Russia’s Conflicts in Libya

Dmitry Gorenburg examines the difficult position the Kremlin finds itself in with regard to the international military intervention in Libya.

Earlier this month, the Russian government surprised many observers by going along with UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized international enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya. Russia was initially expected to veto the resolution. Instead, Russia chose to abstain in order to ensure the protection of civilians, while its ambassador to the United Nations made statements expressing concern about how the resolution would be implemented.

In recent years, Russia has had close trade relations with the Libyan government. In particular it has signed billions of dollars worth of arms contracts with the regime of Muammar Gaddhafi. This is the context that partially explains the removal of Vladimir Chamov, Russia’s ambassador to Libya, after he sent a telegram to Moscow arguing that allowing the UN resolution to pass would represent a betrayal of Russia’s state interests. Chamov has since returned to Moscow where he has publicly spoken out against the implementation of the no-fly zone.

In the last week, Russia’s attitude toward the no-fly zone has unexpectedly become a factor in Russian domestic politics. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s statement on March 21 criticized the UN resolution for getting involved in an internal conflict. In the most controversial part of his remarks, Putin argued that the resolution allowed international forces to take virtually any measures against a sovereign state, and in this he said it resembled medieval calls to crusades, “when someone called on others to go to a certain place and liberate it.”

The response from President Dmitri Medvedev was almost immediate. He argued that Russia’s abstention on the resolution vote was the proper position. Furthermore, he dressed down Putin (though not by name) by saying:

Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as ‘crusades’ and so on. It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse than what is going on now. Everyone should remember that.

And he removed Chamov from his position, essentially for public insubordination. Putin came out the next day with a statement indicating that the president is responsible for foreign policy in Russia and that he backed his president’s policies. A spokesman indicated that Putin’s previous statement was simply an indication of his own personal views rather than an official policy statement.

It may be that this conflict was yet another example of the good cop-bad cop show that the Russian leadership tandem have been putting on for the last three years. Or it may be that this is the first serious indication that Medvedev and Putin are engaged in a serious behind the scenes tussle for the right to run for president in 2012. I am still slightly on the side of the former, though a second public disagreement of this level of seriousness would be enough to convince me that this is a genuine conflict.

Rather than focus on the domestic conflict, I want to examine why Russian politicians see this conflict the way they do. I would argue that Russian leaders’ inconsistent position on Libya is essentially a case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

I believe that Russian leaders decided not to veto Resolution 1973 for two reasons. First, they did not want to alienate Western leaders who were pushing for the intervention. While the rapprochement with the United States is important to them and certainly played a role here, we should also remember the importance of Russian political and economic ties with European states and especially France and Italy, both of whom were strongly in favor of a no-fly zone because of the potential for a humanitarian and refugee disaster in the event of an attack by Gaddhafi’s forces on Benghazi. Second, Russian leaders did not want to be blamed for blocking the intervention if the result was a large-scale massacre of civilians.

On the other hand, Russian leaders also did not want to create a new norm of international intervention in internal conflicts, particularly when these conflicts were the result of a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler. They genuinely dislike what they see as a Western predilection for imposing their values and forms of government on other parts of the world. They remember the color revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia, in which friendly regimes were replaced by ones that were to a greater or lesser extent anti-Russian.

Furthermore, they believe that these popular protest movements were organized and funded by Western governments, particularly the United States. This creates a certain amount of suspicion of similar protests leading to the removal of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, even when the deposed rulers do not have particularly close ties to Russia.

So Russian leaders are understandably nervous about the coalition’s rather expansive interpretation of Resolution 1973. They were willing to allow for the establishment of a no-fly zone in order to avert a likely massacre of civilians and to help their European partners avoid a flood of refugees on their soil. They are much less willing to see NATO forces provide military assistance to a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler that it has traditionally supported.

I suspect that Russian leaders will increasingly begin to speak out against the military campaign if this conflict drags on. They will be especially concerned if it becomes increasingly clear that NATO airstrikes are targeting Gaddhafi’s ground forces rather than limiting themselves to preventing Libyan air forces from targeting civilian areas.