Moscow's policy change on foreign intervention has a bearing on domestic politics.

The endgame in Libya has re-ignited a debate in Russia on its policy in the conflict that may have a bearing on the presidential election next year.

Russia backed United Nations sanctions against Qadhafi under Security Council Resolution 1970 and abstained on Resolution 1973, which authorised the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilian population. Moscow however strongly criticised NATO's military intervention on the side of Libyan rebels and accused the alliance of overstepping the U.N. mandate. Russia urged a ceasefire and peace talks between the Qadhafi government and the rebels. But on September 1 Moscow suddenly recognised the National Transitional Council (NTC) even as the forces of Muammar Qadhafi were still battling the rebels. The Kremlin sent a high-level envoy to the Paris conference of “Friends of Libya” and invited NTC leaders to visit Moscow.

Explaining its decision to abstain in the Security Council vote on Resolution 1973 Moscow said it could not support the resolution because of its moot language about foreign military intervention in Libya. It did not use its veto right either because it saw the urgent need for action to prevent carnage if Qadhafi forces overran rebel-held Benghazi.

The Russian stance appears to indicate a significant shift away from opposition to foreign interference in internal affairs of a sovereign state. The only time that Moscow sanctioned military intervention was 20 years ago when Iraq occupied Kuwait. That was a time when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev believed in “universal values” that should put the Soviet Union in the same camp with the “civilised” West. However, in Yugoslavia and Iraq Russia came out against military action, and in 2008 Russia used its veto to block a U.N. resolution imposing sanctions on Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe over controversial presidential elections.

In Libya Russia for the first time appeared to subscribe to the concept of humanitarian intervention that it staunchly opposed in the past. President Dmitry Medvedev justified Russia's refusal to veto Resolution 1973 by referring to the “abhorrent behaviour” of the Qadhafi regime, which “committed crimes against its own people.” Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian State Duma parliament Konstantin Kosachyov further clarified that Russia supported foreign intervention in Libya “strictly on humanitarian grounds in order to save human lives.”

Generally speaking, the Russian policy may be best described in terms of realpolitik. The Kremlin figured that had no reason to stand by Qadhafi when the Arab League turned against him. If Russia had vetoed Resolution 1973 it would have been blamed for the death of civilians at the hands of the Qadhafi regime. It would have most likely ruined the “reset” with the U.S. and spoiled relations with France, which has recently emerged as a source of key defence technologies for Russia. The Libya vote gave greater credibility to the BRIC group, which acted in sync in the Security Council. South Africa later joined the “coalition of the opposed” in criticising the Western military campaign in Libya.

Russia's neutrality may yet help Moscow salvage at least some of its $10-billion commercial deals in oil-and-gas rich Libya. The Kremlin said it expected an NTC delegation to visit Russia for economic talks in coming weeks.

Approach on Syria

In case of Syria, where the stakes for Russia are much higher, it took a different, if also nuanced approach. In the absence of a regional consensus on international action on Syria Moscow has firmly set it foot against foreign interference in that country, blocked Western moves in the Security Council to impose sanctions against Damascus and opposed the West's calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Syria is Russia's long-time ally and an important market for its weapons. Russia fears catastrophic destabilisation in West Asia in the event of regime change in Syria, which sits in the very heart of the Arab world.

Significantly, the BRICS solidarity on Libya has carried over to Syria. Last week Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the BRICS countries were determined to prevent the Libya scenario for Syria and shared the view that any reconciliation in Libya must involve all sides in the conflict.

At the same time, on Syria Moscow shows the same kind of flexibility it displayed on Libya. Mr. Medvedev last month made it clear that Russia's support for the Syrian leader was not open-ended and was conditional on his pursuance of political reforms and talks with the opposition. Moscow backed a Security Council statement adopted in early August that condemned “the widespread violations of human rights” in Syria. Simultaneously Russia opened contacts with Syrian opposition. Last week its leaders paid a second visit to Moscow.

While the Kremlin's overall policy in the “Arab spring” appears to be a consensus strategy, serious differences surfaced in the Russian political establishment on tactical issues.

Mr. Medvedev had to overcome strong opposition in the Russian Foreign Ministry over Resolution 1973, which Russian diplomats considered to be deeply flawed. On the day the resolution was put to the vote Mr. Medvedev demonstratively sacked Russian Ambassador to Libya Vladimir Chamov, who allegedly called for using veto. A little later he sacked Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov who had been in charge of West Asia and Africa for nearly 10 years.

Foreign Minister Mr. Lavrov said Russian diplomats had tried to modify Resolution 1973 which not only called for a no-fly zone but also authorised member-states “to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.”

“It is loose wording open to any amount of legal interpretations,” Mr. Lavrov admitted.

The former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, suggested Moscow could have handled the Security Council vote better. “We could have taken advantage of the West's impatience [to get Resolution 1973 approved] in order to strike down certain provisions that were later interpreted as allegedly authorising a free-for-all against Qadhafi,” Mr. Primakov said in an interview even as he agreed Russia was right in not vetoing the resolution.

Russia's powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sided with critics of the U.S.-backed resolution denouncing it as a “deficient” document that reminded him of “medieval calls for crusades” as it “allows anyone to take any action against a sovereign state.”

Trying to deflect criticism Mr. Medvedev argued rather unconvincingly that the West had deceived him. He said Russia would have vetoed Resolution 1973 if he knew what the West was up to. “If my [Western] colleagues had told me ‘you at least abstain and we are going to bomb [Libya]', I would have issued different instructions to our U.N. envoy,” Mr. Medvedev said in an interview.

The Kremlin's policy on Libya won surprisingly few cheers in Russia and came under fierce attacks by both nationalists and pro-Western liberals. Nationalists accused the Kremlin of betraying Russia's interests and traditional allies by allowing the anti-Qadhafi U.N. resolutions to pass, whereas liberals blasted the Russian leadership for failing to join the Western coalition.

Alarming opinion

An opinion poll carried out by the respected Levada Centre in April, a month after the start of the NATO bombing campaign, showed that Russians were overwhelmingly opposed to Western interference in Libya. Sixty-two per cent said Resolution 1973 was bad because it sanctioned aggression against a sovereign country. Four in five Russians said the international community should not resort to aerial bombardments to topple dictatorships and promote democracy. The results of the poll seriously alarmed the Kremlin: there have been no similar surveys since April.

The Libya debate gains special significance in the context of presidential elections due in Russia in seven months. When then President Mr. Putin promoted Mr. Medvedev as his successor in 2008 they both said that in four years' time they would jointly decide who of them would run next time based on their respective records. Whatever successes Mr. Medvedev can claim for his presidency will have to be mostly in foreign policy as it is one of the few areas where he has enjoyed relative autonomy under the power sharing arrangement with Mr. Putin. Mr. Medvedev's main foreign policy achievement, the “reset” with the U.S., is yet to bring Russia visible dividends. It is doubtful that Libya has earned Mr. Medvedev many points either. In its April poll the Levada Centre asked Russians whose position they liked better: that of Mr. Medvedev, who condemned Qadhafi's actions and supported the Security Council resolution, or that of Mr. Putin, who denounced the resolution and the NATO bombing raids. Mr. Putin won the vote 53 to 13. Now that Russia's fence-sitting allowed the West to topple the Qadhafi regime, Russian public opinion has probably tilted further in Mr. Putin's favour, but no pollster has dared to ask this question again.

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