Last month President Obama called his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, to “discuss a range of bilateral and international issues,” according to the White House, and to formally back Moscow’s arbitration in Libya. Meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov a day later in Washington, D.C., Obama reiterated “his support for Russia’s efforts to mediate a political solution in Libya.”
But relying on the Russians to mediate in Libya risks grave pitfalls. The Kremlin’s Libya policy has been schizophrenic, even by Russian standards. In the weeks preceding the intervention, Moscow refused to condemn the growing violence in Libya as the Arab Spring proliferated from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and other countries across the region. Then, Russia unexpectedly abstained on a broad U.N. Security Council resolution that sanctioned the use of force to protect civilians. Prime Minster Putin later called the resolution “defective and flawed” because it “allows everything” and “resembles medieval calls for crusades.”
Ambassador John Bolton recently criticized President Obama for publicly welcoming the Kremlin’s attempts at mediation. The administration’s willingness to embrace Russia’s involvement in Libya, he argues, represents “nothing less than a massive humiliation for the Western alliance.” Moreover, it gives Moscow “the possibility of reshaping the Libyan morass to its own ends” and a potentially “dominant role in post-conflict-Libya.”
Indeed, Russia’s ability to insert itself into a conflict where it has limited influence and even less leverage is troubling. And turning to Russia—a country whose criticism of the intervention has been unremitting and whose intentions are questionable even under the most benign of circumstances—is problematic.
However, the likelihood of successful Russian mediation in Libya is slim to none. Moscow’s relationship with the Transitional National Council (TNC)—the rebels opposing Muammar Qaddafi—is shaky. Russia has refused to recognize the TNC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people and insists any negotiations should at least give Qaddafi a seat at the table. The Kremlin’s insistence on the latter may have something to do with the $4 billion in arms contracts it recently signed with Qaddafi’s government, Tatneft’s concessions to develop several oil blocks in Ghadames and the Sirte basin and its production sharing agreements with Libya’s National Oil Cooperation, Gazprom’s exploration contracts in Libya, and Russian Railways’ plans to build a multi-billion dollar high-speed railroad linking cities along Libya’s Mediterranean coast.
Moscow’s interest in ensuring Qaddafi remains in power is evident. What’s less evident is how it plans to achieve this. The Kremlin doesn’t have a coherent Libya policy. Some have attributed this to a schism or poor coordination within the ruling Putin-Medvedev tandem. Most likely it’s neither. Rather, Russia lacks any semblance of a well-devised, consistent approach because it lacks authority and leverage over the conflicting parties. The Kremlin’s involvement in Libya is nothing more than hollow swaggering. It’s a prestige project that serves to reaffirm Russia’s status as a global power in the eyes of average Russians—an implicit reminder of Russia’s authoritarian resurgence under Putin vis-à-vis democratic Russia’s supposed feebleness under Yeltsin. If the Obama administration is seriously relying on the Kremlin’s “good offices” to help secure a favorable outcome, then its lack of strategy in Libya is clearer than ever.
Daniel Vajdic is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.