The bombing of Libya has already had unexpected consequences: an unprecedented split between Russia’s ruling tandem. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin criticized the decision authorizing the air strikes against Libya as “deficient and flawed.” With the president adopting a much more conciliatory stance, this is apparently where the two leaders’ foreign policies diverge.
When questions of war and peace are on the table, powers claiming a global role should take a clear stand: for or against. However, surprisingly,Russia was one of the five countries that abstained during the vote on the UN Security Council resolution for a no-fly zone over Libya.
By abstaining, Russia for the first time acted contrary to its stated principle of resisting foreign interference in any country’s internal affairs. Russia has approved a military operation only once before, when the international community decided to punish Iraq for occupying Kuwait 20 years ago. It staunchly opposed both the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
At the height of the crisis in Zimbabwe in 2008, Moscow outraged Washington and London by vetoing the Security Council resolution on sanctions against Robert Mugabe. Russia had no interests in Zimbabwe but used its veto as a matter of principle.
It was rumored that Russia’s decision sprang from a difference of opinions between Putin and Medvedev, who supported G8 criticism of Mugabe shortly before voting took place in the UN. Western commentators speculated that Putin likely forbade Russia’s newly elected president from backing the resolution.
However, all this speculation is a long way from reality. During the G8 summit, the world’s leading powers proposed censuring Mugabe politically, whereas the Security Council resolution drafted by the Untied States and Britain stipulated harsh economic sanctions, which Russia was not prepared to approve.
This time the Kremlin has taken a neutral stand on Libya, although the problem there is much more serious. The Western coalition’s operation is clearly aimed at regime change in Libya, and if Colonel Gaddafi remains in power, even in a different capacity, this would amount to a moral and political defeat for the West and its regional allies. The West cannot renege on its word, and Gaddafi has the example of Saddam Hussein as a guide to what he can expect if he is defeated.
Russia voted pragmatically on the resolution. Why try to be more Catholic than the Pope if the plan has been approved by the leading Middle East countries, including Iranian-controlled Lebanon? The Kremlin has had no particular ties to Gaddafi, who is just one of Russia’s numerous partners and is much more closely bound, in both commerce and corruption, to Europe. So, Russia saw no reason to risk its improved relations with the United States and the EU, also because there are several major questions it still needs to discuss with them.
Speaking about lost contracts in Libya is senseless too, because no business can survive the events underway there intact. In fact, business across the Middle East is out of the question now, as it is impossible to forecast what may happen there in a year or two.
The U.S. geopolitical objective of Operation Odyssey Dawn is to stop its influence in the Middle East being further eroded, while Europe wants to retain what little remains of its international prestige. If they succeed in neutralizing Gaddafi quickly, they will attain their goals. If not, they may have to green-light ground operations, which will have the opposite effect: a catastrophic loss of Western influence in the region.
Mission failure would also endanger those Arab countries that have supported the operation in an attempt to distract public attention from their internal problems. If the operation fails, they could see the public mood become increasingly radicalized, with people accusing the authorities of collaboration with the enemies and of betraying Arab interests.
Any of these scenarios is possible, and the worst part is that the operation’s initiators don’t know which outcome is more probable.
On the other hand, the roots of Russia’s abstention run far deeper than the simple desire to put a finger on the prevalent trend.
For a long time after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow was concerned with reaffirming (or at least aping) its status as a world power that must have a say in decisions on all problems across the world, or at least one that must take some part in making such decisions.
But by 2010 Russia had come to see itself not as a smaller version of the USSR, but as a regional power, albeit a large and influential one, whose vital interests are geographically limited. This is the essence of Medvedev’s phrase about “the sphere of privileged interests.” Russia is prepared to use force to protect these interests, as it did in South Ossetia in 2008, while problems in other parts of the world are bargaining opportunities or cases that do not require its direct participation.
Putin’s criticism of the coalition’s decision to bomb Libya points to a new global approach. “In general, it reminds me of a medieval call for a crusade,” Putin said about the UN resolution, adding that U.S. militarism has become a stable trend.
In other words, the Russian government has decided to uphold national sovereignty and to resist a new bid for global hegemony by the United States, even though it was not Washington who proposed to go to war against Libya. This means that Russia’s interests as a global power are not limited by regional boundaries and hence it must not abstain when crucial decisions are made.
Both stances are tenable, but it would be better if Russia decided which it will take. Sitting on the fence only puts the country in a strange position, showing that its authorities cannot agree when confronted with serious problems and lack a coordinated policy. This is particularly damaging in view of the growing chaos across the world.