Libya abstention – Kremlin’s post imperial foreign policy?

Posted March 23rd, 2011 at 5:56 pm (UTC+0)

The Soviet Union vetoed.

Russia abstains.

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.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes tea with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in a tent pitched in the Kremlin garden on a chill night in November, 2008. Photo: AP

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.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

3 responses to “Libya abstention – Kremlin’s post imperial foreign policy?”

  1. Свою позицию по поводу позиции России относительно вероломной войны Запада против Ливии я выразил в Открытом письме Президенту России, которое Вы можете прочитать здесь:

  2. vuser1 says:

    Gadhafi was also in France in his tent.

  3. Pyotr says:

    It is the never failing plan for all sorts of dictators of empires balancing on the edge – to cover up internal problems with a heroic opposition to an external “enemy”. But as they say you can fool some people for some time but…



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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