international analysis and commentary

Moscow’s careful stance on Libya


Russia’s decision to abstain on the UN Security Council resolution 1973 has marked a new milestone in the evolution of Moscow’s foreign policy. Up to now, it felt compelled to veto any Western use of force against sovereign states: in part to avoid creating potentially dangerous precedents, in part to check the use of American power worldwide. Even when the Russian veto failed to block military action, and the United States and its allies did bomb or invade, as in Yugoslavia and Iraq, at least they had to do so without a UN mandate, which made their actions illegal – a consolation prize for the Kremlin. This time, Russia decided not to stand in the way of a gathering international storm against Muammar Gheddafi’s regime, and allowed the UN to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Why did Russia do it?

Much was made, mostly within Russia, of a public exchange on the Libya action between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. In this episode, there is both more and less that meets the eye. The theatrics of the exchange have much to do with the presidential elections in Russia next year; as to Libya itself, the decision to abstain had been taken by both members of the tandem, and reportedly produced no major disagreement within the Russian National Security Council. This did not prevent Putin and Medvedev from putting different spins on it afterward, with a view to capturing different domestic and international audiences: their time-honored modus operandi. This time it came out a bit less well-coordinated, but a Putin-Medvedev rift is out of the question.

So, why did the Russian NSC recommend abstention? The short answer is – expediency. Vetoing does not come at a cheap price. In both 1999 and 2003, Moscow saw its relations with the United States plummet, and its image tarnished by the de facto association with the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. To come to the rescue of Gheddafi now would have risked scuttling the new and promising relationship with the Obama administration, in which Moscow has been investing in the past two years. Not that personalities matter too much under these circumstances, but Gheddafi is hardly liked in the Kremlin, and Libya is a faraway country of which most Russians know very little.

This pragmatic approach may become a new practice in Russia’s foreign policy. Instead of vetoing the things it does not like, as a self-appointed custodian of the principle of non-interference, and facing the inevitable backlash, Moscow would now keep its veto power only for the things it cannot live with. Diplomatic profligacy is giving way to thriftiness. Thus, Gheddafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast may fall in one category; while Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus belongs in a whole different one. And, while in the past Russia had to pay for the luxury of exercising its veto right on the non-essential issues, it will now expect to gain from abstaining on them. 

On the Libya issue, Russia has not only protected its relationships with the United States and its key European allies: it benefited from the image of the BRIC as a voting bloc at the UN, and was happy to see Germany, its closest partner in Europe, taking a similar stance. To the Arab world, it may even project an image of a protector of innocent lives in Benghazi, unstained by any responsibility for the collateral damage and any civilian lives lost in coalition bombings elsewhere in Libya. In Libya itself, by siding with neither party, but also by not alienating anyone, Russia is keeping its options open in an uncertain situation. To the audiences back home, Putin and Medvedev can continue to issue their tailor-made messages: a piece of political music for four hands.

So much for Russian interests. As to Russian views on Libya, they are far less upbeat than those of the pro-intervention quarters in America and Europe. If these views are a tinge less alarmist than those of the Israelis – and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just been to Moscow – this is a function of a greater distance to Gaza and the Golan Heights. Talking to the Israeli Premier, Medvedev mentioned the “movement of the tectonic plates” in the Middle East, a sobering thought. Seen from that perspective, intervening in a civil war in an Arab country appears an act of utter folly, understandable exclusively through the prism of domestic political demands on the incumbents, above all, President Obama. 

And Barack Obama is someone the Russian leaders are happy doing business with. He is neither patronizing nor irritating. He wants neither to remake Russia in the West’s own image nor to encircle it with pro-American democracies. His foreign policy focus is on the issues where, as in Afghanistan, there is a sufficient degree of overlap between Russian and US interests. Now that Washington and Moscow are focusing on their new post-reset agenda, there is no need to hit the keyboard with a fist. Libya may yet turn out to be a mistake, but it will not be Russia’s.