Speaking to journalists in Votkinsk yesterday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sharply criticized the multinational bombing campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized it.
"It actually resembles medieval calls for crusades when someone called on others to go to a certain place and liberate it," Putin said.
Almost immediately, President Dmitry Medvedev slapped him down, stressing that he fully supported Russia's decision not to veto Resolution 1973. (Russia ended up abstaining -- which was good enough for the United States, France, and Britain -- but some media reports suggested that he was actually considering going even farther and backing the resolution.)
"These were my instructions to the Foreign Ministry [to abstain] and they were carried out," Medvedev, looking very much the tough guy in a leather bomber jacket, said in televised comments.
"Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as 'crusades' and so on. It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse than what is going on now. Everyone should remember that."
Ouch! And while it's easy to dismiss this little exchange as just the latest installment of the ruling tandem's good cop/bad cop pokazukha show, this one feels a bit more like a genuine conflict.
The context, of course, is crucial.
Just hours before the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, Medvedev fired Vladimir Chamov, Moscow's visibly pro-Qaddafi ambassador to Tripoli. The reason for the sacking, according to press reports, was that Chamov "inadequately represented Russia's interests in the Libyan conflict." Chamov had been a vocal opponent of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.
How the exchange between Putin and Medvedev played out on television is also telling. According to Lenta.ru, "Putin's remarks about the crusades miraculously disappeared" from the national television networks and were replaced by Medvedev's rebuttal. Rather than giving Putin and Medvedev equal billing, as has been customary, the main channels "gave preference to the president."
Moreover, speaking to "Vedomosti," Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, appeared to walk back Putin's comments, saying the prime minister was just expressing his personal opinion.
[UPDATE: Putin sought to defuse the situation further during a visit to Ljubljana, saying that he and Medvedev had "very close views and we understand each other" on Libya. He went on to say: "As for agreement or disagreement among the Russian leadership on what is going on in Libya, it is the Russian president who is in charge of foreign policy and there can be no divergence."]
The apparent conflict between Putin and Medvedev followed what can only be described as a bizarre series of stories in the media prior to Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Moscow last week. According to the reports, the real reason for Biden's visit was to assure that Medvedev remain president after 2012 by enticing Putin to step aside by offering him -- the chairmanship of the International Olympic Committee. (?!?)
Analysts say a debate is indeed emerging in the Russian elite over foreign policy. Medvedev and his allies, they say, are aiming to dial back Moscow's tendency to oppose and confront the United States on every issue in favor of broader cooperation with Washington.
"Russia is going through a psychological transformation from a power with global ambitions to a strong but limited regional power that doesn't want to involve itself in every conflict," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the journal "Russia in Global Affairs," told RFE/RL's Russian Service.
The decision not to block Resolution 1973, Lukyuanov added, "was a pragmatic decision. Russia is actively developing its relations with the United States and they weren't prepared to risk that for the sake of Colonel Qaddafi...That Russia did not block this was a big step toward the West."
Such a reorientation of Russian policy recalls a Foreign Ministry report that was leaked last spring calling for Moscow to establish closer relations with the United States and the European Union in order to secure the investments necessary for a sucessful modernization drive.
Putin and the siloviki apparently oppose such a change.
During a meeting on Tuesday with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov -- a close Putin ally -- appeared to pick up where his patron left off in criticizing the Libya air strikes.
Libya "is experiencing real hostilities which result in damage to civilian facilities. Civilians have died. This should not have been allowed to happen and we informed our U.S. counterparts of our opposition," Serdyukov said, calling for an immediate cease-fire.
In remarks to reporters later, Gates appeared to chastise his Russian counterpart, suggesting that he was naively believing the Libyan leader's propaganda.
"We've been very careful about this and it's almost as though some people here are taking at face value Qaddafi's claims about the number of civilian casualties, which as far as I am concerned are just outright lies," Gates said.
"I must say that I'm a little curious, frankly, about the tone. It's perfectly evident that the vast majority, if not nearly all, civilian casualties have been inflicted by Qaddafi."
Gates is due to meet Medvedev during his visit to Moscow, but will not be meeting Putin.
The prime minister, meanwhile, is due to visit Belgrade on Wednesday, where he will no doubt draw comparisons between the current air campaign in Libya and the 1999 NATO war against Serbia.
As is always the case in Russia, this could all be a big smokescreen. But this time, I don't think so. And if there is something real going on here, it's far from over.