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.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
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.

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.

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.

The statement also dampened the hopes of France, Britain, Germany, and Portugal that the Security Council resolution they have proposed for expressing the UN’s condemnation of state-sponsored violence in Syria will pass any time soon.

With Russia balking at any UN action on Syria, the European Union indicated Friday it will move ahead on a third round of sanctions against the government of Bashar al-Assad without the blessing of UN action. Officials say momentum is building for EU leaders to adopt new sanctions on Syrian officials and companies when they meet June 24.

Continuing and in some cases spreading violence in Syria – the first deaths were reported in the country’s second-largest city of Aleppo Friday – is prompting the move-ahead on sanctions even without UN action, EU officials said.

Saunders at the Center for the National Interest says Russia has a long history of feeling duped by the US on implementation of resolutions passed by the Security Council, where both countries wield a veto.

“Russian leaders feel they have been burned over and over again by the US in the Security Council,” he says. “They will cite the example of Iraq, of course, but it goes back to the former Yugoslavia, and NATO going ahead without UN approval on a bombing campaign there,” Saunders adds.

“They even add Iran to their list, and talk about how the US and the EU went ahead with their own sanctions on Iran after the Security Council adopted what they thought was a common way forward.”

Russia is hardly a newcomer to the Middle East, having cultivated relationships with several states during the Cold War. Syria in particular was a Soviet client and most of its arms are of Russian origin.

Russia has a “long-term calculus” for where it wants to be in the Middle East, Saunders says, and an image as the non-interventionist major power fits in its vision. “They want to be able to maintain and develop some kind of visible and influential role and be able to advance Russia’s economic interests in the region,” he says.

Right now, being the power that stands against outside intervention fits that self-image. In this context, perhaps the only thing that might shift Russia to the side of tougher international pressure – on Syria, for example – would be if countries in the region begin calling for action against the Assad regime.

“The Arab League and African Union demanding international action against Qaddafi put the Russians in an awkward position and led to them abstaining [in the Security Council] on Libya,” Saunders says. “If the Arab League or some other group of countries in the region were to come under domestic pressure to do something on Syria,” he adds, “then you might see Russia reluctantly shift its stance.”

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