Due West: Send in the Sukhois

The G8 foreign ministers’ meeting in Paris on March 15th provided a disconcerting glimpse of disarray in which all the prestigious clubs of the world find themselves in today.

The G8 foreign ministers’ meeting in Paris on March 15th provided a disconcerting glimpse of disarray in which all the prestigious clubs of the world find themselves in today.

The eight diplomats were supposed to discuss what to do about the proposed “no fly” zone over Libya – i.e., how to try and stop Colonel Gaddafi from murdering his own people. In a rare gesture of sanity the Arab League, which is usually quite sympathetic to dictators, called on the international community to impose such a zone under the auspices of the United Nations. It looks like a perfect reason for a few states that claim to be in the top league to go into action and at least make an effort to stop a bloody civil war in a country which is only a few minutes in flight time from the European Union.

What we saw and heard was … nothing. The participants agreed to continue talking in the UN HQ in New York despite the urgency of the Libyan situation. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is afraid to be “sucked into war.” His Italian counterpart Franco Frattini is of the same opinion.

On the one hand, I understand their concerns – refugees, a whiff of Iraq and Afghanistan, restless electorates, not disposed towards small victorious wars abroad… On the other hand, the question keeps coming back to mind: Isn’t it just cowardice camouflaged as prudence, a typical EU malaise?
Russia is against the no “fly zone” as well.  Officially it is because the Arab League did not formalize its demand. This is a strange explanation at best. In order to formalize it, the League has to convene a summit. Even if you drop the issue of who will represent Libya (a tricky question for such an event) currently this is an untenable proposition, all things in the region considered. Lebanon seems to be working on the relevant UN resolution on behalf of the Arabs, so what else does Moscow need?

Well, there is an unofficial reason, too. The spectre of “humanitarian intervention,” which has haunted the Russian establishment since Kosovo, is rising again. Since the late 1990s, this is seen in Moscow as a tool of NATO, the United States, the West (names are different, but you get the essence) and is summarily condemned. The joint French-British initiative revives the idea in a much milder form (asking for a UN mandate, excluding NATO); however, it is still opposed by Russia, seemingly on the grounds of political principle. On the other hand, Russian representatives voted for a resolution, imposing sanctions on Gaddafi. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a ten-page decree on their implementation, ostracizing “the mad colonel” and his family. If the Lebanese, the French and the Germans draft a UN resolution on a “no fly zone” with support from the Arab League, will Russia veto it? I hope not because contradictory policy is worse than no policy at all.

Having always called on the UN to take an active role in world affairs (a disputable proposition, but that’s a topic for another column), Russia cannot afford to undermine this body’s authority when it can show real unity for the first time since it authorized the use of force against Saddam Hussein in 1990-1991.  It will implicitly undermine its own exclusive position there, which is one of the several things that make Russia a serious international player. Gaddafi has already said that he will never invest in the West again, but instead send money to Russia, India and China. It is a clear sign that he is afraid of concerted international pressure. It is also very typical of him and his ilk of dictators to believe that everyone can be bought or sold, one just has to get the price right. And still: Gaddafi’s troops are not Prussian grenadiers. The Libyan Army is worth nothing against even a moderate international force. Wipe it out and hand the place back to the Libyans and, probably, the Arab League.

I am convinced that Russia’s prestige will not suffer if it supports the “no fly zone” in the UN. It would rather be enhanced, including a significant part of the rapidly changing Arab world. Moreover, in such a case why not consider sending a few jets or a couple of frigates to the Libyan shores, as a gesture of solidarity and a symbol of Russia’s international responsibility?

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What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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