The Soviet Union vetoed.
Is Russia’s U.N. vote on Libya part of a wider, post-Imperial foreign policy in the Kremlin?
That is the question Moscow is debating as Russians watch from the sidelines as needle-nosed Western jets bomb military targets in Libya, once a Soviet ally.
Diplomats schooled in Soviet ways would have expected Russia last week to veto the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against the military of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Instead, Russia abstained.
Clearly, Russia’s leadership did not want to throw the new relationship with Washington under the bus for Libya.
“This change is another step away from the Kremlin’s inflated self-image as a guardian of the global order,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote Monday in The Moscow Times. “Russia is still wedded to ‘realipolitik’ as its guide in foreign policy, but this is now becoming post-imperial.”
A bit like British politicians harrumphing their way through the 1960s, imperial nostalgia has lasting appeal in Moscow.
Prime Minister Putin, once a KGB agent stationed in East Germany, stepped up to play the old Soviet role of “Mr. Nyet.” Answering the unspoken desire of many Russians – “Let Putin be Putin” – the Russian leader lambasted U.S., British and French attacks in Libya as a “medieval crusade.” At the same time, Putin youth, the Nashi and Stal groups, picketed the U.S., U.K. and French embassies in Moscow.
In response, President Medvedev donned a brown leather bomber jacket, embossed “Commander in Chief.” Talking to his press pool, he warned about “unacceptable” comments that could lead to a “clash of civilizations.”
Then, in the worst possible timing, the U.S. secretary of defense, Robert Gates, came to town for a long planned visit. Kremlin choreographers had a chore figuring out how to handle this inconvenient guest.
Russia’s defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, was chosen to be the fall guy to give the televised lecture to Gates calling for a ceasefire, a call that everyone knew would be ignored.
Tuesday night, state-controlled television led the news with lengthy reports on Mr. Putin’s trip to Slovenia. About 15 minutes into the programs, viewers learned that, oh, yes, the most powerful military man in the world was in Moscow today. Not allowed to open his mouth on Russian TV, Mr. Gates was largely seen patiently sitting through lectures by President Medvedev and the Defense Minister.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russian in the journal Global Affairs, gave me a different take on Mr. Putin’s “crusade” comment. Noting that it was made while he was visiting an intercontinental ballistic missile factory, he said that a hidden motive may have been to bolster internal support for Russia’s new military spending program.
Over the next decade, Russia is to spend $750 billion to rearm its military. For Russia, the geostrategic insecurity that dare not speak its name is spelled C-h-i-n-a.
So instead of Beijing, Moscow may be using phantom foreign threats to justify its investments in arms.
Last month, Russia rattled its sabers against the Japanese, making enough noise to slip new air defense systems into Russia’s Northern Pacific islands, presumably without the Chinese taking offense. This month, the performance of NATO member militaries against targets in Libya is a timely justification for more spending on high performance fighter jets.
Interestingly, there has been little concern coming out of the Kremlin about the fate of Colonel Gadhafi. Two years ago, in November 2008, the Libyan leader pitched his desert tent inside the Kremlin walls for a state visit, giving Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev a chance size him up. Let’s just say that they have not spoken out on his behalf in recent days.