Russia’s U-Turn

Russia went to the Group of Eight (G-8) summit meeting at Deauville as an inveterate critic of the “unilateralist” Western intervention in Libya, but came away from the seaside French resort as a mediator between the West and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.  The United States scored a big diplomatic victory in getting Moscow to work for regime change in Libya.

No sooner than he got back to Moscow, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered his special envoy to Africa Mikhail Margelov to travel to Libya “in the nearest time”.  Margelov is liked in the West and by Libyan rebels.  He admitted, “Gaddafi’s future is the ‘most delicate topic’.”

The Western version is that in the middle of the G-8 summit, Medvedev suddenly declared that “Gaddafi has forfeited legitimacy” and Russia plans to “help him go”.  But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted: “It wasn’t a Russian initiative.  It was a request, an appeal from President Sarkozy, from President [Barack] Obama, from other participants.”

The Kremlin is obviously eager to inject a fresh lease of bonhomie into Russia’s “reset” with the US.  Medvedev’s meeting with Obama at Deauville failed to resolve the differences over deployment of a missile defense system in Europe.  The Kremlin is uneasy that the West is coolly ignoring Russian protestations about the intervention in Libya and a growing discord with the US is the last thing Medvedev wants.

However, Russia’s u-turn displeases China.  Beijing feels that Moscow led it up the garden path and left it alone.  Russia virtually dumped the “joint cooperation” project on the Middle East and North Africa that Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi worked out at their meeting in Moscow last month as a new dimension to Sino-Russian strategic partnership.

A Moscow-datelined commentary by Xinhua displays genuine irritation.  It begins with a wry remark that Russia “strikingly joined the Western powers” in urging Gaddafi’s exit.  It adds, “Experts and analysts believe Russia made the move to protect its own interests in Libya and have a stake in the country’s future.  Yet they remain skeptical over whether Russia could help make a difference in the Middle East country.”

The commentary analyses that Russia was all along fence-sitter wagering which side in the Libyan internal conflict would ultimately prevail and, therefore, it criticized both the West and Gaddafi.  But Moscow could lately see that the NATO was determined to have Gaddafi ousted and that realization “might have helped Russia make up its mind” to tag along with the West.

Xinhua said there were weighty considerations behind this opportunism:

Moreover, seeking to protect its interests and stay relevant in the post-conflict Libya is perhaps another key reason.  Russia sees Libya as an important partner in the region, having poured billions of US dollars of investment in Libya in sectors like oil exploration, railway construction and arms sales.  Already, a chaotic Libya is crippling Russia’s investment there. . . .

As NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] air raids are gaining further momentum, it’s only natural for Russia to start considering its own role as it cannot afford to stay out of the picture.

Additionally, some of the Western nations’ promises and offers at the G-8 summit also prompted Russia to make the turn.  At the summit, the Western countries pledged to facilitate Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization by the end of this year while, ahead of the summit, France and Russia reached a deal under which Paris would sell four Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Moscow.

Xinhua expressed doubt, however, whether Russia would meet with success in its newfound role, since “Moscow has limited influence in Libya . . . [and] Gaddafi’s departure from power is still distant.”

Significantly, the People’s Daily featured a separate article highlighting that China has all along pursued a highly principled policy toward the countries of the Middle East and North Africa.  The implied comparison with Russia’s unpredictable course is obvious.  The commentary underlined a great consistency in China’s Middle East policies in regard of its observance of the “basic norms of mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs when it comes to international relations . . . Regarding the violent conflicts in certain countries, China calls on all related parties to settle differences through dialogues and negotiations and to avoid violence”.  The People’s Daily explained:

China has forged an image of a trustworthy and responsible country by adhering to its principles and showing flexibility when dealing with various problems according to the actual situations in international forums such as the United Nations.  Based on the principles of respecting national sovereignty and non-interference in others’ internal affairs, China did not vote in favor of the UN Security Council’s resolution for establishing a no-fly zone in Libya.

However, it did not cast a dissenting vote either based on the purpose of protecting civilians and the positions of various parties, such as the League of Arab States and the African Union . . .  Meanwhile, China also opposed interference in the internal affairs and the sanctions approved by the UN Security Council and by other international institutions, which have made the problem more complicated.

The article asserts that “China’s peaceful foreign policy has paid off” in the Middle East.  China seems to anticipate that Russia’s image would take a beating over Libya, and seems to distance itself from negative fallouts.

A credibility problem is bound to arise in the Chinese mind.  China has brought its position much closer to Russia’s over the developments in Middle East, even suggesting it would block any Western-sponsored moves against Damascus in the United Nations Security Council.  China will need to rethink how it responds if the Libyan issue comes up again in the United Nations Security Council.  There can be fallouts on other areas such as the Afghan problem.  At Deauville, Obama “gave Russia”, as Time magazine put it, a US$400 million contract for the supply of helicopters to Afghanistan.

The deal has been wrapped up when hardly a fortnight remains for the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at Astana, where Afghanistan tops the agenda.  On the other hand, a country acting in its self-interests in any given situation — that is not something that shocks Chinese sensitivities.  Besides, Libya is not a major template in the Sino-Russian strategic partnership.

On Thursday, it became clear that a major gas deal between the two countries is going to be signed on June 10.  After holding talks with the visiting Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan in Moscow, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said, “We are expecting that we will sign the range of contracts during the visit of the Chinese president to Russia.”

Russia has in recent years sought to align itself more closely with China as it seeks to unlock new energy markets in Asia.  Thus, on final reckoning, Libya is a blip in Beijing’s ties with Moscow, compared to the prospect of 70 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas sent to China annually.

What counts, therefore, is not so much that China has lost heavily due to Russia’s change of course on Libya as that Obama has gained significantly.  Medvedev’s call for Gaddafi to go has more than symbolic value for Obama.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operation has so far failed to remove Gaddafi from power and he seems determined to dig in.  The protracted operation poses difficulties for the West financially and politically and if Moscow could persuade Gaddafi to throw in the towel, it will be wonderful denouement for Obama.  On the other hand, if Russia fails in his “mediatory services”, the enterprise won’t look as Obama’s folly, either.

Second, Russia’s hitherto angry reaction to the NATO intervention in Libya blocked any scope for the West to get a UN Security Council mandate for regime change in Tripoli.  Obama can now expect smooth sailing for any move seeking UN Security Council legitimacy for a successor regime in Tripoli.  A Russian veto can be ruled out.

Also, Russia’s volte-face over Libya has implications for Obama’s strategy toward Syria, Russia’s remaining Middle Eastern ally.  The US is relentlessly seeking regime change in Syria and, once again, Russia stands in the way.  But, for how long?

Russian rhetoric continues to be strong on Syria.  “Attempts to change the regime in Syria by using force should be curbed,” Lavrov advised NATO on Thursday.  But Damascus wouldn’t be easily convinced.  And that works to the US’s advantage.

On a broader plane, the message is going out that Obama’s “reset” policy is slowly but steadily turning Russia from being an obstructionist power to a collaborator.  Countries raging from Iran to Ukraine and Kazakhstan to Tajikistan would take note.  The Russian turnaround on Libya shows that the US-Russia discourse is becoming distinctly conciliatory.

Obama’s policy of “selective cooperation” toward Russia stands vindicated.  Russia has given excellent cooperation over Iran and Afghanistan — and now on Libya.  The “reset” seems a success story for the Obama administration’s foreign policy — second only to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.  His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, and Turkey.  This article was first published in Asia Times on 4 June 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.  Cf. “Russia against UN Resolution on Syria” (Voice of Russia, 6 June 2011); “France Ready to Seek UN Syria Vote despite Russia” (Reuters, 6 June 2011); “On June 4 China made its first confirmed contact with the Libyan rebels. The meeting was held in Qatar between a Chinese diplomat and the leader of the rebel National Transitional Council. . . .  China now seem to have followed the Russian lead as in the space of a few days, it has increased its contact with the rebels, announcing on Monday that that its diplomats have visited the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi and held talks with the rebel National Transitional Council” (Anissa Haddadi, “Is China Looking for a Profit by Dealing with the Libyan Rebels?” International Business Times, 7 June 2011).

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