Foreign Policy Blogs

Can Putin Have it Both Ways on Libya?

Today’s editorial in the Moscow Times accuses Putin of hypocrisy for opposing the UN mandated operations in Libya.

Putin, who rightly criticised Bush unilateralism on Iraq, should have applauded Obama’s multilateral, UN-centric approach.

Instead, the paper proclaims,

All of Obama’s multilateralism seems to have been lost on Putin, who has proved over the past decade to be the ultimate naysayer when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, regardless of who is in the White House…Putin’s sharp — and, indeed, unacceptable — reaction to the U.S. role in the Libyan intervention once again demonstrates that he is more interested in being a spoiler of reset than its chief supporter.

Such statements would have you believe that all those opposed to the Iraq war on the same grounds as Putin have cheerfully embraced the present attacks. But nothing could be further from the truth: Putin’s opposition to the airstrikes is far from a fringe stance, and includes a wide range of highly reputable thinkers and policymakers across the ideological spectrum.

Writing in the New Republic, communitarian scholar and Iraq war critic Michael Walzer has no kind words for the present bombardment, beginning his barrage of criticism with:

There are so many things wrong with the Libyan intervention that it is hard to know where to begin.

On the right, Tory MP, polymath and middle east scholar Rory Stewart worries about the Western powers’

irrepressible, almost hyperactive actions: that sense of moral obligation; those fears about rogue states, failed states, regions and our own credibility, which threaten to make this decade again a decade of over-intervention.

Not to mention India’s toughening condemnation and the rapid falling away of Arab and African Union support.

“Western air and naval strikes against Libya are threatening the Arab Spring”, writes the scholar Phyllis Bennis on al-Jazeera, which has generally supported the anti-Gaddafi action.

Ironically, one of the reasons many people supported the call for a no-fly zone was the fear that if Gaddafi managed to crush the Libyan people’s uprising and remain in power, it would send a devastating message to other Arab dictators: Use enough military force and you will keep your job.

Instead, it turns out that just the opposite may be the result: It was after the UN passed its no-fly zone and use-of-force resolution, and just as US, British, French and other warplanes and warships launched their attacks against Libya, that other Arab regimes escalated their crack-down on their own democratic movements.

If anything, Russia increasingly appears to be on the right side of reason and sanity!

Putin is not trying to have it both ways regarding Iraq and Libya, because the current action has more in common than in contrast with Bush’s war: once again, it is a military operation led by the US and Britain (not by UN blue helmets, and not even NATO!) against an oil rich ‘rogue’ Arab state.

But, by first not vetoing the vote and then using the attacks as a platform to condemn behaviour he had the power to stop, and second by having the Kremlin both condone (via Medvedev) and condemn (via Putin) the UN resolution on which it had remained neutral, he’s really having his cake and eating it.



Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs