The Libyan crisis has triggered a hairline fracture in the Russian power structure. It all surfaced late on Monday.
But the day began innocuously. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, while on a visit to a missile production complex somewhere in the Urals, chose to give factory workers some plain-speaking on developments in Libya. He came down heavily on the Western air strikes. “The Security Council resolution  is deficient and flawed; it allows everything and is reminiscent of a medieval call for a crusade. It effectively allows intervention in a sovereign state.”
He added for good measure, “This US policy is becoming a stable trend,” recalling the US air strikes on Belgrade under Bill Clinton and Afghanistan and Iraq under the two Bush administrations. “Now it’s Libya’s turn – under the pretext of protecting civilians. Where is the logic and conscience? There is neither. The ongoing events in Libya confirm that Russia is right to strengthen her defense capabilities.”
The metaphor of the crusades and the analogy of the West’s dismantling of the former state of Yugoslavia cannot be accidental. Nor, perhaps, the implicit criticism of the raison d’etre of Russia’s much-wonted ”reset” with the United States, a process attributed to President Dmitry Medvedev.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also delivered plain-speaking in a phone call to Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. According to Russian media, Lavrov told Moussa: “We strictly oppose using military force against civilians, this is why Russia joined the international call to end violence against civilians [in Libya]. Nobody could now predict the consequences of the situation in Libya. We hope they will be minimal and will not damage the territorial integrity of Libya and the whole region.”
Lavrov seemed to imply that Western intervention in Libya, leading to a civil war or the country’s disintegration, might have serious consequences for several African countries similarly placed in terms of the fragility of their post-colonial nationhood. Russian experts have been voicing apprehension in this direction.
However, on a parallel track on the same day, Medvedev also took a major decision that will have a bearing on the future course of Russian diplomacy over Libya. He appointed a new special representative on ties with African countries. Curiously, his choice fell on the well-known politician Mikhail Margelov, who is a quintessential ”insider” in Russian politics today but has a past as a liberal-minded aide to Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky. Margelov currently heads the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Duma’s upper house and is an influential and familiar voice on Russian foreign policy. Although a specialist on Africa by academic background, his current forte is Russia’s relations with the West. On this, he comes out as an ardent enthusiast of the United States-Russia reset.
Margelov uses very colorful language (not unusual for Russian politicians) and two weeks ago he called Muammar Gaddafi a “demoniac colonel” whose regime is doomed. “Gaddafi’s regime is agonizing. It is dead-trapped, as hunters say. Not only Libyans are fed up with Gaddafi, but also the international community.” Margelov hoped that the blood of those killed in Libya will put an end to the “eerie list of crimes by the demoniac colonel.”
So, all things taken into account, Medvedev’s decision is quite interesting. His main consideration for the Kremlin must have been that the Americans will feel comfortable with Margelov. Margelov already has a track record for having voiced Russian support for recognizing the result of the referendum in Sudan paving the way for the country’s division.
Zigzagging, frayed nerves
Equally, Medvedev announced his appointment of Margelov just as US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was arriving in Russia for a three-day visit. The fact that Gates was away from US when military operations in Libya had just begun also merits attention. It was no doubt intended to show that Washington prioritizes Russian cooperation, Moscow’s rhetoric on Libya notwithstanding. En route to Russia, Gates said he appreciated Russia’s abstention at the United Nations Security Council on Friday and hoped that more cooperation would be forthcoming. He said Libya was on his agenda for talks in Moscow.
On the whole, the Russian line on Libya is zigzagging. Quite probably, Washington is cognizant of the war going on in Moscow for the soul of the Russian policy on Libya, which of course is destined to impact on the overall trajectory of US-Russian relationship. The overall trend of Russian media commentaries has been highly critical of the West’s air attacks on Libya. Put simply, Gates hopes to make things easier for Medvedev to ensure that the war in Libya doesn’t rock the US-Russia reset.
So far so good. However, Medvedev has taken matters a little further and opened up a huge battlefront that until yesterday was foggy. He chose to criticize Putin’s statement on Libya. With the exception of the chaotic Boris Yeltsin years, such public discord between the president and the prime minister hasn’t happened in the post-Soviet Russian politics. The novelty is itself shocking when the cultivated impression so far has been that the Medvedev-Putin ”tandem” is working fine like a Bolshoi symphony orchestra.
Medvedev’s suo moto interview came in the nature of an exposition of the Russian line on Libya toward the end of which he ticked off Putin. Interestingly, his interview was a long-winded explanation of why Russia didn’t cast its veto in the UN Security Council over Resolution 1973 and the tone was manifestly defensive. Medvedev claimed that he is surprised at the unilateral way in which the West has interpreted R-1973 to take ”real military action”. And he appealed to the West ”who are using their armed forces” to ”act with the understanding that any steps they take must be in the Libyan people’s interests and in order to prevent further loss of life and Libya’s disintegration as a country.”
Medvedev didn’t say how he proposes to influence the West to behave humanely and thoughtfully when it is an old maxim that all is fair in matters of love and war. Actually, he bemoaned helplessly that the West hasn’t cared to follow up R-1973 with ”consultations”. All Medvedev could do was to hope for the best: ”I hope that the international community’s coordinated efforts will succeed in bringing peace to Libya, and that comprehensive measures will be taken to prevent the conflict from spreading further in Africa and into other countries,” he said in the interview.
Medvedev then contradicted himself that Russia’s move to abstain over R-1973 was a ”conscious decision on our part”, a ”qualified decision” and ”the consequences of this decision were obvious.” He chastised Russian critics – ”It would be wrong to start flapping about now and say that we didn’t know what we were doing” – and admitted the decision was his and that the foreign ministry acted on his specific instructions. Medvedev then went on to admit that events are spinning out of control:
”At this stage, the possibility of [Western] ground operations cannot be ruled out… the situation is not going to be easy. The main problem in my view is that there is no coalition carrying out coordinated policy. Some countries, some of our partners, are taking action of their own to try to bring order to the situation, but these are not coordinated, jointly organized actions… The other problem is who to talk with there. Most of the Western countries consider the current Libyan leader, who says he holds no state post, someone they cannot shake hands with, someone they will not have dealings with.”
One czar at a time
So, what is his solution? He offers that Moscow can mediate between the West and Gaddafi. On balance, Medvedev seems to realize he is on a weak wicket and that he took a decision that may prove hard to justify as days and weeks pass. And in a sign of frayed nerves, he voiced annoyance that Putin isn’t helping matters. Medvedev’s best hope could be to deflect the heat of the Libyan policy by generating a steaming political controversy at home. Without naming Putin, Medvedev said:
”At the moment various words are being used to describe the events taking place. I think we need to be very careful in our choice of wordings. It is inadmissible to say anything that could lead to a clash of civilizations, talk of ‘crusades’ and so on. This is unacceptable. Otherwise we could see a situation far worse even than what is happening today. We must all keep this in mind.”
These 71 words are destined to play out in Russian politics in a profound way as a tough election year to choose Russia’s next president is approaching. Conventional wisdom is that Putin is Russia’s most popular politician. In the Libya issue, he also seems to have the support of the Russian foreign, security and military establishment. In fact, Putin spoke out on Libya while announcing that Russia proposes to double the production of strategic and tactical missile systems by 2013 – on a day when indications came that Russia is also beefing up its Black Sea Fleet with new submarines.
Medvedev has asserted that the buck stops with him, and he is the czar of Russia’s foreign policy. How much of all this was known to former CIA boss Gates, and what prompted his present boss President Barack Obama to tell the ex-CIA director to drop everything and make a dash for Moscow. becomes an interesting thought too. Washington has never hidden its dislike toward Putin and its preference for Medvedev.
As a Cold War veteran and classic Kremlinologist, Gates knows how to put a knife into a Kremlin wound and lacerate it so deftly that healing is virtually impossible. Washington interfered effectively in the Mikhail Gorbachev era to exacerbate tensions within the Soviet leadership. Today’s Russia is also not lacking in political constituencies that court American support in settling their domestic political battles. Libya seems to have ripped open tensions accruing in Russian politics and a divide in the leadership has sailed into public view. Russians know there can only be one czar at one time. Gaddafi may be laughing on his way to walking into the sunset.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
This article first appeared in the Asia Times: