Due West: Russia’s missed opportunity in Libya

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
Usually I do not like quoting my own columns, but March’s “Send in the Sukhois” is a cause for both satisfaction and disappointment.

Usually I do not like quoting my own columns, but March’s “Send in the Sukhois” is a cause for both satisfaction and disappointment. Satisfaction – because the outcome of the conflict was pretty clear even half a year ago. Disappointment – because Russia has again missed a chance to be among those who make history rather than observe it from the sidelines.


The decision to abstain from voting on the UN Security Council crucial resolution 1973, which authorized enforcing a “no fly zone” over Libya was a landmark of sorts.

It was a rare moment when Russia did not rush to the support of a dictatorship. Despite constant grumbling from the Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister Putin calling the allied operation a “crusade”, Moscow sat tight and did not try to bail out the increasingly self-isolated Gaddafi.

President Dmitry Medvedev even sent his special envoy to Africa, Senator Mikhail Margelov, to meet with both the rebels and the colonel. It is telling that while the former held extensive conversations with the Russian emissary, Gaddafi refused to meet him. Probably, this will be count for Russian companies when they eventually attempt a comeback to Libya's market.

So, nice try?

Well for me the Libyan saga left a certain aftertaste. All through the last six months Moscow desperately tried to sit on two chairs simultaneously. Supporting Gaddafi looked like a non-starter from the very beginning, if even fellow Arabs demonstrably turned away from him. But admitting he has to go and engaging with the rebels for Moscow was out of the question too - for ideological reasons.

Being seen sharing the Western attitudes, especially on such “delicate” topics as “humanitarian intervention” and “a responsibility to protect” is still a practical impossibility for the Russian leaders. It will imply sharing those dangerous Western values, which is a different story altogether from the Kremlin's point of view. Simply  because it touches upon the sensitive domestic issues. One moment you support some faraway Arab civic activists – and the next you have to listen to your own ones. So much for the values issue.

But even this timid attitude met with a wave of criticism at home which to me looked like a “Groundhog Day”. We all have seen and heard these arguments before. Same calls to “help Russia's traditional allies”, “break off relations with NATO”, “send in the warships”. And, of course the standard issue myths without which the Russian mind never seems to be at ease: “Gaddafi created a paradise on Earth for the Libyans”, “Americans are avenging the closure of the Wheelus Field US Air Force base by Gaddafi forty years ago” and, of course, that evergreen all-time favourite – “It's all about the Libyan oil”. The Iraq war was also about oil, as is the Afghan war, and the current stand off with Iran. There was no oil in Serbia though, so seemingly NATO struck it in 1998 just because it is inherently wicked. Should the Assad regime crumble – it will no doubt be the Western plot to seize the (nearly non-existent) Syrian oil too.

All rational political and psychological explanations, extensive tours of the historical horizon and appeals to common sense are useless. We, Russians, prefer to believe what we want to believe – because life seems easier like that.

I wouldn't have minded much if such views were held by the masses – although it is not easy to live side by sides with people who suspect conspiracies behind every corner. For example, in Greece the majority of the population is anti-NATO, anti-American and anti-Semitic – but the political class has somehow managed to avoid falling into the trap of following the popular phobias (although, seemingly, it didn't do much besides that). Why can’t Russian society and its opinion leaders and politicians do the same?

I am afraid the answer is a sad one. The Russian leadership doesn't have a vision for the country's future. But it has a vision for perpetuating itself in power. For this maintaining a “fortress Russia” mentality is the most convenient tool. I hope that sooner rather than later it will become clear that this form of reality denial is dangerous for the country's future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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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 a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. 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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