Russia and Libya: What’s Going On?

Dmitry Gorenburg has an excellent post up on his Russian Military Reform blog exploring the why behind Russia’s decision not to veto UN Security Council Resolution 1973. As Gorenburg notes, this was not a foregone conclusion:

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.

Russia’s position on Libya, however, immediately got entangled with Russian domestic politics. Following Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s observation that the resolution represented a medieval call to crusades:

The response from President Dmitry 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 that “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…. 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.

Despite the publicity the public conflict between Putin and Medvedev has received (at least among Russia watchers), Gorenburg argues 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….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.

Readers can find the full post here.

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.