MOSCOW, Russia — Russia's defense minister called for an immediate cease-fire in Libya on Tuesday.
“We urge all belligerent parties to stop the violence,” Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said during a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates is in Moscow on a scheduled visit that was delayed — and complicated — by the start of coalition air strikes on Libya.
Reporters traveling with Gates from Washington, D.C., said he reacted “stonily” and “impassively.” He then denied Serdyukov’s accusations of civilian deaths in the air strikes. The coalition was going to “great lengths” to avoid civilian casualties, he said.
The call for a cease-fire — which French foreign ministry spokeswoman Christina Fages invited Russia to raise at the U.N. Security Council meeting on Thursday — came as Russian officials split over their approach to Libya in the most public disagreement to hit an administration that often appears monolithic.
The schism emerged on Monday, with Vladimir Putin — the country’s most powerful leader, but, as prime minister, one whose portfolio does not technically include foreign affairs — coming out as the first to comment on events in Libya since coalition bombings began last week. Speaking during a visit to a factory that produces ballistic missiles in the Siberian republic of Udmurtiya, Putin took a worker’s question with a smile and provided what he said was his “personal opinion” on Libya. The resolution approving the no-fly zone was “deficient and flawed,” he said. “This is an external military intervention.”
“This all reminds me of the medieval call to Crusade,” he said, before decrying the “ease with which decisions about using force in international relations are taken today,” naming, by name, Bill Clinton’s approval of the bombing of the former Yugoslavia and George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It was fairly typical stuff, repeating a long-standing policy of opposing Western intervention in the affairs of other nations. Such acts lessen Russia’s influence (while voicing loud opposition boosts it), and there remains a fear in some leadership circles that the West would not refrain from carrying out such actions on Russian territory.
The audience was also notable. Putin was speaking to workers inside the military-industrial complex and ended his speech by saying: “Today’s events, including those in Libya, yet again confirm the correctness of what we are doing to strengthen Russia’s defenses.”
The speech left one man visibly disturbed: President Dmitry Medvedev. He called a snap news conference at his residence outside Moscow, and delivered a seven-minute soliloquy on the justness of the current intervention in Libya. More than anything, he took great pains to appear presidential.
Russia did not veto the resolution approving the use of all means to protect civilians in Libya because the resolution was “balanced and reasonable" and "generally reflects our understanding of what is happening in Libya," Medvedev said. "We did this consciously — these were my instructions to the foreign ministry. They were fulfilled." The fact he had to point that out only highlighted the president's relative weakness.
At the end of his speech, Medvedev issued his criticism of Putin, saying the current military bombing was provoked by Gaddafi's regime.
"This must be remembered by everyone — both inside and outside the country,” Medvedev said. “Everyone has to be as careful as they can [in making] assessments. In no case should words be used that can [be] taken as a conflict of civilizations, like Crusades — this is unacceptable,” he said. “This can make things worse than they already are. This must be remembered by all.”
The three main television channels, all state-run, did not show Putin’s comments Monday night, going only with Medvedev’s instead.
The spat will likely fade into the background now, joining a less heated handful that have emerged since Medvedev became Putin’s hand-picked successor in the Kremlin three years ago. Yet those disputes were invariably about rhetoric — the most recent had Medvedev criticizing Putin for speaking out during the court case against jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This was the first one about policy.
On Tuesday, Putin was forced to respond to the furor around the spat, saying: “Regarding the unity or disunity of the Russian leadership on events in Libya, the Russian president leads foreign policy and there can be no division.”
“We are close people and we understand each other,” he said, during a joint press conference with the Slovenian prime minister.
That will not go far to sway those who are convinced the spat was a sign of something deeper. “Putin jumped into the scandal consciously,” wrote Mikhail Fishman, the respected former editor.
With presidential elections due to be held in one year’s time, Kremlinologists have begun trying to read the smallest tea leaves for a sign as to who will be Russia’s next president. Putin has said that he and Medvedev will decide who will run between themselves (and whoever runs will, almost certainly, win).
In many ways, it’s a useless game: Putin maintains overwhelming power inside Russia. Medvedev has been given certain portfolios: modernization as well as half-hearted attempts at justice and police reform. Their rhetoric might differ (liberal Medvedev to Putin’s tough guy talk), but never has there been a disagreement on policy.
“Putin jumped into the scandal consciously,” wrote Mikhail Fishman, the respected former editor of Russian Newsweek, currently at Russian Forbes. “A prime minister has no private opinion. The clear contradiction of the official line was a crude violation of business ethics.”
Putin’s spokesman repeated Tuesday that Putin was expressing his personal opinion.
“The louder the scandals, the clearer it is: the end of the tandem is near,” Fishman wrote.
That might be extreme. Yet Putin’s statements did provide a quick reminder of who he thinks is boss in Russia. That's something Medvedev usually accepts, but such a public slap in the face appeared to be too much.