Russians Have Second Thoughts on Libya

Russia is different. The Americans, the British, the French by and large approve of their forces’ Libya bombing spree (yes, some doubt whether it’s good value for their tax money). The Russians are flatly against it, without ifs and buts. The Russian Ambassador in Tripoli Vladimir Chamov came back to hero welcome in Moscow. President Dmitri Medvedev dismissed him publicly after the Ambassador had sent him a cable. In the five-points cable leaked to the press, the Ambassador called Medvedev’s response to Libya crisis “betrayal of Russian national interests”.  (Later, the two sides climbed down a bit: the Foreign Office said Chamov was not “fired”, just “called back” from Tripoli, and that he retains his ambassadorial rank and salary, while Chamov denies he used the word “betrayal”.)

The Russians do not like the Western intervention in Libya. The rebels do not appear genuine, note the Russian internet critics; they are a peculiar, mixed bag of Kaddafi’s ministers fired for corruption, al-Qaeda mujahedeen,  riff-raff beefed up by SAS soldiers and supported by these best friends of every Arab, American cruise missiles. The Russian media discovered that the first reports of massive civil casualties inflicted by ruthless Kaddafi appears to have been invented by editors in London and Paris. More civilians were killed by the Western intervention than by the rebels. The mass-readership Komsomolskaya Pravda published reports from Russians in Libya that flatly disproved claims of Kaddafi’s planes bombing residential quarters: this was done by the French and British bombers.

The Russians tend to a conspiratorial view of politics. They presume that the Arab risings were organised by  enemies familiar to Russians: some “orange” Western forces, NED, CIA, Mossad, you name it, in order to create chaos, Iraq-style. They quote Israeli and American doctrines for promotion of “constructive chaos”. And then they support Kaddafi, or even feel sympathy for Mubarak. This is especially true for patriotic Russians who remember that Kaddafi stood by Russia in 2008 during the Georgia conflict, and for the business community who were involved in many projects in Libya from gas to railways.

President Dmitri Medvedev has a good reason to regret the haste he joined in the Western media onslaught, for he will be blamed for what already looks to Russians as Kosovo-2. Probably he was misled by his media advisers who suggested he should jump on the internationally-acceptable media bandwagon of “stop the massacre in Libya”; and he jumped. The first reports of the alleged massacre were still reverberating when Medvedev warned Kaddafi off “crimes against humanity”, and later on he added that Kaddafi is a persona non grata in Russia. Medvedev supported the decision to pass Libya’s case to ICC; though by that time he could have learned from the Russians in Libya that nothing all that extraordinary took place in the country; that is nothing beyond a small-scale rising on the way to being put down. It could be compared to the Los Angeles riots of 1965  (threescore dead and thousands wounded) or of 1992 (fifty dead and thousands wounded), but the LA blacks had no Tomahawks for aerial support.

Medvedev is also perceived as the man who ordered his Ambassador in the Security Council to abstain. Russia and China usually vote in agreement if they intend to go against the will of the world sheriff – ever since the fateful Zimbabwe vote in 2008 when Russia activated its veto for the first time since God-knows-when and stopped the West-proposed sanctions against the African nation.  Then, the BBC reported, the UK foreign secretary David Miliband said Russia used its veto despite a promise by President Medvedev to support the resolution. This time, apparently, Medvedev prevailed and acquiesced in what looks now as another Suez campaign (if you still remember 1956, when the Brits and the French had tried to liberate Egypt from the Hitler-du-jour, Gamal Abdel Nasser and keep the Canal for themselves).

A few days later, the strongman of Russia Vladimir Putin roundly criticised Medvedev’s step. He called the Western intervention, “a new crusade”, and proposed the Western leaders should “pray for their souls and ask the Lord’s forgiveness” for the blood shed. People loved it. Medvedev tried to fight back  by a meaningless riposte of “don’t you speak of crusades”, but even he could not find anything positive about the NATO campaign in Libya.

Now as always, the Russians’ gut reaction is against any Western intervention. They were against American interventions in Vietnam and Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan, against British and French colonial wars. The Russians do not believe that the reasons for the Western intervention have anything to do with love of democracy, human rights or the value of human life.  For them, a rose is a rose is a rose, a Western intervention is a Western intervention, one of many on which they have been on the receiving end.

However, Medvedev did not let the Western intervention march on for the purely sentimental reasons of “supporting Europe”. The idea is, better let NATO be occupied in the South than in the East. Libya is much less important for Russians than Georgia, Ukraine or even Afghanistan. If this beast has to eat somebody, let it better be somebody in the Maghreb, where the Russians never had strong positions anyway. A WPR writer called this turn a “Tilsit moment” for NATO: acknowledging immutability of the West’s Eastern borders in exchange for free hands in the Southern flank. That is why Poland was unhappy with the Odyssey Dawn operation: instead of being frontline of the most important confrontation, this southern switch left the Poles in a geopolitical cul-de-sac of.

Indeed we should not be captivated by the East vs. West thinking. As the US slowly declines, the European powers begin to reassess their role. The Libya war is a French enterprise. It was started by Sarkozy as an attempt to rebuild the French Empire in North Africa fifty years after the Evian treaty ostensibly sealed its fate. This was an old idea of the French president. He called for the  establishment of a Mediterranean Union during his election campaign. The MU project was supported by the Israelis. Turkey strongly opposed the MU and now the Turks oppose the intervention in their subtle way. Italy supported the MU and predictably supported the intervention. Germany was against the MU and it is against the intervention. From this point of view, the intervention in Libya is the beginning of a new wave of European colonization of the Maghreb.

A Russian observer noticed an uncanny resemblance of this operation to one that occurred a century ago in Libya during the previous wave of colonisation. Then, a recently united and aggressive Italy in search of an empire decided to seize Libya, an Ottoman province. Then as now, the newspapers wrote of freedom-loving Libyans suffering under the Ottoman heel and of the Italians’ moral duty to liberate them. The Turks were in a bad shape and they tried to find a face-saving way to surrender. They proposed to hand Libya over to the Italians for management and colonization, provided suzerainty  remained with the Sublime Porte. The Italians refused, and their Dawn Odyssey began. The Turks fought valiantly, and among them a young officer proved his valour: that was Mustafa Kemal, later nicknamed Ataturk.  A lone voice against intervention was that of young Italian socialist Benito Mussolini. Italians’ Libya campaign was the first ever air bombing, exactly one hundred years ago in 1911, and history preserved the name of the first bomber Flt Lt Giulio Gavotti who was the first man ever to perform a bomb run.

Modern Russia is not the USSR; it has few world-wide ambitions. It is worried about its own part of the world, and is not keen to get involved elsewhere. For the Russians, the Europe’s drive south is not a threat, rather a resumption of France’s regional role. That is why the Russians abstained at the UN Security Council.

President Kaddafi succeeded in annoying a lot of people in a lot of places. He annoyed both the French and the Russians by striking deals and then not sticking to them. Wikileaks cables refer to that many times, notably in 10PARIS151 saying: “the French are growing increasingly frustrated with the Libyans’ failure to deliver on promises regarding visas, professional exchanges, French language education, and commercial deals. “”We (and the Libyans) speak a lot, but we’ve begun to see that actions do not follow words in Libya.” He annoyed the Saudis and worse, he annoyed his own people.

We are certainly against the intervention; but the case of supporting Kaddafi is not all that clear-cut. Muammar Kaddafi was/is a dual figure: on one hand, he was an autochthonous leader who provided his countrymen with the highest standard of living  in Africa; with generous subsidies, free medical care and education. He supported the vision of one state in Palestine/Israel and befriended Castro and Chavez. On the other hand, for the last five years Kaddafi and his clique have been busy dismantling the Libyan welfare state, privatizing and cannibalizing their health and education systems, hoarding wealth, dealing with transnational oil and gas companies for personal gain. “New Kaddafi” took away a lot of social achievements and he did not give his people elementary political freedoms. His support of One State in Palestine dried up in 2002, a long time ago.

My friends in Tripoli do not support Kaddafi. They are certainly against western intervention, but they dislike the old colonel for his dictatorial habits. They are grown-ups, they want to be involved in  decision-making, they do not like corruption, they also want a bigger role for Islam. In their eyes, Kaddafi kept his anti-imperialist rhetoric for public use, but his praxis has been Western and neo-liberal. It is fine that Kaddafi teased the Saudi royals and taunted  western leaders; but at the same time he gave away Libyan wealth to  foreigners. So while certainly standing against the intervention, we should not forget that not all anti-Kaddafi forces are Western stooges or al-Qaeda fighters.

Politics do not  offer a bed to on which to recline amid the triumphs of the past. With all due respect to Muammar Kaddafi and his past achievements, he overstayed his prime time. There are reasons for the unlikely hope that he will survive the storm if only to defeat the forces of foreign  ntervention. But that should be a departure point for democracy in Libya, not necessarily a democracy-European style, but a better way for Libyans to participate in forging their lives.

ISRAEL SHAMIR can be reached at









Israel Shamir can be reached on adam@israelshamir