GORKI, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to rebuke Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for using inflammatory language on Monday in his sharpest public criticism of Putin ahead of a 2012 presidential election.
Medvedev did not mention Putin by name, but said “crusades,” a term Putin had used just hours earlier to refer to the West’s call for military action in Libya, was unacceptable.
“I think we all need to be careful in our evaluations. In no way is it acceptable to use expressions that in essence lead to a clash of civilizations, such as crusades and so forth — this is unacceptable,” Medvedev told the Kremlin pool of reporters.
“Otherwise everything may end up far worse,” he told the reporters in an eight-minute question and answer session on Libya at his Gorki residence outside Moscow.
When asked who Medvedev had in mind, spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said: “He meant Gaddafi and everyone who uses such expressions.”
Gaddafi has called the coalition led by the United States, Britain and France a “crusader alliance.” Putin’s spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.
Medvedev’s comments were also aired widely on state television, as were those of Putin who earlier told missile factory workers that the U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya “resembles medieval calls for crusades.”
Unless Medvedev made a gaff by inadvertently criticizing Russia’s most popular politician, and the man who guided him into the Kremlin’s top job in 2008, such open criticism is likely to raise concerns about the relationship between the two.
“I dislike all this speculation about a Putin-Medvedev rift inside the tandem,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of journal Russia in Global Affairs. “But this time it seems like they have a really serious difference in positions.”
Putin tapped Medvedev as his successor in 2007 when a legal limit of two consecutive terms kept him out of the 2008 presidential race. He has not ruled out running again in 2012.
In some of his harshest criticism of the United States since President Barack Obama began a campaign to improve ties, Putin also compared the Libya intervention with the invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush and said it showed Russia was right to boost its military.
Putin, whose country as a veto-wielding permanent U.N. Security Council member opted out of the vote last week that led to the strikes, said that Muammar Gaddafi’s government was undemocratic but stressed that did not justify military action.
“The resolution is defective and flawed. It allows everything,” Putin told workers at a Russian ballistic missile factory in Votkinsk in central Russia.
“It resembles medieval calls for crusades,” he said.
Russia abstained from the vote on Thursday in which the council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians against Gaddafi’s forces.
Medvedev defended his decision to abstain from the vote on the U.N. resolution. “We did this consciously and those were my instructions to the Foreign Ministry,” he said.
Additional reporting by Gleb Bryasnski in Votkinsk and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Louise Ireland