Clearly Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is not happy about what the West is doing, which is why he spoke out a couple of weeks ago and labeled the UN decision to impose a no-fly zone in Libya a “medieval crusade.” Russia has significant economic interests in Russia, which are directly threatened by the conflict there. In January 2010 Libya signed a $1.8 billion dollar contract to buy arms from Russia. Libya is also an important market for Russian oil companies and the Russian aluminum giant, Rusal, controlled by Putin’s crony Oleg Deripaska, has persuaded the Gaddafi family to invest hundreds of millions in its stock. In short, Russia (its government and businessmen) stands to lose a lot of money because of the West’s decision to intervene . Putin’s critical comments reflected concerns about the economic impact on Russia and also the inherent fear (shared by most Russians) that the West, the US in particular, is interfering in areas that are beyond its legitimate domain.

President Dmitry Medvedev has different views and a different constituency. He has made huge efforts to improve relations with the West and to present himself as a leader who cares about democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Thus, it was important that he showed his support for the West in Libya. As president he determines Russian foreign policy and his prime minister should adhere to his decisions. So it is no surprise that he would chastise Putin for his comments. But this does not mean that Putin made a mistake in speaking out, particularly given that he and Medvedev are apparently competing in the race for the Russian presidency that will take place next spring. Russia analyst Alexander Rahr has observed:

“In the high-profile debate surrounding the rights and wrongs of the Libyan revolution, Putin is largely winning at home, and Medvedev in the West. Putin put his finger on the attitude most prevalent among Russians: 80%-90% are outraged by not being asked their opinion on bombing Libya, as though Russia did not exist. Neither the ruling elite nor ordinary Russians seem to like this. Medvedev, on the other hand, has been out there, forging a new policy toward the West since the conflict with Georgia [over South Ossetia]. He has seen relationships with Germany, France, and the United States improve and naturally does not want to ruin this or slow it down. That is why he will do everything in his power to defend the UN resolution on Libya.”

Rahr makes a good point. But he forgets that Medvedev also has a strong base of support among Russian officials and businessmen who rely on positive relations with the West for their own financial ventures abroad and who want to encourage Western investment in Russia. So the issue of Libya plays both ways.

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