Russia Unveils Political Objectives In Libya

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 78

(Getty Images)

Russia’s abstention on the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 helped open the door to Western military action on a limited scale in Libya. The Obama administration led the military action initially, under its rubric of humanitarian intervention and an assumed responsibility to protect. Barring a decisive military intervention, however, the US and its European allies face the possibility of a protracted, “frozen conflict” on African soil.

The administration received Russia’s abstention in the Security Council with relief and gratitude for not blocking the resolution. Washington fell back on kremlinology to interpret Moscow’s decision, crediting it to President Dmitry Medvedev allegedly prevailing over Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on this issue.  However, it is Medvedev who has started throwing spokes into the Western intervention’s wheels (“Moscow Positioning To Exploit Libya Stalemate,” EDM, April 21).

Russia seeks to cast itself as an arbiter of the situation and interpreter of the UN resolution. Watching NATO’s discomfiture over Libya with barely hidden satisfaction, Moscow almost certainly calculates that Western belligerents will either bog down in a protracted stalemate, or alternatively escalate their military operations for a decisive outcome. Military escalation would (not only in Russia’s view) again require UN Security Council authorization. This would in turn enable Moscow to seek trade-offs with the United States and NATO on issues unrelated to Libya, but of priority interest to Russia.

The European Union looks as hesitant in its own sphere of competencies as NATO in its own. France and Britain are acting in their national capacities on Libya, without reference to EU common policies (and only in a nominal NATO framework). In early April, the European Council (EU’s top decision-making authority) agreed in principle to send EU-flagged troops to Libya. Their mission would involve escorting internal refugees to safety and protecting humanitarian aid cargoes sent by international organizations to Libya. On April 19, however, the EU announced that it would only proceed if the United Nations requests such action. The EU is prepared to deploy a maximum of 1,000 troops for a humanitarian mission along those lines (press release, April 19).

Moscow would undoubtedly welcome a stalemate of indefinite duration in Libya. The Western belligerents, after serial misjudgments, need a speedy solution to vindicate a humanitarian mission, economize their scarce military resources, trigger regime-change, and re-start Libya’s oil and gas production as fast as possible. Russia, however, can exploit a situation in which neither side wins or loses, the US and NATO need Moscow’s cooperation for a face-saving solution, and Russia profits from higher energy prices in Europe while Libyan production dries up (Andrew McGregor, “It Didn’t Start This Way, but It’s a War for Oil Now,” The Jamestown Foundation, April 18).

To ensure a stalemate, Russia has clearly indicated that it would block UN Security Council authorization for offensive operations on the ground, or assistance to insurgents. But Russia is also undoubtedly prepared to consider facilitating a political solution, if linked with Russian interests. Moscow carefully avoids any appearance of acting unilaterally in this process. It constantly invokes the UN Security Council’s collective authority (holding the threat of a unilateral veto in the background) and acts in consultation with the five BRICS countries. Four of these abstained on the Security Council’s resolution 1973, as did Russia; and all five BRICS support a local, rather than Western-driven, solution in Libya.

Based on statements by Medvedev, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, and other officials (“Moscow Positioning to Exploit Libya Stalemate,” EDM, April 21), Russian objectives at this stage in the Libya conflict can be summed up as follows:

1.  An early ceasefire in place, to be followed by mediated negotiations between Muammar Gaddafi’s government and the insurgents. Russia opposes regime change in Tripoli, but seems noncommittal on two key issues: Gaddafi’s personal departure from power and Libya’s territorial unity. With or without Gaddafi, an early ceasefire in place would result in dividing Libya de facto into eastern and western territories, pending an uncertain outcome of negotiations between Tripoli and Benghazi.

2.  Adherence to the UN Security Council’s existing mandate, which is limited to enforcement of a no-fly zone. Russia tolerates US/NATO air strikes in support of the outgunned insurgents, but opposes any ground operations, or arms supplies and training, to the same insurgents. Such prohibitions ensure the military superiority of pro-government forces, while the air strikes merely help the insurgents to fight defensively. Thus, Russian policy favors an inconclusive, open-ended civil conflict in Libya.

3.  No legitimate US/NATO actions without the UN Security Council’s, i.e. Russia’s, consent. Russia wants the Security Council to evaluate NATO’s compliance with the relevant resolutions on Libya. Such deference to the United Nations (instrumental in Moscow, ideological in the Obama administration) can open a way for Russia to affect NATO policy decisions through its role in the UN Security Council.

4. A halt on Libyan oil and gas supplies to the European continent. Russia gains from the unexpected interruption of those supplies and is interested in a prolonged halt. This has become, tacitly but indubitably, a Russian objective in the Libya crisis. Thanks to this conflict, Russia free-rides on higher prices for its oil and gas; it  can increase its market share in Italy, Austria, Germany, and potentially other European countries; and gains more lobbying power for Russian energy projects that increase European dependence on Russian supplies.

Beyond the objectives linked directly with this conflict, Moscow has a broader interest in seeing the US and NATO tied down in wars of choice and other protracted confrontations. These increase Russia’s leeway for action in ex-Soviet territories, Russia’s top priority. Moscow must welcome the disproportionate allocation of Western resources to expeditionary wars from shrinking defense budgets in NATO Europe, where lack of military investment stands in contrast with Russia’s ambitious military modernization program.