Russia’s Response To The Libyan Crisis: A Foreign Policy Paradigm Shift?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

The rapidly changing situation in North Africa and the Middle East has presented Russia with a number of difficult foreign policy challenges.  Russia’s early reaction to the crisis in Libya has not only confused observers, but also allowed them to talk about a split within the country’s top leadership.  Yet, hopefully, in the end, a more mature — and ultimately more effective – Russian policy in the NAME region will emerge.

Last Friday, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 establishing a no-fly zone over Libya.  Many foreign policy experts expected Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, to veto the resolution on the grounds that it will be used as a pretext to a full-fledge military operation against the regime of Col. Muammar Gaddafi.  Despite these expectations, however, Russia didn’t veto the resolution, choosing instead to abstain.  But, when the air forces of a hastily created international coalition began bombarding military objects in Libya, Russia condemned the actions, citing attacks at “non-military” targets and numerous civilian deaths.

Some Russian analysts found the country's behavior illogical.  They argued that if Russia wanted to preserve its substantial economic interests in Libya (worth, according to some estimates, about $70 billion), it should have sided with the presumed eventual winner in the conflict, the “rebels”, and voted for Resolution 1973.  If, in contrast, the Kremlin believed that Gaddafi could survive the military assault, then Russia should have vetoed the resolution and help Gaddafi.  By abstaining, Russia alienated both sides in the conflict.

The feeling that something went wrong in Russia’s foreign policy decision-making process was exacerbated by the rumors that President Medvedev originally wanted a vote in favor of the resolution, whereas the Foreign Ministry strongly insisted on vetoing it, so that the decision to abstain was a compromise.  In a sign of a tension between the Kremlin and Smolenskaya Square, President Medvedev abruptly fired the Russian Ambassador to Libya, Vladimir Chamov, for the “misrepresentation of Russia’s position in the Libyan conflict.”  (Chamov reportedly criticized the president for deciding not to veto the resolution.)

And then, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chimed in.  During a visit to a major arms manufacturing plant in Udmurtia – and surrounded by a crowd apparently upset that the fall of the Gaddafi regime would result in the cancellation of lucrative weapons deals – Putin called Resolution 1973 “moronic” and likened it to a “medieval call to crusade.”  A few hours later, Medvedev called his prime minister’s statement “inadmissible.”  On Wednesday, the State Duma sided with the president by issuing a statement supporting Russia’s position vis-à-vis the resolution.

A number of arguments can be put forward in defense of this position.  Two of them look especially relevant.  First, Resolution 1973 was adopted on the eve of an imminent attack Gaddafi troops at Benghazi.  If Russia have vetoed the resolution and the attack had taken place in the absence of a no-fly zone, all the moral blame for the inevitable – and inevitably exaggerated by the Western media – collateral damage would have been put on Russia's shoulders.  In contrast, with Russia on the sidelines, the responsibility for the civilian deaths rests with real culprits: the Gaddafi regime, the “rebels”, and the international coalition forces.

Second, vetoing the resolution would seriously undermine the ongoing Russia-NATO dialogue.  At the time when the partnership's most important national security issue — European missile defense – is being actively discussed, the last thing that Russia needs is a new chill in its relations with NATO countries.  Russia simply doesn’t have so much at stake in Libya, arms sales to the Gaddafi regime notwithstanding, to risk finding itself on the periphery of the missile defense discussion. 

From this point of view, Russia's decision not to veto Resolution 1973 was a vintage example of the pragmatism in foreign policy the Russian leadership seems to be so fond of.

And yet, reading President Medvedev’s Monday statement on Libya, the impression is that something else was on his mind.  Medvedev accused the Gaddafi regime in the “crimes committed against its own people” and directly linked its “abhorrent behavior” to the trajectory of Russia’s U.N. Security Council votes: its support for the earlier Resolution 1970 and its refusal to veto Resolution 1973.  In other words, by taking into account the domestic conduct of the Libyan leadership, Medvedev in essence rejected the simplicity of “realpolitik” and introduced elements of the value-based approach that until now has been completely foreign to the Kremlin.   

Only time will tell whether Medvedev’s Libya statement was a reflection of his foreign policy philosophy rather than an emotional one-off.  But for now, Russia needs to act.    Another Western military adventure in the Arab world provides Russia with an opportunity to increase its influence in the NAME region.  To this end, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visits in Egypt, traditionally the most influential country in the Middle East, and Algeria, Russia’s major partner in Africa, are the timely efforts to fill the vacuum left by the inconsistent policies of the Obama administration.  Equally strategically important were Medvedev’s recent meetings with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which were aimed at implanting Russia into the core of Israeli-Palestinian conflict management.  And not to be missed is Medvedev’s shrewd decision to appoint highly respected diplomat and parliamentarian Mikhail Margelov as the president’s special representative in Africa.  (In parallel, Medvedev has created and filled the position of special representative in Afghanistan.)

 Signs are that Russia is returning to the Muslim world in full force.  Perhaps, even in style.  

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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17 Responses to Russia’s Response To The Libyan Crisis: A Foreign Policy Paradigm Shift?

  1. Hi Eugene,
    Zyuganov is being pragmatic, given that a baseball bat appears to be a more effective tool for punishment than its lapta counterpart.
    I really wonder what Russia will get from abstaining on UNSCR 1973.
    On your hypothetical point about how Russia would look in the event of a UN veto, followed by great massacres in Libya – minus any Western military intervention: Russia and some others could’ve ethically covered themselves.
    This would’ve been done with a clear explanation on advocating a carefully worded UN resolution, with less wiggle room for a denied regime change/regime change, which can end up flawed from a purely human rights point of view.
    In addition, there’s good reason to be concerned about the often enough times hypocritical approach to “humanitarian intervention,” which has been utilized as cover for something different – changing the geopolitical landscape of the land in conflict – in a way that can nurture human rights abuses.
    There’s a certain track record at play on such matter. I respectfully link this piece:
    IMO, it’s ethically problematical to have the likes of Samantha Power greatly influencing such matter.
    The further relatively lax challenge to such manner can eventually have a blowback effect down the line.
    What’s known is that:
    – abuses were grossly exaggerated in Kosovo and Bosnia for the obvious reason to promote foreign (Western) intervention.
    – the repackaged KLA and Bosniak nationalists leave something to be ethically desired.
    – For comparison sake, note the reaction to what Croat forces did in 1995 (at least 150,000 ethnically cleansed, with a little over 500 killed) and the number of fatalities resulting from Georgian government strike on South Ossetia in 2008.
    – Khadafy’s prior track record for hostage taking was stopped, as he became an acceptable enough leader for Western governments to directly meet. While Libya has remained human rights challenged, his domestic record doesn’t appear as negatively on par with Saddam and some others.
    Keep us thinking.

  2. Pardon the choppiness of some lines in my last set comments. Khadafy’s past with international terrorism included other instances besides taking hostages.
    The UN has a military bureaucracy and force which has come under criticism for the limits of its effectiveness. It appears a tall task to improve the position of that entity. Hence, the scenario of the kind of regional armed intervention seen throughout the world – in conjunction with the Western military power exhibited outside its neighborhood.
    From a point of view of the best interests of the US, Russia and others, there’s reason to be uneasy about the ongoing status quo of hypocritically selective human rights advocacy. This leads to the provocative (especially for some) thought that it might not be such a bad idea to have a more equal distribution of military power.
    Some of the the neocon to neolib leaning foreign policy spin continues to reek. It includes back patting Western NGO involvement for (as spun) keeping Crimea stable, minus any lauding of Russian activity on that particular. Likewise with how the role of the Russian military in Pridnestrovie is often presented.

  3. Eugene says:

    Thanks much for your as always thoughtful comments.
    Let me first articulate a couple of things. First, in my deep belief, everything is only starting in the NAME region, and the process of substantial changes will last for years. In this situation, it’s very difficult to predict a long-term outcome of any move, vote etc. From this point of view, abstaining “murky” votes while increasing diplomatic presence in the region — what Russia is more or less doing now — is, IMHO, not a bad strategy.
    Second, I don’t think that Russia has a large geopolitical stake in Libya. Certainly, Qaddafi isn’t considered a “friend” in Moscow. Economic interests is something different, but to preserve them, Russia has to side with the eventual winner in the conflict — and it’s clear that Qaddafi isn’t the one. That’s what, I believe, motivated Medvedev if, as rumored, he wanted to vote for R1973.
    I’m not sure that Russia could present another UNSC resolution that would be acceptable to more than 10 SC members. What I’m completely sure that Russia — with its current PR abilities — could have pursuasively articulated its position against R1973. We all remember how during the SO conflict in 2008, having a clear case against Georgia, Russia still easily lost propaganda war to a pathological liar. Whar reason do we have to believe that this time around, the outcome would have been different?
    I agree with you on Qaddafi’s human rights record — as opposed to many others — but we all understand that his real “guilt” was being anti-Western, not dictatorial. We discussed this recently with regards to Milocevic-Tudjman.

  4. Eugene,
    Do you think it’s possible that Medvedev didn’t consider the kind of political fallout which has occurred in Russia, since the Russian abstention of UNSCR 1973? This touches on what can be reasonably seen as his earlier decision to recognize Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence – not so popular abroad unlike in Russia. That said, Russian public opinion wouldn’t have been so aghast if Russia refrained from recognizing the independence of the two disputed former Georgian SSR territories in question.
    On UNSCR 1973, perhaps Medvedev considered his decision with a WTF mindset of it being time for him to do what he thinks is right, while willing to face the negative internal feedback.
    I agree with your point about Russia and Libya, which could lump the Russian-Iranian relationship in the same category of states not so fraternally bound to each other. At the same time, Iran and Libya haven’t caused Russia much problem, whereas the US and British governments haven’t always been particularly considerate of Russia’s legitimate interests. Note the recent American government comments on the Kurils as one example.
    Khadafy not eventually winning leads to what happens after him? This question serves as a basis for Russia, other countries and Americans to not quickly buy into what gets trumped on CNN. Along with some other major networks, that station has been big on noting the violence resulting from the conflict between Libyan forces and the anti-Khadafy opposition. These networks haven’t as gung ho in covering a number of other brutal situations which are either on par or greater in violence.
    From the interests of the US and others, the selectively hypocritical “moral” stances motivating American foreign policy are fair game for criticism. It’s an uphill battle for sure. I’m certain that the powerful elites not keen on this kind of discussion are hoping to frustrate this dissent from continuing – at the very least seeking that it get downplayed as much as possible. In place, are the PC promoted forms of dissent, thereby resulting in skewed coverage; like the greater attention given to Luke Harding’s denied (due to an administrative mishap on Harding’s part) and since approved entry into Russia over the Canadian government’s more heavy handed political reasoning for banning some law abiding individuals from Western democracies.
    In the big picture, I see good reason to challenge Soros leaning neolib and neocon “humanitarian intervention” types, who’re comparatively silent on the morals flaws of folks that they’ve shown a bias for. – the Bosniak nationalists and the repackaged KLA toping this list. Not challenging them leads to a greater potential for a future blowback.
    In closed company, I made reference to The NYTs’ Steven Erlanger saying on NPR (around the time of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia) that the JNA forces in Kosovo weren’t acting so negatively when compared to Russian troops in Chechnya. He didn’t bring up a comparison on how the Turks have carried on with the Kurds. Russia having nukes isn’t as easy a target for NATO to bomb as Yugoslavia. On the other hand, Russia can and has been faced with unfair treatment – short of seeing that country bombed.
    In the future, I hope a lesson is well enough learned on the need to (IMO) not give UN approval that further encourages a geopolitical moral hypocrisy, inclusive of possibly making a bad situation worse.

  5. Eugene says:

    As always, I largely agree with what you’re saying; our differences are in nuances.
    I’m not sure there was a serious fallout in Russia. I’m reading a lot of Russian papers now, and the opinion is very diverse: from condemnation for not vetoing to condemnation for not supporting. The tension within elites is real, to be sure, but Medvedev seems to show a taste for fighting as of late. Also, take note how Putin’s press secretary Peskov tried to play down the incident — looked to me as Putin was retracting a bit. Now, I always felt that Lavrov is Putin’s man, and Medvedev ideally should replace him with his own, but that’s a separate subject.
    I agree that Libya caused no problem to Russia, to say the very least. But I’m not talking about Russia initiating the actions against Qaddafi; I’m talking about what Russia should do when more powerful world players — like it or not — set out on taking Qaddafi out. My opinion: Russia should mind its own inetersts — which again, IMHO, is not to stick with the Colonel.
    I’m leaving aside the part of the Western coverage of this and all previous events: you and I are completely on the same side here. But again and again, Russia should start taking information warfare seriously. Otherwise, its chances to get its story through aren’t good.

  6. Eugene,
    I greatly appreciate your reasoned follow-up.
    Your last point pertains to the “uphill battle” reference in my last set of comments. Many are so duped that the periodic slam dunk dissident pundit appearance in mass media isn’t often convincing enough. No matter what, some folks at the top and below are going to be overly agendacratic in a way that will not likely if ever acknowledge the views they oppose. Of possible interest, this thread led to a discussion inclusive of the issue of Russia making a better case for itself:
    Not that I (without further research) completely endorse some of the claims there made by someone other than myself.
    The state of global military strength and effective PR (propaganda) plays into the suggestion that the West can meddle in Libya, whereas Russia should (in the view of some) not make such a big fuss about what goes on there. The American government chiming in support of Japan over Russia on the Kurils comes to mind again. Along with improving its PR reach abroad, there’s a basis for Russia to get militarily stronger within reason.
    I detect some mischief making vis-a-vis “Putvedev.” Biden and Obama are pointedly looking for and/or seeking to create (in a suggestive way) differences between Putin and Medvedev. For now, I see the differences between them as being within manageable limits, where they can work well enough with each other. I leave open what the future might’ve in store between them.
    IMO, Putin is right for being apprehensive about UNSCR 1973. The manner of his criticism is wrong. Foreign policy is supposed to be Medvedev’s domain. As you note, Putin has since sought to diffuse the hoopla over what he said. He’s known for periodically saying things in a way that can be considered rough. These kind of folks are prone to backtracking a bit, in recognition that they might’ve been wrong. In addition, those close to these people will often choose to work around such behavior, instead of letting it rattle them. This explanation serves as a basis to believe that “Putvedev” might continue to effectively exist – albeit with periodic differences. It’s not as if government administrations in Western democracies don’t attempt to keep inner differences behind closed doors, with some periodic outbursts occurring.
    I’m still not fully clear on how Putin’s remarks were initially presented to Medvedev. I can imagine a journo asking Medvedev about such comments without mention of who said them – possibly a calculated attempt to stir things up.

  7. Eugene says:

    On your last point: if you believe to Medvedev’s original statement (; I don’t know which English translation is available), then his response wasn’t provoked at all. He was asked (it was the last question) about how the situation is to evolve and he responded first with a mild criticism of the coalition, then expressed concern that there is no one to talk to in Libua, then offered Russia as a mediator in the conflict and finally said that it was dangerous to use “certain expressions.” So he already knew what Putin said and had his reaction ready to present.
    I’m not bying into the theory that this was just a performance played by the two. Rather, Putin told Medvedev in advance his position and that he was about to articulate it in Udmurtia. And Medvedev apparently told him that he was about to criticize him. If this works for them, it works for me…

  8. Thanks for the clarfication on the requested particular Eugene.
    I agree that there’s no stage acting on this recent episode.
    I sense that things got a bit out of hand, followed by a realization of such, with the desire to move on. Such human interaction isn’t so uncommon.
    As you note, Libya isn’t such a primary Russian concern. Nevertheless, these Samantha Power “humanitarian intervention” types need to be substantively challenged.

  9. Of possible interest:
    Why the Attack on Libya is Illegal

  10. Poppy says:

    @Russia has to side with the eventual winner in the conflict — and it’s clear that Qaddafi isn’t the one.@
    Oh, it is NOT clear at all, believe you me.
    From this point of view it was right decision for USAF to pull out – shooting down a couple more planes would bring colonel MuMu closer to victory, I guess.

  11. Hi Poppy,
    Khadafy might prove victorious over what the the leading Western military powers had initially planned to utilize.
    That said, some of the involved egos might feel compelled that he can’t ultimately win on account of two factors having to do with:
    – foolish pride
    – inclusive of not wanting it to be known that a certain imperial way of policing the world can be successfully challenged.
    Awaiting for CNN’s Anderson Cooper, among others to start showing a greater “humanitarian” concern over what has been going on in the Ivory Coast.

  12. Poppy says:

    That’s right, Mike.
    P.S. Cooper? What Cooper??
    What happened to Amanpour? Divorce? Menopause?

    Outside the US, he’s not as well known on account of his show being on CNN America and not (if I’m correct in assuming) CNN International.
    A few years ago, the latter was removed from most, if not all basic American TV subscriptions.
    In line with the existing lack of foreign affairs knowledge in the US – not that I’ve always been fond of CNN International – which is still better than nothing.
    At last notice, James Rubin’s wife is still actively involved with CNN and a Sunday ABC News show.

  14. Eugene says:

    I see your point. True, in conflicts like this one, to define “winner” or “loser” isn’t easy. Whatever the definiton you can stick to the Colonel, I find no reasons for Russia to stick with him.
    As for Amanpour, she went to a CNN’s competitor, The ABC News.

  15. Stand corrected on her current status with CNN, while noting that station giving her some recent high profile props, which threw me off a bit.
    She gets around. While still with CNN, she was also involved with 60 Minutes, airing on CBS.
    Without meaning to be too repetetive:
    IMO, the voting on UNSCR 1973 shouldn’t only be about about Khadafy. The potential for motivating future manner on other subjects is a concern as well.
    I’m also reminded a bit of a mob quote –
    “The rules are there’re are no rules.”
    As previously noted, Yugo bombed in 1999 with no UNSCR. Later on, UNSCR 1244 gets contradicted with the independence recognition that some have given to Kosovo.

  16. Poppy says:

    @Whatever the definiton you can stick to the Colonel, I find no reasons for Russia to stick with him.@
    …”cause I stick to the one I gave him”
    You make me feel amused.

  17. Poppy says:

    You’re right again in your comparison with Kosovo, Mike.
    The whole show seems to follow that screenplay, I’ve seen it already – this is why I’m kinda missing merry old Christine.
    Bring her back, you bitches!
    And free Mike Tyson!!

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