Middle East miscalculated

I am still baffled: Why did the Kremlin commit such a gross error of judgement that led to such a visible humiliation? From the moment Russia chose not to veto the United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 that effectively allowed NATO military action in Libya, Moammar Gaddafi’s game was up. He had the world’s most powerful military alliance against him and hardly any support even among fellow Arabs. Moreover, Jordan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates supported militarily the allied operation in the Libyan skies. I think Moscow could have even supported the resolution and sent a symbolic frigate or two to Libyan shores, thus securing a place of honor among future winners. Still abstention gave Russia a free hand to adjust its attitude later. And of course it was quite clear from the beginning that resolution 1973 gave a green light to the allies to root out the Gaddafi regime. No other outcome would have satisfied them.

But instead of being consistent and keeping a distance, Moscow nearly immediately rushed to condemn the NATO-led operation and, implicitly, support Gaddafi. It soon found itself in a particularly bad position: The Libyan dictator did not trust Russia after the United Nations abstention; the rebels felt it was working against them. President Dmitry Medvedev’s special representative Mikhail Margelov flew to have talks with the Transitional National Council in Benghazi in June. Sadly, the Russian leadership did not follow his promising mission with any concrete steps. Moscow had to recognize the rebels as Libya’s legitimate government when it was too late.

So why did Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and their foreign policy advisors miscalculate? I personally think the roots of this mistake lie in Russia’s internal situation and mentality. Post-Cold War humiliations, some real and some perceived, created an ideology based on anti-Western attitudes, as well as denial that values and ideas, as opposed to naked interest, play any role in international relations. For values read “Western values.” Moscow decisionmakers and the Russian public view global politics as a zero sum game, where someone’s gain is always someone else’s loss. It is the consequence of Russia’s peculiar and tortuous post-Communist transition. The country is neither here nor there, neither a Soviet empire nor a global superpower. And it is not yet a fully fledged nation state. This makes the Russians uncertain and defensive. They worship sovereignty, understood as a sort of pre-World War I right of governments to do whatever they want within their national boundaries, because they saw their own country, the Soviet Union, disappear overnight. They are unable and unwilling to accept such concepts as “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect,” which underpinned the intervention in Libya. This leads to a recurring situation in which Russia finds itself on the wrong side of history trying to bail out dictators long past their expiration date. This happened with Slobodan Milosevic, the deposed Yugoslav leader; Iraq strongman Saddam Hussein; and Gaddafi. One wonders if it will occur with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Global politics today are an interplay of interests and values, opportunism and idealism. Missing this very real point leads the Russians to believe that any event over which they have no control, such as the Arab revolutions, is by default a sinister conspiracy, usually a Western one involving oil. This belief is by no means an exclusively Russian phenomenon. But among the G-8 nations, it is only in Russia that such attitudes are as widely spread among politicians and top civil servants. It might take quite some time for my people to start adapting to the 21st century reality. It is in the power of the Russian leaders to speed up the process and finally get real.

Konstantin von Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia’s first 24-hour news station. He was a diplomatic correspondent for Izvestia and later BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau editor-in-chief. He was also once vice president of ExxonMobil Russia. 

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