Abstention and its Consequences
No. 1 2015 January/March
Alexander Vysotsky

Alexander Vysotsky teaches at the Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy at MGIMO University.

Ruslan Volkov

Ruslan Volkov worked at the Russian Embassy in Cairo and the Foreign Ministry central office in the 2000s; he is now working in the oil and gas sector

Making Foreign Policy Decisions: Libyan Experience

The wave of revolutions that swept across the Middle East and North Africa to become known as the Arab Spring was perhaps the main international political event of the early 2010s. Decrepit authoritarian regimes crumbled one after another, giving way to new political forces. It was a “domino effect” that developed at such a speed that external players had no other choice but adapt fast to the rapidly changing reality. 

The storm came unexpectedly. Crucial decisions were made with no time to think or objective data to peruse, and with no clear understanding of how sweeping those processes were. Russia was no exception even though it preferred to stay away at first. On the one hand, Moscow realized that changes in most of the countries consumed by the Arab Spring were irreversible; on the other hand, unlike Western nations, it did not seek to lead the advocates of democratization.   

However, Russia’s attitude changed dramatically after the events in Libya and the removal of Muammar al-Gaddafi, which was accomplished with military support of the West. Those events of four years ago are worth recalling as they not only impacted heavily on Russia’s relations with the rest of the world, but also produced a score of challenges that face Russian foreign policymakers to date.   



Moscow did not regard the fall of the Tunisian president in January 2011 as something significant. Tunisia, one of the calmest and successful Arab countries, seemed to be a single “black swan” rather than the beginning of unrest that would later spread across the region. Also, those events did not affect Russia’s interests in any way (concerns about the security of Russian tourists, who were few and far between in that country, were quickly dispelled) and Moscow largely escaped their consequences.  

But the ensuing revolt in Libya and the war in Syria seriously endangered Russia’s interests, military-industrial complex and businesses. In Libya, the success of the government troops’ operation to suppress the rebellion in March 2011 depended entirely on Moscow.

Al-Gaddafi’s supporters had full air supremacy and approached Benghazi, getting ready to storm and mop it up. At that moment Western countries, supported by a majority of Arab regimes, motioned Resolution 1973 in the U.N. Security Council, demanding a no-fly zone in Libya. It basically meant the start of an international armed operation, albeit limited, against the Libyan government to suppress its airpower and air defense capabilities. As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council with the right to veto, Russia had to make up its mind. It did so under the following circumstances:

Strong moral pressure from the West (“the blood of Benghazi will be on your hands”), relations with which at that point were at the height of “reset” and the troubled year 2008 was almost forgotten. Anti-Gaddafi sentiment, promoted by Gulf monarchies, also prevailed in the League of Arab States (LAS), and Russia had always heeded the opinion of regional communities.

On the other side of the scale was the African Union with a more moderate position (despite problems in the LAS, al-Gaddafi had invested heavily in the African Union as an important vector of his foreign policy course), but it did not, and could not, become a matching counterbalance.

Lack of clear understanding of the Arab Spring’s purpose and prospects. The prevailing opinion in the Foreign Ministry and other foreign policy agencies was that the West had inspired a series of color revolutions in order to remove undesirable regimes. However, there was also a view that “the wave of democratization” was initiated at the grassroots level by “advanced young people,” and that by supporting the doomed dictators Russia could end up “on the wrong side of history,” as the U.S. administration had publicly admonished it.

Lack of objective information as a result of ineffective operation of Russian diplomats in Benghazi who avoided contact with the opposition forces for fear of spoiling relations with the authorities (contacts with Islamists as the most active members of the opposition were considered dangerous for career and nearly criminally offensive). Analytical work with social networks, the main instrument of the Arab Spring, was also done poorly.

Reports coming from the Russian Embassy in Tripoli had a strong pro-Gaddafi slant, as one can judge from the fact that Ambassador Chamov was urgently recalled to Russia (an unprecedented case in the history of Russian diplomacy). He was sacked several hours before the U.N. Security Council voted on Resolution 1973. Media reports speculated that Chamov was removed because he was incompetent and “his understanding of Russia’s interests in the Libya conflict was inapt.” The Russian Mission to the U.N. Security Council was instructed to refrain from voting, that is, from blocking the adoption of the resolution.   


In many cases, when an ambassador wants to establish stronger ties with the host country and the local ruling elite (party, president, military junta), he begins to view these ties and present them to his superiors as a priority. By so doing, he, intentionally or not, pushes all the other foreign policy issues to the back burner. Or else, he reports the local leaders’ wishes to Moscow as roadmaps for relations with his host country. In Foreign Ministry jargon this is called “parroting someone else’s words.” The Libya conflict and the Chamov incident, which occurred at the height of Russia’s reset with the United States, visited by President Medvedev shortly before that, most likely belong to that category.

In a peaceful situation, such flaws can be papered over by external factors. Non-priority reports from ambassadors in calm/minor countries usually do not reach the president or go through a multi-layer filter with a seemingly good purpose of providing the head of state with reliable information. The reverse side of this practice is that the top leadership is constantly under-informed on a wide range of specific issues, and this can lead to errors at times of crisis.

When pressed for time (as with Libya), intermediate filters are cut down or removed, and decisions are made in haste. In such a situation ambassadorial reports can cause an allergic reaction in the Kremlin and no longer be regarded as a source of accurate information. This makes it hard or virtually impossible to adopt unprejudiced decisions. After the Chamov incident, the Foreign Ministry hurried to distance itself from what had happened, as borne out by its official statements. Its main motive was to avoid risks, guess the Kremlin’s mood and respond properly to its signals rather than state its own opinion. It all probability, any other agency would have acted similarly.

The Libyan precedent was a vivid example of how key foreign policy decisions are made by one man (or by a very narrow “inner” circle), with the Foreign Ministry playing a purely technical role. Attempts to convey “a special opinion” are risky, as everyone knows. So instead of getting a real picture, one gets a picture he wants to see, which is hardly conducive to finding the best decision.

Would the al-Gaddafi regime have held out if Russia had vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution? This is a debatable point. Diplomats who work with Arab countries think that the revolt would have been suppressed and Libya would have remained a calm and relatively prosperous state, albeit somewhat eccentric, but more adequate than before.

However, the example of Syria, where the revolution misfired, can be interpreted in two ways. One the one hand, the regime has proven its viability and there is no reason to expect its collapse any time soon; on the other hand, Syria is unlikely to turn into a full-fledged and fully capable state with its current leadership. There is no certainty that al-Gaddafi would have been able to regain control and hold power for years to come. But surely the recent public execution of a dozen Egyptian Copts by ISIL fighters, the beheading of an American journalist in seemingly friendly Benghazi, the attack on the Russian Embassy in Tripoli and other such incidents, which clearly show how much the situation has deteriorated, would hardly have been possible. 

There is yet one more consideration. The previous Libyan authorities would hardly have supported the U.N. Security Council’s anti-Russian Resolution 68/262 on Crimea, as did their followers who had come to power largely owing to Moscow’s stance. In fact, Iraq, where the invasion and overthrow of government was opposed by Russia in 2003, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen refused to support this resolution. 

Whereas the Kremlin did not view al-Gaddafi and Libya as a priority, Syria was different. Attempts to gain scores in relations with the West by sacrificing al-Gaddafi, if such attempts were indeed made, proved futile. Because of Syria these relations actually worsened to the state of deep crisis, which was further exacerbated in 2014 by the Ukraine conflict.


Needless to say the interests of Russian big business (Russian Railways, defense enterprises, fuel and energy companies) were ignored in Libya, causing them to sustain considerable losses and leave the country. It is true though that the Western capital that took their place was also forced out by the ensuing chaos.

The Libyan experience showed that businesses have limited or no possibility to convey their views concerning foreign policy issues to the government and president and that the results of their long work in a country can easily be ruined overnight for the sake of some higher purpose.   

The Russian Foreign Ministry pays little attention to economic issues and addresses them after all the others. Since Soviet times, the Foreign Ministry has been responsible for policy, and trade missions, for economy and foreign trade. Embassies’ practical assistance to business is quite sporadic: large private companies need no much help, state-owned ones are often quasi economic projects with political background, and aid to small and medium-sized business is complicated and inconsistent. As for trade missions, their efficiency has been questioned even officially.

Finding a balance between the interests of business and the state in foreign affairs is a real challenge. Since the prime purpose of business is to derive profits, its interests cannot and must not have direct influence on the government. On the other hand, by ignoring business and economic interests the country can undermine its economic positions in the world and non-resource exports, or in broader terms, pursuit of immediate goals can limit future foreign policy capabilities that can only exist if there is a strong economy and political ambitions are buttressed by financial and economic resources.  


No doubt there can be situations where commercial interests have to be sacrificed for the sake of some fundamental common goals. But Libya was not the case. Long-term outcome of the abstention on Libya clearly shows (especially as contrasted by Russia’s strong position on Syria) that poorly-considered concessions, even if prompted by good intentions, can have far-reaching harmful consequences.

Many in Russia and the world regarded the decision on Libya as an attempt to avoid complications with Western partners. The latter, however, became convinced that Moscow did not consider the Middle East an area of its priority interests and therefore its position did not have to be taken into account above all others. The results of the campaign that obviously went beyond the approved mandate angered Moscow. It felt used and deceived, which left a deep mark on further relations with the West and the level of mutual trust that was never high anyway.

For the majority of those in Russia who make foreign policy decisions, Libya became yet another vivid proof of the West’s insidiousness and set the trend in contacts with it for many years to come. In other words, instead of strengthening ties with the most developed countries, which supposedly was the reason behind the decision to abstain from exercising the right to veto, this move actually planted a powerful time bomb under these ties. This bomb went off in Syria and exploded with full power in Ukraine.

This does not mean that if Russia had acted differently, it would have avoided the current scenario in relations with the West, for our disagreements are deep and essential. And Libya did not smooth them over, but exacerbated them not locally, or regionally, but globally; and it did not reduce problems in Russia’s foreign policy but multiplied them.