Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 150

Those who have argued that Russian diplomacy under President Vladimir Putin is moving purposefully to rebuild ties between Moscow and the so-called “rogue” states could point to new evidence this week: a high-profile visit to Moscow by Libyan foreign minister Abdel Rahman Shalgam and an accompanying Kremlin announcement that Putin has accepted an invitation to visit Tripoli. Shalgam, whose official title is secretary of the General Committee for External Affairs and International Cooperation, completed a two-day visit to Moscow yesterday during which he met not only with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, but also with both Putin and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov. The Shalgam-Klebanov talks highlighted the fact that military-technical cooperation was high on the agenda during this week’s discussions, although reports suggested that Tripoli is interested at this point in upgrading its existing arsenal rather than in buying new hardware.

Shalgam’s meeting with Putin was important because it demonstrated the high priority Moscow is attaching to rebuilding ties with Tripoli. Indeed, in addition to agreeing to visit Libya, Putin also made it clear that Moscow will lobby internationally for the full removal of the sanctions imposed on Tripoli by the UN following the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Scotland. The UN suspended–but did not lift–the sanctions last year when Libya finally delivered suspects in the bombing over to the Netherlands for a trial. But the United States has refused to unfreeze its own relations with Libya, arguing that Tripoli remains a sponsor of terrorism. The Russian embrace of Libya, therefore, is unlikely to be greeted with much enthusiasm in Washington.

Indeed, the Clinton administration was hard pressed to put a good face on the Russian actions. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker declined to say whether the United States would approve of a visit by Putin to Libya. If Putin does go, however, the United States would expect him to press U.S. demands on the Libyans, Reeker added. “We would expect the Russians to encourage full Libyan compliance with relevant UN Security Council resolutions and to encourage full Libyan cooperation with the Pan Am 103 trial, as well as an end to Libyan support for international terrorism and acknowledgment of responsibility for the actions of Libyan officials and payment of appropriate compensation,” he was quoted as saying.

But such concerns seem unlikely to impress Moscow. In fact, Russia’s foreign minister said after his talks with Shalgam that the two countries had themselves agreed jointly to “condemn international terrorism and other forms of extremism.” That statement suggested just how little Moscow’s self-proclaimed enlistment in the battle against international terrorism (voiced primarily to blunt criticism of Russia’s bloody war in the Caucasus) really has in common with Western efforts in this same area. That Moscow is unlikely to be a willing conveyer of U.S. concerns to Tripoli was also suggested by the more general way in which Russian and Libyan officials hailed the reestablishment of friendly relations between their two countries, and by related assertions that Moscow and Tripoli see eye to eye on many key international issues–including, apparently, the desirability of lifting sanctions on Iraq (Reuters, AP, UPI, Russian agencies, July 31; AFP, August 1).

Against this background, Reeker’s remarks regarding Washington’s view of a possible visit by Putin to Libya sounded remarkably like those he had voiced during a visit to Moscow by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz only days before (see the Monitor, July 31). Washington objected to that visit also, but Reeker said that the Clinton administration hoped the Russians would at least make it clear to leaders in Baghdad that they must comply with UN Security Council resolution calling for a resumption of weapons inspections in Iraq. In both cases the United States appeared to be on the outside looking in, and to be acting out of frustration at circumstances no longer fully under Washington’s control. Indeed, much the same could also be said about Washington’s reaction to Putin’s talks last month in North Korea. That visit too was aimed at circumventing the United States and carving out a new diplomatic role for Moscow.

That the Kremlin is actively pursuing a strategy of embracing so-called “rogue” states, and that this strategy might be a risky one, was suggested in a report broadcast by NTV on July 31. The report observed that one of Putin’s first acts as president was to lift restrictions on nuclear cooperation with Iran. The Russian leader went on, the report noted, to allow a visit to Moscow by Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic. He is an indicted war criminal and a man whom the Kremlin was obliged to arrest. Moscow followed those actions with the more recent overtures to North Korea, Iraq (even as reports surfaced that Washington was pushing for a war crimes indictment against Aziz and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein) and now Libya. As NTV noted, “Russia wants its debts written off, membership in the World Trade Organization, foreign investment and access to the U.S. steel market” even as it engages regimes that are, or have recently been, pariahs to the Western world. NTV asks whether “the advantages accrued” by building friendships with such countries “will outweigh the possible loss of integration into the world economy and full membership of the G-7.” The Kremlin appears to be hoping, the NTV report suggests, that the apparent contradictions in Russian policy can be managed, and diplomatic reversals avoided, if Putin simply continues using the rhetoric of Russian-Western cooperation and telling U.S. and European leaders the sorts of things they want to hear at such international forums as the recently concluded G-7 summit in Japan (NTV, July 31).