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Analysis & Opinion
21.03.11 The Clash Over Libya
By Tom Balmforth

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Sunday condemned air strikes on Libya mandated by a UN resolution, despite the fact that Russia abstained from the vote. Moscow continues to send ambivalent signals on Libya, as it wrestles with conflicting policy priorities, analysts say. Earlier today Prime Minister Vladimir Putin waded in to the debate, likening the resolution to a “medieval call to crusade,” only for President Dmitry Medvedev to hit back hours later by describing the premier’s comments as “inadmissible.”

"We believe a mandate given by the UN security council resolution – a controversial move in itself – should not be used to achieve goals outside its provisions, which only see measures necessary to protect the civilian population," Alexander Lukashevich, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Sunday. Lukashevich said the West had bombed “non-military” targets in Tripoli, Tarhuna, Maamura and Jmeil, resulting in the death of 48 “civilians,” as well as injuring over 150.

The air strikes came on the heels of Friday’s 1973 UN Resolution, which was passed by ten votes out of 15, with the remaining five member states abstaining. The Russian Foreign Ministry later called the resolution “brash,” despite not using its veto power in the UN Security Council.

One explanation of this incoherency was offered by the Kommersant business daily on Monday. Dmitry Medvedev’s Kremlin originally sought to vote in favor of the resolution, the business daily reported today, citing “informed sources.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, favored wielding Russia’s veto power on the UN Security Council to block the resolution. In the end a compromise was reached and Moscow decided to sit on the fence alongside the other three BRIC countries, Brazil, India and China, as well as Germany.

But after Putin on Monday passionately condemned the UN resolution which Medvedev allegedly favors, speculation will mount that there is actually divergence over the Libya question between the two leaders. “This UN Security Council resolution is without doubt defective and harmful,” Putin said on Monday, after calling it a “medieval call to crusade.” The powerful prime minister took care to add that these views represent only his own personal opinion, since foreign policy is the Kremlin’s remit.

By Monday evening disagreement between Putin and Medvedev looked even more evident as the Russian president called Putin’s statement “inadmissible.” “Russia did not exercise [the veto power] for one reason,” Medvedev retorted. “I do not consider this resolution to be wrong. Moreover, I believe that this resolution generally reflects our understanding of what is going on in Libya…It is absolutely inexcusable to use expressions that in effect lead to a clash of civilizations – such as ‘crusades,’ and so on. That is unacceptable,” Medvedev said.

With only a year to go until presidential elections, the apparent spat will be appreciated by undernourished “tandemologists,” but various other incoherencies in Libya policy have been noted by analysts too. “Russia is clearly in a very awkward position,” said Pavel Baev of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “What is also very clear is that the signals Moscow is sending are ambivalent, incoherent and even slightly embarrassing.” Medvedev’s press secretary has publically denied such schizophrenia, although analysts point to a number of policies that Russia has pursued, which jar with its criticism and abstention from Friday’s resolution.

Medvedev has condemned abuses committed by the Muammar Gaddafi regime in the raging civil war and also signed off on the initial UN arms embargo on Libya that cost Russia in excess of $4 billion in lost arms contracts. This latter move suggested that Russia’s disapproval of Gaddafi’s regime superseded its non-interventionism, said one analyst. Moreover, unlike Russia’s past noisy opposition to the Iraq and Kosovo interventions, Moscow gave no clear indication which way it would go on the Libya question.

“Libya is a special case and stands out from the revolutions and uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East,” said Baev. “While Russia generally expresses concern about revolutions, Russia’s position on Libya has been rather negative.” But, when on Friday the UN Security Council convened to pass a “no-fly” zone on Libya when pro-Gaddafi forces were preparing to march on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Russia balked.

The ethical dimension of Medvedev’s condemnation of the Gaddafi regime had hinted that the Kremlin was leaning toward the international mainstream. But at the same time, Russia’s old mantra of non-interference in the domestic affairs of foreign countries appears to jar with the measures being imposed by the international community. Russia has watched all the uprisings spreading through North Africa and the Middle East with unease simply because of its policy belief in the ascendancy of stability over democracy – values often touted as mutually exclusive.

“The second component is that Russia has very strong worries about every revolutionary change,” said Baev. “I would say that there is a counter-revolutionary coalition in the making with countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. From Russia’s perspective, what is happening in Bahrain is perfectly fine, and what has happened in Egypt is a matter of concern.” The ironfisted quelling of an uprising in Bahrain last week brought little disapproval from Russia, while Moscow watched the overthrow of Egypt President Hosni Mubarak with unease.

Still, some analysts say that Russia is simply behaving pragmatically on Libya. “Russia’s position is the same as Germany’s and China’s,” said Vladimir Isaev, the head of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “To talk about double standards is wrong. Russia has firmly undertaken a policy of neutrality. In my opinion Russia’s position is one of pragmatic non-interference.”

Indeed, a source close to the Kremlin administration cited by today’s Vedomosti said that Russia hopes to benefit from the double dividend of not being associated with the “Western” intervention in the Muslim world. Not only will the intervention drive up the price of oil, but it may also increase – relative to the West – Russia’s image in the Arab world. The Arab world appears to now be taking a dimmer view of the intervention too.

Arab League Envoy to UNESCO Nassif Hitti on Monday said that resolving the crisis in Libya is first and foremost a problem for the Arab world, and only secondly a matter to be dealt with by the international community. "I think Libya is an Arab and nationalist duty, before it is an international duty, and as it is a humanitarian duty too," Hitti was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying today. The Arab League had backed a no-fly zone, although it condemned the first round of airstrikes on Saturday. Significantly Hitti is also the League’s envoy in Paris – France led the way with the strikes on Saturday and, as the United States seeks to distance itself from the intervention to forestall comparisons with Iraq, command of the no-fly zone may be deferred to France or the United Kingdom.

As Russia stays off the center stage on Libya, it may well benefit even if its policy appears puzzling, although Medvedev’s apparent clash with Putin over the issue may explain at least some of the incoherence.
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