Medvedev Vies With Putin in Word War

VLADIKAVKAZ -- President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday made a surprise visit to Vladikavkaz, near the border with South Ossetia, to commend soldiers on their valor during the conflict with Georgia and promise them a better future.

The visit, his first to the region since the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia on August 7, appeared to be aimed at projecting an image of him as the politician calling the shots in Moscow.

The trip to Vladikavkaz, on the border with South Ossetia, followed a visit to Kursk, where he said during commemorations of a World War II battle that the killing of Russian citizens and peacekeepers would "not go unpunished."

Medvedev's trip to the North Ossetian capital traced the footsteps of his predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who cut short his appearance at the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games in Beijing to fly to Vladikavkaz to visit field hospitals and meet with refugees who had fled the conflict.

"In Tskhinvali, you didn't think about yourself and, in fulfilling your soldierly duty, well understood that you were essentially the last hope for defenseless people," Medvedev told 58th Army personnel and peacekeepers, in comments released by the Kremlin.

"I am convinced that such a well-implemented, effective field operation, which was of a peacekeeping nature, will become one of the glorious pages in the history of the armed forces," he said, Interfax reported.

He said an additional 40 billion rubles ($1.6 billion) had been earmarked to improve military living standards.

"I'm not promising a revolution within one or two years, but we'll solve this task once and for all," Medvedev said.

The Kremlin web site said Medvedev had decorated 23 soldiers, one of them posthumously, at the 58th Army base. He also proposed awards for volunteer fighters from South Ossetia and North Ossetia, The Associated Press reported.

That it was Putin, and not Medvedev, who made the first visit in the immediate aftermath of the humanitarian crisis raised anew questions of just who is really in charge of the country.

Some analysts said that at least part of the purpose for Medvedev's visit Monday was damage control and suggested that it might be evidence of a tug of war between the president and prime minister. There has been concern that the current model of duel power has muddied lines of command, leaving military leaders to act on their own during the first hours of the war.

"Putin has dotted all the i's and let everybody understand he will not tolerate competition," said Yevgeny Volk, the Moscow head of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

At roughly the same time Medvedev was speaking in Vladikavkaz, Putin was chairing a Monday evening meeting of the Presidium, where he promised an additional 540 million rubles ($22 million) for conflict survivors. Each will receive 30,000 rubles ($1,223) in the form of one-off aid and another 50,000 rubles as compensation for lost property.

Putin also told the Presidium that Russia was ready to help South Ossetia form a new government in a further indication that Moscow intends to play a leading role in South Ossetia.

Volk, however, said it was extremely important for Medvedev to show he was in charge because the West needed to know whether it should negotiate with him or if a different person might be calling the shots.

During the short but intense war with Georgia, Medvedev repeatedly resorted to the kind of abrasive language typical of Putin.

On Friday, he said, "It is necessary to restore and guarantee peace in the region so that no one gets any more idiotic ideas in their heads." At a Kremlin news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week, Medvedev fired off epithets like "bastards" and "hoodlums."

Even with the aggressive rhetoric, one-quarter of Russians believe that Medvedev should have been tougher with Georgia, according to a poll released by VTsIOM on Monday. Another 37 percent of those questioned said they backed Medvedev's stance on the war.

Medvedev's comments in Vladikavkaz came on the heels of more tough talk about the war and its conduct.

Speaking to World War II veterans in Kursk, he vowed to protect Russian citizens and punish those who have done them harm.

"If anyone thinks that they can kill our citizens, kill our soldiers and officers, who are peacekeepers, and escape unpunished, we will never allow this," Medvedev said. "If anyone tries this again, we will deliver a crushing response."

He also said the West had to respect Russian power and denied that his country was occupying South Ossetia.

"We do not want a deterioration of international relations; we want to be respected. We want our people, our values to be respected," he said. "We have always been a peace-loving state. There is practically not a single occasion in the history of the Russian or Soviet state where we initiated military actions."

Representatives of the foreign press, meanwhile, were barred from attending any events during Medvedev's trip. Members of the Russian press, however, were loaded onto a bus chartered by the Defense Ministry to meet the president at the airport. Access to the zone of conflict and to government officials has been sharply curtailed for the foreign press in recent weeks, making accurate coverage of what is going on inside South Ossetia extremely difficult.

Standing outside the Hotel Vladikavkaz as Russian reporters streamed into the press bus, a producer for NBC News in Moscow asked Defense Ministry spokesman Andrei Klyuchnikov if he knew how bad barring the Western press from such a significant news event looked.

Klyuchnikov simply shrugged.

"Yes," he said, the door to the bus closing in front of him. "I know."

Anna Smolchenko reported from Moscow.