Sitting on the fence

Published : Apr 22, 2011 00:00 IST

Russia's abstention from the Security Council vote on Libya is guided purely by pragmatic considerations.

in Moscow

RUSSIA has adopted a hands-off approach to the Libyan crisis, opting to abstain in the United Nations Security Council vote on Resolution 1973 which authorised the use of force. It was a conscious decision to let the West get militarily involved in what Moscow saw as essentially a civil conflict with an unpredictable outcome. Russian diplomats insisted that Moscow's stance was based on principles.

While the use of force against civilians by Muammar Qaddafi's regime was absolutely unacceptable and had to be put an end to, the resolution went beyond the appeal by the Arab League of Nations for a no-fly zone, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Moscow's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Russia had abstained because Resolution 1973 did not answer the questions it raised at the Security Council. Our questions were both concrete and legitimate: how the no-fly zone would be enforced, what the rules of engagement would be and to what limits the use of force would be, he said. He argued that more time should have been given to implementing the previous Security Council Resolution 1970, which imposed an arms embargo on Libya and sanctions against the Qaddafi family. Other officials admitted frankly that Moscow was guided by purely pragmatic considerations.

If Russia had vetoed Resolution 1973, explained Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the International Affairs Committee in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, it would have been held responsible for the deaths of civilians at the hands of the Qaddafi regime. If, on the other hand, Russia had supported the resolution, it would have effectively become an accomplice to likely excesses in the course of its implementation.

By choosing to sit on the fence, Russia let the Qaddafi regime, the rebels and the Western coalition take the blame for the continuing carnage in Libya. Moscow's neutrality helped it avoid derailing the reset with Washington and at the same time allowed it to rally a coalition of the opposed that crystallised around the BRICS bloc.

Brazil, Russia, India and China voted in solidarity to abstain on Resolution 1973, and South Africa, which does not sit on the Security Council, joined the four others in criticising the allied action in Libya.

Reaping the spoils

As the West got dragged into a military gambit in Libya, Moscow reaped the spoils. The crisis in Libya and the nuclear accident in Japan pushed up oil prices to a two-and-a-half-year high above $100, and Russia's state-owned monopoly Gazprom rushed to sell extra gas to Europe as supplies from Libya ran dry. Russia provides two-fifths of Europe's gas imports. Europe, which until recently sought ways to diminish its energy dependence on Russia, now sees Moscow as a reliable long-term partner.

Publicly registering its reservations about the vague terms for foreign military intervention in the U.N. resolution, Russia claimed a moral right to criticise the U.S.-led operation. When it became clear that the real goal of the Western coalition was to topple the Qaddafi regime, Russia denounced indiscriminate use of force by the coalition militaries and called for a ceasefire and political talks to resolve the crisis. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was inadmissible to use the Security Council resolution for achieving aims that clearly go beyond its mandate of taking only steps to protect the civilian population. We think that intervention by the coalition in what is essentially a civil war has not been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council resolution, Lavrov said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin upped the ante, blasting the military operation in Libya as an example of U.S. interventionism. He said U.S. interference in the affairs of other countries emerged as a stable trend and recalled the U.S. air strikes on Belgrade under President Bill Clinton, and on Afghanistan and Iraq under the two George W. Bush administrations.

Now it's Libya's turn under the pretext of protecting civilians, Putin said. Where is logic and morality? There is neither.

The Russian Premier denounced the U.S.-backed resolution as a deficient and flawed document that allows anyone to take any action against a sovereign state. To me, it actually resembles medieval calls for crusades when someone called on others to go to a certain place and liberate it, he said.

Putin's hard-hitting remarks echoed his famous Munich speech in 2007 in which he lacerated the U.S. as the world's biggest troublemaker who indulges in uncontained hyper use of force. The big difference is that in 2007, relations between Russia and the U.S. had sunk to a post-Cold War low, whereas today they are on the upswing, thanks to the reset proclaimed by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Differing opinions

Putin's outburst provoked a rebuke from Dmitry Medvedev. The President said it was unacceptable to use expressions such as crusade when talking about the Western intervention in Libya because they suggest a clash of civilisations. Medvedev also defended Moscow's abstention in the Security Council vote.

Russia did not exercise its veto power for one simple reason: I do not consider this resolution to be wrong. Moreover, I think that overall this resolution reflects, even though not completely, our understanding of the events in Libya, he said.

The rare public spat between the two leaders prompted speculation about a split in the Kremlin tandem, which has so far worked in perfect sync. However, the rift may be more imaginary than real. All major foreign policy decisions are taken jointly by the duo and the decision to abstain on Resolution 1973 was no exception to this rule, according to Kremlin insiders. Putin made it a point to mention that he was expressing a private view, while Russia's official position was formulated by the President who is responsible for foreign policy. The two leaders just played to different audiences.

Medvedev addressed the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), while Putin was tapping into opposition, both within Russia and outside, to the Western intervention in Libya.

The duo played in four hands and did it well. Speaking to Medvedev on the phone a few days after the latter's spat with Putin, Obama thanked his Russian counterpart for Moscow's support for implementing U.N. Resolution 1973 and subsequent positive statements that President Medvedev has made regarding the resolution's mandate, the White House said.

Diplomatic offensive

Meanwhile, Russia stepped up its diplomatic offensive in West Asia and North Africa. A succession of foreign visitors who met Medvedev recently in Moscow included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, even as Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov paid visits to Egypt and Algeria. Russia is clearly positioning itself for the post-revolutionary time in the region, which has re-emerged in recent years as a major market for Russian weapons and investment.

The Libyan crisis has further accentuated the shifts in Russia's foreign policy agenda during Medvedev's presidency. Over the past three years, the Kremlin's policy has become more pragmatic and geared to the overriding domestic goal of technological modernisation with the help of the U.S. and the European Union. Russia has chosen not to risk a positive dynamic in relations with the West for the sake of a north African strongman who was doomed anyway.

Russia's refusal to veto Resolution 1973 marked a departure from its traditional rejection of foreign military intervention on humanitarian grounds. The only time Moscow sanctioned military action against a sovereign state was 20 years ago when Iraq occupied Kuwait, but that was an act of punishing an aggressor.

Russia firmly opposed NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1998 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. As recently as in 2008, Russia blocked a U.S.- and Britain-sponsored resolution that sought to slap sanctions against the regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. That veto was based on principle.

This time, Russia acted on pragmatic grounds. It is unlikely that Moscow will abandon its opposition to military intervention on humanitarian grounds in future, but it may no longer stand in the West's way in situations where its vital interests are not at stake.

The Kremlin's course correction has met with some opposition at home as the abrupt dismissal of Russia's Ambassador to Libya showed. Medvedev sacked Ambassador Vladimir Chamov without official explanation on the day Resolution 1973 was put to vote. Unnamed Kremlin sources said the envoy represented Libya's interests in Russia instead of representing Russia's interests in Libya and had called for using the veto in the Security Council vote on the resolution.

Medvedev also replaced his special representative in Africa with the ambitious parliamentarian Mikhail Margelov, a strong supporter of better ties with the West. Putin's diatribe against the U.S. was also meant to appease the anti-Western lobby in Russia's defence and security community.

The jury is still out on whether the Kremlin's new policy of engaging the West can succeed. Medvedev has staked his political future on the reset with the U.S., which should help Russia gain membership in the World Trade Organisation and unhindered access to U.S. technologies. If Medvedev can deliver on the reset, he may win the ticket to a second presidential term next year. If not, Putin with his tough talk may prove more preferable to the Russian elites.

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