Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev exchanged sharp words Monday over the true nature of Western military intervention in Libya, leading many observers to wonder whether the gloves have finally come off in the long-anticipated battle over which of them will run for president in elections that are just one year away.
Though the two have sparred indirectly before, they have publicly maintained that everything is fine with the "tandem" arrangement under which they have jointly run Russia since Mr. Putin handpicked Mr. Medvedev to succeed him as president three years ago.
Both men have said they'd like to run again for what will be a six-year presidential term next year, and have insisted that they will decide amicably between themselves which of them will be the establishment candidate – a status that virtually guarantees success in Russia's heavily stage-managed political culture.
Perhaps it's not so amicable anymore.
The tough public words were exchanged over an issue of foreign policy, which is a presidential prerogative under Russia's Constitution. While answering questions from defense workers Monday, Putin slammed the Western-authored United Nations resolution that authorized the use of force to protect Libyan civilians from forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi as allowing "anyone to do anything they want" against a sovereign state.
"It resembles a medieval appeal for a crusade in which somebody calls upon somebody to go to a certain place and liberate it," Putin said. "This is becoming a persistent tendency in US policy," mentioning the bombing of Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo war, and subsequent US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Now it is Libya’s turn, under the pretext of protecting the peaceful population. But in bomb strikes it is precisely the civilian population that gets killed. Where is the logic and the conscience?"
A few hours later Medvedev weighed in. Without naming Putin, he made clear that he disagreed with both his tone and the implication that Western powers are acting improperly in Libya.
"It is absolutely inexcusable to use expressions that, in effect, lead to a clash of civilizations, such as 'crusades,' and so on. That is unacceptable," Medvedev said. "All that is now happening in Libya is the result of the appalling behavior of the Libyan leadership and the crimes it committed against its own people."
Russian diplomats did not veto the authorization of force resolution when it came before the Security Council because "I do not consider this resolution to be wrong," he added.
Those two sharply divergent foreign policy views – one bristling with suspicion toward the West, the other frankly identifying Russia's interests with it – have long been on display in Moscow. But never before have Medvedev and Putin so clearly moved into separate corners in what looks like the prelude to a real fight, analysts say.
"What has happened here is the first real clash within the tandem since Medvedev came into the Kremlin," says Pavel Salin, an expert with the independent Center for Political Assessments in Moscow. "In the past they seemed to be working well together and playing to separate audiences. Medvedev appealed to liberals and Putin to more conservative voters, and it was seen as a kind of 'good cop-bad cop' thing."
But the issue of Libya, a client state of the former USSR, appears to have brought on a real split, he says. "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," he says.
Some observers suggest there's less to the public spat than meets the eye. Medvedev's statement about Libya, published on the Kremlin website, contains measured criticism of the Western military campaign as well as the jab at Putin. "These operations have damaged civilian sites, and there are as yet unconfirmed reports that innocent people have been killed, and this shows that, sadly, the countries taking part in these military operations have not managed to achieve [the stated] goals," he said.
"This is not a real conflict between Medvedev and Putin," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, an independent Moscow think tank. "It's like Medvedev is Putin's lawyer, he follows him around and cleans up his speech.... Basically, it just means the tandem is working as it was designed. The West sees the good Medvedev trying his best, while other constituencies are reassured by Putin."
Bad move by Medvedev?
Mr. Mukhin points out that if Medvedev had been aiming to make a public break with Putin, he could hardly have chosen a worse issue. An admittedly unscientific online poll conducted by Russian blogger Semyon Petrov currently shows 88 percent of respondents opposing Western military intervention in Libya, while just 6 percent are supportive.
If it does come to a showdown, Putin would seem to hold all the cards. He is leader of United Russia, the party that dominates virtually all legislatures in Russia, from municipal to national level. He also appears close to top business leaders, does most of the hands-on contact with officialdom, and consistently enjoys a higher public approval rating than the president.
Medvedev's vision of "modernizing" Russia appeals to liberals and well-educated young people, but does not seem to play well with wealthy oligarchs whose main business is resource extraction or with the vast majority of ordinary Russians outside of a few major cities, experts say.
Moreover, critics complain, whenever Medvedev has taken a rhetorical stand in the past against corruption, electoral dirty tricks or human rights violations, he has seemed unable – or unwilling – to follow through with any concrete action.
"There are differences between Medvedev and Putin, and they are only now reaching the public space," says Alexei Makarkin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "But I wouldn't read too much into it. They still seem to take decisions together, and will probably be able to arrange between themselves who's going to be the next candidate for the Russian presidency, just as they said they would."