The six month long civil war in Libya and the NATO air campaign to oust Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has created division within the ruling class in Moscow and aggravated anti-Western and anti-American sentiment. Last March President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly clashed over the issue. Putin denounced the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that allowed the Western air campaign aimed at degrading Gaddafi’s war fighting capability as “flawed and defective” and a pretext for a “crusade.” Putin accused the US and NATO of hypocrisy, bombing and killing Libyan civilians under the pretext of protecting them. Medvedev in turn defended the Kremlin’s decision not to veto Resolution 1973, denounced as unacceptable any “talk of crusades” and stressed the crisis was caused by “the crimes of the Libyan regime against its own people” (EDM, March 24).
As the war in Libya dragged on at a slow pace, an uneasy stalemate developed in Moscow. Senator Mikhail Margelov, appointed by Medvedev as his special representative in Africa specifically to deal with the Libyan crisis, denounced Gaddafi as a bloody dictator that “must leave.” Margelov unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a deal for Gaddafi to step down peacefully and leave Libya, but at the same time managed to establish contacts with the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi (Interfax, June 21). In turn Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister since March 2004 (appointed by Putin), followed Putin’s line in the Libyan conflict, constantly publicly pointing to alleged NATO atrocities: “There are too many violations of UN resolutions – the NATO air forces are attacking civilians, hospitals and diplomatic missions, which is unacceptable.” Lavrov advocated an immediate end to “all hostilities,” and negotiations, which would have effectively left Gaddafi in power in Tripoli. At the same time Lavrov denounced the International Contact Group “Friends of Libya” as a “self-proclaimed, illegitimate body” (Interfax, May 13).
The Russian state-controlled mass media was running stories about the Libyan people resisting NATO and its clientele, while supporting Gaddafi. The NATO air campaign was denounced as ineffective and an invasion by regular Western armies as in Iraq or Afghanistan was believed to be inevitable. Such an invasion could promote a mass anti-Western insurrection in Libya, further humiliating NATO and vindicating Putin’s stand on Resolution 1973. The capture of Tripoli by the rebels and the ousting of Gaddafi last month came as a complete surprise and were dismissed as malicious Western propaganda. Russia’s largest mass circulation daily Komsomolskaya Pravda carried a story about the footage of rebels celebrating victory in Tripoli’s central Green Square being a hoax, conjured up by al-Jazeera: a replica of Tripoli was specially built in Doha, Qatar, where hired locals, posing as Libyan rebels, faked an anti-Gaddafi victory demonstration, while in fact Gaddafi was still in charge and victorious. Vigilant Russian observers uncovered the Qatari-made propaganda stunt (Komsomolskaya Pravda, August 23).
The news of the fall of Gaddafi was unacceptable politically as well as physiologically, so major state TV channels carried the ridiculous story of the faked storming of Tripoli until it was impossible to continue the pretense. One “source in the Russian foreign ministry” accused NATO “of trampling on UN Security Council Resolution 1973” and of “NATO ground troops storming Tripoli and mass-murdering civilians” (Kommersant, August 26). Only on September 1, did Russia officially recognize the NTC as the sole legitimate power in Libya, essentially to allow Margelov to attend a meeting on the same day of the Libyan Contact Group in Paris (Interfax, September 1).
Russia’s Duma elections have been set for December 4. They will most likely be rigged and unfair, but an enhanced propaganda campaign to drum up support for Putin and his ruling United Russia party is inevitable. Anti-Western rhetoric will certainly be an important part of the official propaganda message, but a senior US diplomat told Jamestown that Washington believes overall relations with Russia may endure: Moscow has a vested interest in supporting the reelection of Barack Obama and will not rock the boat. Consequently, Washington will find a resolution of differences over BMD plans for Europe and ensure Russia’s admission to the WTO before the end of 2011.
The Obama White House may indeed have some tacit reelection understanding with the Russian ruling oligarchy, at least with the Medvedev supporters on some exchange of favors: a tentative agreement on BMD and WTO accession just in time for the Russian presidential elections next March. In exchange, Moscow could tacitly promise not to break up publicly the “reset” understandings, or abandon arms control agreements, or invade any neighboring nations, cooperating further on the Iran nuclear issue and so on – until November 2012. Margelov and Medvedev himself have maintained the need for better cooperation with the US. But true decision-making is in other hands and it is not clear that Putin believes Obama’s reelection is essential or desirable for him and his clique.
The ouster of Gaddafi with Western air support is a fresh irritant and seen as a potential threat. There are signs the Duma election campaign will be run, using traditional anti-American and nationalistic rhetoric. Moscow is full of rumors that the flamboyant former nationalist Rodina party leader Dmitry Rogozin will be recalled from his present post as permanent representative to NATO and join Putin’s Duma reelection campaign to play the nationalist card. Rogozin’s Motherland Congress of Russian Communities organization is expected to join Putin’s All-Russian Peoples Front this month. The Peoples Front is an appendix of United Russia and Rogozin may be elected to the Duma on the United Russia’s ticket (Vedomosti, September 7). While in Brussels, Rogozin has been outspoken in denouncing NATO over Libya and demanded that Russia must develop “a military-technical response” to US-European BMD plans – “put a Colt on the negotiating table, or Russia will not be taken seriously” (RIA Novosti, September 7). Putin’s reelection campaign policy may yet upset the Obama administration’s calculations.