* Putin likens UN resolution to calls for medieval crusades
* Medvedev says use of term ‘crusades’ is unacceptable
* Russian leaders’ most public spat ahead of 2012 election
(Recasts, changes headline, adds Gates visit)
By Alexei Anishchuk
GORKI, Russia, March 21 (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to rebuke Vladimir Putin for comparing Western calls for action on Libya with the crusades on Monday, in the sharpest public difference yet between Russia’s ruling ‘tandem’ ahead of 2012 elections.
Putin, Prime Minister and broadly regarded as the most powerful man in Russia, told workers at a missile factory that a U.N. Security Council resolution authorising use of force against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi “resembles medieval calls for crusades.”
Shortly afterwards, Medvedev said the use of such terms was unacceptable and could stir up more violence.
Medvedev did not mention Putin by name, but the comments amounted to his sharpest ever public criticism of his mentor and raised concerns of discord between the two leaders ahead of the 2012 presidential election. [ID:nLDE72K219]
“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 civilisations, such as crusades and so forth — this is unacceptable,” Medvedev told the Kremlin pool of reporters.
“Otherwise everything may end up far worse,” said Medvedev, dressed in a leather bomber jacket emblazoned with a golden double-headed eagle and the title “Supreme Commander in Chief of the Russian Armed Forces”.
Unless Medvedev made a gaffe by inadvertently criticising his mentor, such a public rebuke indicates a rift between Russia’s two leaders over Libya on the day U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates began a visit to Russia.
“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.”
When asked who Medvedev had in mind, his 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 specially convened eight-minute briefing on Libya with reporters at his Gorki residence outside Moscow appeared to have been calculated to send a clear message that he is Russia’s top decision maker on foreign policy.
Medvedev’s criticism also marks the first major public split over policy since Putin tapped Medvedev as his successor when a limit of two consecutive terms kept him out of the 2008 presidential race.
But the two leaders differed on much more than tone.
Medvedev defended his order to abstain from the vote on the U.N. resolution which Putin vehemently criticised. He also steered clear of chiding the United States, while Putin lambasted Washington.
“The resolution is defective and flawed. It allows everything,” Putin told workers at a ballistic missile factory in Votkinsk in central Russia. “It resembles medieval calls for crusades.
Medvedev defended his decision not to use Russia’s veto.
“We did not use it for one simple reason: because I do not consider this resolution wrong. Moreover, on the whole I believe this resolution reflects our understanding of what is going on in Libya as well, but not in every way.”
The 45-year-old Kremlin chief’s comments were widely reported on state television. Putin’s crusade comment was quietly dropped from some state television news bulletins after Medvedev’s criticism.
Putin, in some of his harshest criticism of the United States since President Barack Obama began a campaign to improve ties, compared the Libya intervention with the invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush and said it showed Russia was right to spend billions to bolster its military.
Medvedev did not mention the United States and stressed the international nature of diplomatic efforts over Libya.
“We did not use our veto... so to be flapping our wings and saying we did not know what we were doing would be wrong. We did this consciously,” he said. “I gave the instructions to the Foreign Ministry, and they were carried out.” (Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski in Votkinsk and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Ralph Boulton)