international analysis and commentary

Russia’s views on the Middle East crises

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The failure to achieve the goals set by UN Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya (passed on March 17) induced Russian officials, as well as many Western political analysts, to perceive the NATO campaign as unsuccessful and even wrong from the start. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently demanded the cessation of the military intervention and added the warning that Russia will “not even read” any draft of a tough resolution on Syria. Lavrov’s statements sound radically different from Moscow’s previous stance on the conflict in Libya. Does Moscow regret its decision to not veto resolution 1973 (and instead abstain, along with China, India, Brazil and Germany), and is it resuming its historical attrition with NATO? Russia’s current criticisms of the prolonged war in Libya are not due to a change of policies in the Kremlin. Rather, the lack of tangible results suggests the need for a new strategy – in both Libya and Syria. 

Resolution 1973 authorizes Member States acting nationally, or through regional organizations, to take “all necessary measures to protect civilians” in Libya. Russia has always been against military intervention, from Kosovo to Iraq. The reasons for this strict adherence to the principle of non-interference are complex. In Russia, as well as in China, suppression of separatist movements often caused international outrage and calls for intervention in support of breakaway regions. Although Moscow could not prevent NATO’s air operations in Serbia or the US invasion of Iraq, its UN veto on those occasions represented a clear message to the West that it opposed unsanctioned military aggression against a sovereign state – even if that state’s government violates human rights. In contrast, in March 2011, Russia refrained from using its veto right, which would have blocked the passage of the resolution. For the first time Moscow did not formally object to a Western intervention. Such decision was due to Russia’s new foreign policy doctrine and strategic interests. By “allowing” the military intervention in Libya, Moscow avoided jeopardizing its improving ties with the United States and Western Europe.

The abstention at the Security Council anticipated the initially close collaboration between Russia and the Western coalition over Libya. President Dmitry Medvedev amended Russian legislation in accordance with the resolution, banning the sale of arms to Libya and refusing to allow Gheddafi and his retinue to enter the Russian Federation. Moreover, speaking at the G8 summit in Deauville in late May, Medvedev claimed that Gheddafi had depleted his legitimacy and consequently must resign from power. Moscow’s support for the war in Libya was welcomed positively by Western leaders. Consequently, the G8 countries encouraged Moscow to negotiate the resignation of the Libyan Colonel. Due to its lack of a colonial past in Africa, Russia is seen as credible in helping to solve the Libyan conflict. This mandate also confirmed Russia’s increasing prestige as a responsible stakeholder in the international arena. This diplomatic effort is still under way: on June 7, Mikhail Markelov, Medvedev’s Special Envoy to Africa, arrived in Benghazi – the main stronghold of the Libyan opposition.

Nevertheless, the phase of cooperation between Russia and the West seems to have encountered a stumbling block regarding Syria.

Medvedev said in May that Russia would not back a resolution on Syria even if asked by “friends”. Why did Russia collaborate with the West on Libya, but is now firmly against any military intervention in Syria? There are two straightforward answers: first, the growing uneasiness amongst analysts and Russian policy makers over the unsuccessful results of the prolonged war in Libya; secondly, the regional implications of a Western intervention in Syria, especially if mismanaged like in Libya. As NATO’s air strikes continue, the purpose of the intervention has become unclear, since there seems to be no endgame. According to Moscow, the NATO-led campaign has gone beyond the goals envisaged by the UN resolution. More specifically, Russia raised the issue of whether the “use of all necessary measures to protect civilians” also implies the replacement of political leaders because, in that case, the Western coalition would be violating the Security Council’s mandate. Foreigners can provide help – moral, political and even material – yet the overthrow of tyrants and the establishment of democracy should be pursued only by the local population. According to the Kremlin, the war has now transmuted into a quagmire without specific aims or directions.

Russia is now advocating an end to the NATO bombings, arguing that the consequences of a prolonged war hinder the efforts for a peaceful solution to the conflict. Anger is growing amongst the anti-Gheddafi rebels who claim that NATO is doing far less than expected whilst the number of civilians killed by air strikes is increasing. Even other Arab countries, including Egypt and Tunisia, do not support NATO’s military intervention. As the American political scientist, Michael Walzer, wrote, “civilians are killed, innocent men, women and children, Arab and Muslim, killed (again) by the French, British, and the Americans”. The way out of the conflict envisaged by Moscow entails the cessation of the military campaign, which would allow the transition of the conflict to a political track.    

The Russian view is clear cut: due to a flawed strategy, NATO damaged its credibility in the Middle East, which now impacts the possibility of further political and of course military initiatives. But there are also crucial case by case considerations that explain Moscow’s assessment: Lavrov commented that a possible resolution on Damascus is “untimely and harmful”. The humanitarian reasons that justify the attack on Gheddafi are equally – if not more – valid in the case of Syria. Demonstrators have been massacred and tortured, their families thrown into prison. Yet, Syria occupies one of the most volatile parts of the Middle East, and the scenario of a military intervention would have far-reaching consequences for its neighbors and allies. Lebanon, Israel, Iran and Turkey are some of the countries which – in different ways – would face dangerous repercussions if the Assad regime were to fall. In particular, the fall of the Syrian regime would remove an important source of support for Hezbollah, which could then become more aggressive and threaten security in neighboring states. 

Russia’s overall perspectives on military intervention are tinged with skepticism, a view shared by many experts and analysts. The effectiveness of NATO’s strategy in Libya is called into question and challenged by the increased number of civilian victims, as well as Colonel Gheddafi’s enduring grip on power. British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that if any of the 15 nations at the Security Council vote against the resolution or veto it: “That should be on their conscience”. Yet, on whose conscience should the grim consequences of another mismanaged military intervention weigh?