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As West labors in Libya and Syria, Russia seizes an opportunity

The military stalemate in Libya and the diplomatic hesitation over condemning Syria have created an opportunity for Russia to present itself to the Middle East as the un-NATO.

By Staff writer / June 17, 2011

Russian presidential envoy Mikhail Margelov, left, and Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, right, smile during their meeting in Tripoli, Libya, on Thursday. Hours after NATO airstrikes pounded the area near Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's compound again before dawn Thursday, Margelov turned up at a bombing site while on a visit to Tripoli for talks on ending the civil war.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP

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With the West, including the United States, stuck in a military stalemate in Libya, Russia is busy offering itself to the region as the un-NATO.

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Just weeks after abstaining (rather than vetoing) a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya, Russia is now pressing for a diplomatic solution to replace military intervention in Libya.

And Russia modeling itself to the region as an alternative to an interventionist West does not stop there.

It also is balking at a Europe-sponsored and US-backed UN resolution on Syria it says it fears would be used as a pretext for more military action. And this week it teamed up with China to castigate the West for overstepping bounds the two countries said have been set by the United Nations.

The Russians “suddenly see an opportunity for themselves in the Middle East,” says Paul Saunders, a Russia specialist at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

The Arab Spring was not a natural climate for Russian influence to thrive in, but the NATO stalemate in Libya and regional qualms about international action on Syria “leave them feeling they have more flexibility and an opportunity to build up their influence,” Mr. Saunders says. “They know that a lot of countries in the region would prefer to see negotiated settlements.”

On Thursday, Russia’s envoy to Libya, Mikhail Margelov, met in Tripoli with Libya’s prime minister and foreign minister. Mr. Margelov appeared to achieve no breakthroughs, but he emphasized the need for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, saying Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi “is not prepared to leave, and …will talk about the country’s future only after a cease-fire.”

Also this week, Russia and China issued a joint declaration berating unspecified nations for “the willful interpretation and expanded application” of two resolutions on Libya the Security Council approved earlier this year. The statement, signed in Moscow by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao, reflected the two UN-veto-wielding powers’ displeasure with NATO’s air campaign in Libya.

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