two playing a political act of good-cop/bad-cop: with Medvedev supporting the UNSC resolution to stay on the good side of the international community while Putin makes vaguely anti-Western statements to appease the nationalists within the domestic audience who see actions like the Libyan intervention as nothing but an American plot to gain control over the world, at Russia's expense. Other political analysts though think the rift may be more than play-acting.

Alexei Fenenko, an international security expert at the Russian Academy of Science said in The Guardian that Medvedev's stance was “pragmatic” since it was clear that the United States wanted to intervene in Libya and would have done so with or without a UN resolution. If the United States wants a third war, let them have it,” Feneko said. “There was already fighting in Libya even without the intervention, so our companies will lose out, bombing or not,” he added. Meanwhile s Pavel Salin, an analyst with Moscow's Center for Political Assessments believes that the clash between Medvedev and Putin was real and is rooted in their differing worldviews. "Putin, given his past [KGB] experience, is inclined to a conspiratorial view and his remarks had a certain anti-American spin. Medvedev, on the other hand, does not think in cold war terms. He would like to see Russia on good terms with everybody and perhaps play the role of an intermediary in this situation,” Salin explained in the Christian Science Monitor.

Analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, said discord in the ruling tandem had “become a generator of nervousness” within the political elite, who, like most other Russians, are wondering which of the pair will run for president in next year's elections. According to Pavlovsky and other analysts, the uncertainty over who will be the candidate – assuming that Putin and Medvedev are true to their word and don't run against each other – is causing real unrest among Russia's elite and the leaders of their business community. Time magazine takes the opposite view though arguing that the Libya spat has given Medvedev a “confidence boost”. Time cites Russian political analsyt/spin doctor Evgeny Minchenko who claims that the Medvedev position of political reform at home and deeper international cooperation with the West is gaining favor among Russia's elites because “everybody wants to be in the same club as the global elites.”

At least one thing is certain, this will be an interesting year for Russian politics as Medvedev and Putin stake out their positions ahead of the 2012 elections.
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