Tripoli and the Russian Rift

Putin condemns Operation Odyssey Dawn while Medvedev cozies up to the West. Who speaks for Russia?

U.S. President Barack Obama’s “reset” with Russia is looking flimsy in the wake of vitriolic rhetoric from Moscow. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has had harsh words about U.S. military action against Libya. He and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov have gone so far as to repeat Muammar Qaddafi's canards about exorbitant civilian casualties and Western “crusades.”

This rhetoric also exposes escalating tensions between the ruling “tandem”: Putin and his one-time protégé, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The latter supports the Libyan engagement.

Moscow abstained from vetoing the UN Security Council resolution authorizing Operation Odyssey Dawn. Now, however, it’s changing its tune. Russia has joined Brazil’s call for an immediate cease-fire, ostensibly because of “high civilian casualties.” China also vociferously opposes intensive engagement.

In other words, the Kremlin was content to stand silently as Qaddafi was killing thousands of his own people. But now that Western and Arab armed forces are trying to protect civilians and rebels, casualties are unacceptable. Strange logic indeed. However, it reflecting deepening splits inside Russian leadership and society.

Moscow’s abstention over the UN resolution on Libya has already had an unexpected effect on the Russian political scene. Putin condemned the resolution, which calls for “an immediate ceasefire in Libya, including an end to the current attacks against civilians,” saying that this resolution is “deficient.” He likened it to a “medieval call to crusade”—an almost verbatim quote from Qaddafi himself.

Putin’s remarks elicited a rare and sharp rebuke from Medvedev, who slammed the comments as “unacceptable.” Medvedev then reiterated his position on the UN resolution: “We have to be absolutely accurate in our assessments. Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations such as crusades and so on.”

Disagreements over the future direction of Russia seem to be getting more acute the closer it gets to 2012, the presidential election year in Russia as well as in the U.S. The pro-status quo siloviki (“men of force”) faction around Putin is becoming more vocal in its attacks against the more liberal and pro-Western wing, which supports Medvedev.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stepped right into this brouhaha on a recent visit to Russia. He pointedly said that Russian officials parrot Qaddafi's inflated casualty figures and take them at face value. Such assertions, he said, are “outright lies.” For a moment it looked like a “reset” with Russia never happened.

Meanwhile, the Russian public remains deeply split over the Libyan situation. Russian youth and nationalist groups Nashi (Ours) and Stal’ (Steel) are holding public demonstrations in front of the U.S., French, and British embassies in Moscow. These expressions of solidarity with and support of Qaddafi's regime implicitly criticize Medvedev’s stated position in support of Western intervention against Qaddafi. Ironically, Nashi’s “godfather” and founder is Vladislav Surkov, Medvedev’s own deputy chief of presidential administration. In Russian politics, the bizarre is often followed by absurd.

Russia also has an economic motivation to protest Western military involvement in Libya. Qaddafi is one of the most significant arms customers of the Russian military-industrial complex. Sergei Chemezov, Putin’s confidante and the head of Russian Technologies, reported that the the situation in Libya had cost state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport lost income totalling $4 billion.

If the Qaddafi clan is replaced by a pro-Western government, Moscow might lose these sales indefinitely. It might also have difficulty collecting what Libya owes for weapons already supplied. Bad business breeds hurt feelings.

And there is more. Putin is deeply uncomfortable with Western intervention in what he and his allies perceive as the internal affairs of other countries. Apparently he did not read Harvard Professor Samantha Power’s book on “the responsibility to protect.” Power’s controversial ideology, reportedly, is driving the humanitarian intervention over Libya. Nor did Putin sip cocktails with Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN and another advocate of Libyan engagement.

Putin was—and is—deeply mistrustful of the U.S. Moreover, he does not welcome any precedent that might lead to sanctions against him—perhaps over atrocities committed against Islamist guerillas in the North Caucasus or violations of human rights. Also, Putin views China as Russia’s ally of the future. Denouncing the West may help attract the East.

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