Understanding the Russian Response to the Intervention in Libya

Moscow Delivered at the United Nations but Its Critical Statements Reflect Real Concerns

The Russian line regarding the military intervention in Libya appears contradictory. On the one hand, Russia delivered an abstention on the vote on the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing intervention. On the other, some Russian officials’ statements criticizing military intervention in Libya seem critical of all aspects of the intervention, including the Security Council resolution itself.

This tough talk should not be taken as a sign of a downturn in U.S.-Russia relations, as some have suggested: We must distinguish between rhetoric and policy. In fact, Russia’s decision to abstain from the vote reveals that the U.S.-Russia “reset” is working since one of its goals was creating an atmosphere where Russia doesn’t go out of its way to counteract U.S. policy. Still, the United States needs to recognize that the criticism coming from Moscow reflects real concerns, and it should factor this in as it continues to frame the U.S. response to the Middle East uprisings.

Russia’s main state-owned television station aired a critical report describing the military campaign as “aggression by the great world powers against a sovereign country.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “our position on this matter is well-known—we are for the inadmissibility of force both in Libya and in other countries, and for the situation’s return to the political level.”

Yet Russia abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote on Resolution 1973 authorizing intervention for humanitarian purposes in Libya. This was a critical move that gave international legal legitimacy to the military action. Russia would never have delivered such an abstention prior to the “reset.”

But the negative talk behind this positive policy decision stems from concrete Russian concerns the United States should keep in mind when framing policy. This will help the United States find ways of working with Moscow on Libya and the upheavals throughout the broader region.

President Dmitri Medvedev explained that Russia did not use its veto power to strike down Resolution 1973 “for the simple reason that [he does] not consider the resolution in question wrong.” Rather the resolution “reflects [Russia’s] understanding of events in Libya too, but not completely.”

This “not completely” is code for three issues: concern for Russian economic interests in Libya, fear of the implication Middle East unrest will have for the Russian North Caucasus, and worries about the unclear line between humanitarian intervention and regime change.

First, Russia’s significant commercial interests in Libya range from oil-and-gas contracts to railway construction. No one wants instability where they have economic interests at stake, and Russia is no exception. International military intervention clearly puts these interests at risk.

Second, there is the issue of potential impact on instability in the North Caucasus region in the southwest of Russia that includes Chechnya. Speaking in the North Caucasus in February, President Medvedev warned that the situation in the Middle East could cause some “densely populated states” to “split into small pieces” and lead to the “further spread of [Islamic] extremism.”

This seems a thinly veiled reference to the increasingly volatile situation spreading through the predominately Muslim North Caucasus region. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated things more bluntly in early March, saying that “the more the Middle East becomes unstable, the higher is the risk of people with malicious intentions causing us trouble…regardless of who comes to power in these countries, even if they will not be radical Islamists, still, the situation will be destabilized, creating some sort of a ‘Brownian motion.’”

The thinking is that the popular unrest in the Middle East will exacerbate the existing unrest in the North Caucasus, whose populations have grievances similar to those voiced by populations in the Middle East.

Lastly is the lack of clarity about the West’s reasons for military action in Libya. The Security Council resolution authorizes military intervention exclusively for humanitarian purposes. Yet President Barack Obama has said that Moammar Qaddafi is a leader who has lost legitimacy and must go.

The Russian leadership has concerns over its own legitimacy and recognizes that many in the West question its legitimacy. So when they see Western militaries arrayed against a ruling elite with legitimacy issues and hear Western leaders speaking of regime change, they worry what the Western response will be to their own legitimacy issues.

This worry is only exacerbated by Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-TX) proposed resolution to make regime change the “explicit policy of the United States.” This serious concern is reflected in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s otherwise incomprehensible statement that “what is happening in Libya today proves once again that what [the government is] doing to reinforce Russia’s defense capabilities is right.”

The mixed message coming from Moscow is born of uncertainty. Russian officials are uncertain what military intervention in Libya will mean for Russian economic and security interests as well as what impact the instability in the Middle East will have on Russia’s own troubled North Caucasus region.

The United States should take these concerns into account and respond accordingly. Policy decisions and rhetorical stances taken now by senior U.S. officials and lawmakers—such as Sen. Cornyn’s proposal to make regime change an explicit policy of the U.S. government—will have consequences for the future of U.N. authorization for humanitarian intervention. Proposals like Sen. Cornyn’s conflate humanitarian intervention and regime change and will thus jeopardize future attempts to secure Security Council authorization for humanitarian intervention given that Russia holds a veto.

The United States should seek instead to cooperate with Russia on nonmilitary humanitarian aid to Libya and in any stability-building efforts that will follow military action. This kind of coordination between the United States and Russia in humanitarian relief efforts would be a concrete way to continue mutual efforts consonant with the “reset.” The two countries have been successful in such cooperation in the recent past, such as in Kyrgyzstan following the popular uprisings of 2010.

The Russian abstention on Resolution 1973 shows the spirit of the “reset” is alive and well. Rather than threatening to veto the resolution—or actually doing so—Russia chose to balance its concerns with its desire to maintain good relations with the United States. This is a significant step forward from the low point of U.S.-Russia relations a few years ago, when Russian leaders had no incentive to do so.

Hannah VanHoose is an intern in the National Security and International Policy Program at the Center for American Progress.