Russia originally abstained from vetoing the U.N. Security Council resolution allowing operation “Odyssey Dawn” in Libya. Now, however, Moscow is changing its tune: Russia has called for an immediate cease-fire because of the claims of “high civilian casualties.”
In other words, as long as Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi was killing thousands of his own people, it was fine, but now that the Western and Arab air and naval forces are trying to protect the rebels, it is not okay. Strange logic indeed. However, it may be reflecting deeper splits inside Russian leadership and society.
The Russian abstention over Libya has already exerted an unexpected impact on the Russian political scene. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned the resolution, which calls for “an immediate ceasefire in Libya, including an end to the current attacks against civilians,” saying that this resolution is “deficient” and likened it to a “medieval call to crusade”—an almost verbatim quote from Qadhafi himself. This elicited a rare and sharp rebuke from President Dmitry Medvedev, revealing a growing chasm between Putin and his one-time protégé.
Medvedev slammed Putin’s comments as “unacceptable” and reiterated his position on the U.N. resolution: “We have to be absolutely accurate in our assessments. Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations such as crusades and so on.” It appears that the disagreements over the future direction of Russia are becoming more acute the closer it gets to 2012, the presidential election year. The pro-status quo siloviki (“men of force”) faction around Putin is becoming more vocal in its attacks against the more liberal and pro-Western wing, which supports Medvedev.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, currently on his visit to Russia, stepped right into this brouhaha. Gates said that Russian officials repeat Qadhafi’s inflated casualty figures and take them at face value. Gates rejected these assertions as “outright lies.” Regardless, the Russian public is deeply split over the Libyan war.
Russian youth and nationalist groups Nashi (Ours) and Stal’ (Steel) are holding public demonstrations in front of the U.S., French, and British embassies in Moscow to express solidarity with and support of Qadhafi’s regime, apparently against Medvedev’s stated position in support of Western intervention against Qadhafi. It is ironic that Nashi’s “godfather” and founder is Medvedev’s own deputy chief of presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov. In Russian politics, however, the bizarre is often followed by absurd.
But Russia also has an economic motivation to protest Western military involvement in Libya. Qadhafi is one of the most significant arms sales customers of the Russian military-industrial complex. Sergei Chemezov, the head of state industrial holding Russian Technologies, stated that the state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport’s lost income from the situation in Libya amounted to $4 billion.
If the Qadhafi clan is replaced by a pro-Western government, Moscow might lose these sales indefinitely and not recover Libyan debt owed to Russia on weapons already supplied. Thus, bad business breeds hurt feelings.
The author wants to thank Michaela Bendikova, Research Assistant in the Davis Institute, for assistance in preparation of this blog.