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Analysis & Opinion
02.09.11 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Lessons From Libya
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Alexandre Strokanov

As the world watches the agony of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, following a stumbling but ultimately successful UN-sanctioned NATO operation to help unseat the dictator, a new round of soul-searching is underway in Moscow. Many experts are now questioning the wisdom of Russia’s Libya policy, warning of imminent losses to Russian business interests in that country. What are the lessons for Russian foreign policy from the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya? What will the impact from it be on Russia’s stance toward similar events in Syria? What would Russia gain from turning into an agent of democratic change in the Middle East?

This debate in Russia is all the more interesting, as it is likely to impact Russia’s stance toward similar events in Syria, where a pro-democracy uprising is being brutally suppressed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Most commentators in Moscow agree that Russia was right in not extending its support to Gaddafi’s decaying regime by abstaining from voting on the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973, which sanctioned the NATO air campaign in support of anti-Gaddafi rebels.

Moscow’s endorsement of the international operation in Libya has been tepid at best. The split within the highest echelons of Russian power became clearly visible after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Resolution 1973 “flawed” and the NATO air operation “a new crusade”, while President Dmitry Medvedev continued to justify the international use of force to “prevent Gaddafi from murdering his own people.” When it became clear that NATO was interpreting the Resolution 1973 too liberally, even Medvedev complained that Russia was misled by its Western partners when they pushed the decision through the UNSC.

Now, however, with Gaddafi’s regime crumbling, many Russian observers are arguing that Moscow should have been more proactive in support of the uprising in Libya, up to providing direct military aid to the rebels in order to secure a privileged relationship with the new government in Tripoli. Critics are pointing to Russia’s likely economic losses in Libya, as the new regime reconsiders many lucrative deals in oil and infrastructure projects that major Russian companies signed with the Gaddafi government.

Indeed, Libyan rebels have already warned Russian and Chinese firms this week that they may lose out on lucrative oil contracts for failing to support the rebellion. "We don't have a problem with Western countries like the Italians, French and UK companies. But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil," Abdeljalil Mayouf, information manager at Libyan rebel oil firm AGOCO, was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Uralsib Capital oil and gas analyst Alexei Kokin was quoted by Interfax as saying that the regime change would force Russian companies, specifically Tatneft and Gazprom Neft, to abandon their projects in Libya. "We won't have anything; Libya's oil market will shift in favor of Italian Eni. The Italians are the main contender. After them, the American and European companies: ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Total, Shell," Kokin said.

The Head of Rosoboronexport Anatoly Isaikin complained last week that Russia has lost as much as $4 billion in interrupted and lost contracts as a result of the arms embargo against Libya earlier this year, The Moscow Times reported. A lucrative deal signed by Russian Railways in April of 2008 to build a 550-kilometer-long modern high-speed rail line from Sirt to Benghazi in Libya also appears to be under review by the new government in Tripoli.

These economic losses in Libya are likely to loom heavily in Moscow’s deliberations over its policy with regard to the ongoing crisis in Syria and Western pressure on president Assad’s regime.

In Syria, Russian economic and security stakes are much higher. Not only is Syria one of Russia’s largest arms export customers, with current and pending deals valued at over $10 billion, but president Assad’s regime is also a significant security partner for Russia in the turbulent Middle East region, helping Moscow to project its waning influence in this critically important part of the globe. The Russian navy is heavily dependent on Syrian ports to sustain its operations in the Mediterranean Sea and, to a lesser extent, in the Persian Gulf and the Arab Sea.

Having burned its fingers with the vaguely-worded UNSC Resolution on Libya, Moscow blocked Western efforts for a similar UN decision on Syria, which would have imposed a new set of sweeping sanctions on president Assad’s regime, pushing through a meaningless “presidential statement” earlier this month. But now, with the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, many in the West are calling for a similar Western military effort in Syria to protect the pro-democracy demonstrations now being brutally suppressed by government tanks.

Obviously, such talk is making many in Moscow jittery about the West’s intentions in Syria, while reigniting the debate over the right strategy for Russia in situations where its former autocratic allies are facing popular uprisings backed up by the West and its military might. President Medvedev himself has demonstrated this growing ambivalence in Moscow when he warned president Assad of a “dire fate,” were he to continue his campaign of repression against the opposition, while rejecting the possibility of a UN sanctioned military intervention in Syria.

What are the lessons for Russian foreign policy from the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya under Western military pressure? What will the impact from it be on Russia’s stance toward similar events in Syria? Should Russia this time adopt a much more proactive stance in support of the opposition in Syria? Should it abandon president Assad’s regime in the hopes of gaining more influence with the future government in Syria? Should it support Western efforts to engineer Assad’s removal from power, up to providing military aid and air cover to the opposition forces? What would Russia gain from turning into an agent of democratic change in the Middle East?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT

First of all, I would not call the events in Arab countries, and in particular in Libya and Syria, “pro-democracy uprisings.” There is no doubt that we are dealing with armed uprisings in both cases, but how “pro-democratic” their leaders and members are is too early to judge at this point, at least if members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) continue occupying important positions in the new regime. Otherwise we could call the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 a “Great Democratic Revolution,” and events in many African countries, when one tribe attacks and massacres another, as wonderful triumphs of democracy.

Regarding the lessons to learn. Lesson number one is to pay more serious attention to the texts of resolutions passed by the UNSC. The UNSC Resolution 1973 was about protecting people, but real actions by several NATO members led to a trivial “regime change.” Generally speaking, the differences between the wars in Iraq and Libya lay only in methods, but the ultimate goal is the same – a regime change under the cover of UN resolutions and their vague interpretations. Instead of a “search for weapons of mass destruction” we had a “protecting civilians” operation.

Another lesson deals with the mass media coverage of the events in Libya, when most Western media became “NATO war propaganda agencies” rather than objective observers. They were probably assigned this role by their respective governments, which makes the whole story of the so-called “free media” into a joke. This lesson was mentioned by many Asian, African and Latin American media outlets, but strangely enough not so much by Russians. Today, Western media reports on the end of the war in Libya and the complete victory of the rebels, which will make every citizen of this country free and happy tomorrow, with great bravado. Rebel leaders are already making announcements about what countries they will award and what countries they will punish for the position taken at the time of the war.

When I read and hear these statements, a picture of George W. Bush announcing that the “mission is accomplished” in Iraq comes to mind. What happened after that announcement is well known: the war in Iraq actually began. It may so happen again that in Libya, the real war and even more horrifying suffering still lay ahead for the Libyan people. Let’s not forget about the tribal character of the Libyan society, nor about the fact that tyrant Gaddafi was capable of providing decent living standards for the Libyan population. Will the new regime succeed in bringing together all the Libyan tribes and achieving satisfactory living standards in the country?

I do not necessary think that we will have to wait long to see the real face of the new government in Libya. The litmus test of this regime will be its position toward Israel, and if Libyan weapons and “freedom fighters” will be seen somewhere in Gaza or the West Bank territories, showing what they’ve learned from their NATO teachers, the change in the Western mind will be too late.

Regarding the agreements that were signed by Gaddafi’s legitimate government: the new regime should not expect the United States or European countries to rush to support it in case new troubles or information about the violation of human rights starts pouring out of Libya, not to mention Libyan traces in terrorist attacks against Israel. Both the United States and the EU are not in the best financial shape to get heavily involved into another “nation-building project.” Finally, there are international legal procedures that Russian companies may use with regard to their previous investments and contracts. In other words, the picture is not too bad for Russia, and not necessary so bright for Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

As far as the public domain is concerned, the “Arab Spring” caught foreign governments and analysts mostly unaware. There seems to be a failure of anticipatory analysis in all the major capitals of the world, including Moscow, Paris, Rome, London and Washington. We know of only one tentative past attempt by Washington to manage a transition in the case of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. This attempt failed due to the obstinacy of the Egyptian ex-president.

Just a simple consideration of the decades of tenure by the now-evicted heads of state and their biological age should have been enough to set off alarm bells about several impending crises of power transition. The above should have also been considered when commercial deals were signed under Gaddafi.

Judging by the nationalist declarations of the new Libyan leadership, one cannot say with certainty whether any foreign country can expect true preferential treatment in the future. The Libyans remain a strongly nationalist society; the new leadership will need to prove its legitimacy to its own citizens by retaining transparently independent posture vis-a-vis foreign powers, and not only Russia, but everyone.

Russian policymakers maintained a politically neutral position in the Libyan civil war, although Russian media and many analysts were noticeably pro-Gaddafi. There were some unfortunate off-the-cuff comments, but the policy remained steady. Moscow may have been surprised, however, by the evidently low influence it had over Gaddafi, who simply humiliated Mikhail Margelov’s mission. At the same time, providing material support to the anti-Gaddafi forces is not a realistic option, given that the rebellion does not really need material – the Libyan NTC rejected foreign troops a priori and NATO is already providing the necessary air support.

So Russia has to patiently wait for a resolution of the Libyan crisis, which may take years. As to the planned investments and expected revenues from Libya – that should have been challenged even while Gaddafi was in power. The questions that had to be answered even back then were: how long will Gaddafi continue to rule? What situation will follow Gaddafi’s demise? If such questions were not asked, then someone in Russia was unprepared.

In reality, even if Russian economic projects in Libya get shut down completely, it wouldn’t have as much of an impact, considering the fact that potential revenues from them would be stretched over many years.

The situation in Syria is quite different from Libya. From the start of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion, significant portions of the military, members of Gaddafi’s own government and some territories sided with the regime’s enemies. The flag of the NTC refers to the last legitimate government in Libya. In Syria, there are no similar defections, and there is little reference to a pre-Baathist past. Furthermore, Syria is too close to a very unstable zone of the Middle East, and external military intervention is far less viable. So realistically, the Syrians must resolve their problems internally, and diverse stringent sanctions are the most likely course of action for the democratic community of the world.

Moscow needs to recognize even now that Assad is internationally finished, and the current worth to Russia of the regime in Damascus is nil. From a cost-benefit rationale, Russia should not risk additional political or economic capital on a presumed “associate” who is already a political corpse. Whatever Russia had invested in Syria has already been turned to waste by Damascus’ folly.

Russia could benefit from a thorough, realistic and very hard-nosed review of its entire program in the region.
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