Gates visits Russia as Putin decries UN action on Libya

Russian Prime Minister Putin said the Western assault on Qaddafi's offensive capabilities resembles a medieval crusade.

Charles Dharapak/Reuters
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates addresses military officers at the Naval Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia on March 21.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates will probably get an earful of Russia's objections to the United Nations-sanctioned military operation in Libya when he meets Tuesday with President Dmitry Medvedev.

A taste of what he might expect was unleashed Monday by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who compared the Western assault against Muammar Qaddafi's offensive capabilities to a medieval crusade.

"The [UN resolution authorizing the action] is defective and flawed," Mr. Putin said during a visit to a Russian missile factory. "It allows everything. It resembles medieval calls for crusades."

Russia signaled a new willingness to compromise with Western powers by abstaining on last week's UN Security Council resolution authorizing "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians from forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi – the former Soviet Union would have vetoed it in a heartbeat – but Moscow has since become harshly critical of what it sees as an excessive and ill-focused exercise of military power. And it's not only Russia.

Common BRIC policy?

Experts say the similar doubt being publicly raised by all the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) suggests that the informal bloc of emerging economic tigers might be starting to coordinate their foreign policies to stage a collective pushback against the dominance of the old-line powers that are leading the charge in Libya.

"As of today, we see serious reservations about the way the Libya operation is being conducted coming from Russia, Brazil, China, India, and Germany," says Vladimir Davidov, an expert on BRIC and director of the official Institute of Latin American Studies in Moscow.

"Germany is the odd man out here, but the others constitute a group that has been consulting among themselves on foreign policy positions for about five years. They want to expand their influence on global affairs, to make changes in the system to reflect their common interests. I think this is going to be a growing factor in years to come."

Indian External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna said Monday that India "regrets that the air strikes are taking place," because they could potentially "harm innocent civilians, foreign nationals, diplomatic missions, and their personnel in Libya."

A spokesperson for the foreign ministry of China, which also abstained on the UN resolution, said Sunday that "China, as always, does not agree with the use of force in international relations." Brazil, a nonvoting member of the Security Council, abstained from voting on the resolution after making clear that it opposed international militarization of the crisis in Libya.

The Arab League, which first called for imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya to hobble Qaddafi, has also been expressing second thoughts as they watch the swift and destructive Western air campaign. But on Monday Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, said, "We respect the UN resolution and there is no conflict with it, especially as it indicated there would be no invasion but that it would protect civilians from what they are subject to in Benghazi."

Impact on Moscow politics

Russia's decision not to block the UN resolution was probably the result of a tough compromise between Mr. Medvedev, who favors greater cooperation with the West, and more hard-line forces in the foreign and defense ministries, analysts say.

"Russia's leadership is clearly split over this issue, with Medvedev being most interested in seeing Russia become a member of the Western group of democratic countries," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "The Kremlin's view is that we have a long list of good reasons to cooperate with the West, so why jeopardize our improving relations with the US and European Union over Libya?"

But Russia's Foreign Ministry has already expressed anger over reports that dozens of civilians may have been killed in the first wave of Libya air strikes, and called upon the West to "halt the indiscriminate use of force." Analysts say the longer the operation goes on, and the messier it becomes, the more political damage it's likely to do to Medvedev.

"The liberal wing of Russia's establishment is winning so far," says Dmitry Babich, an expert with the official RIA-Novosti agency. "But if difficulties arise, the supporters of the Arab world are going to push harder [for condemnation of Western intervention]. Medvedev sympathizes with the West, but not to the extent that he will risk losing his power over it."

US still optimistic about Russian relations

Addressing Russian officers at the Kuznetsov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg Monday, Mr. Gates, who is on his last official visit to Russia, took an optimistic view of the often-bumpy US-Russia relationship.

"We’ve disagreed before, and Russia still has uncertainties" about missile defense and other thorny issues, he said. "However, we’ve mutually committed to resolving these difficulties."

Though ongoing US-Russian differences over plans to build a Eurasian antimissile shield were supposed to top Gates's agenda in Russia, the mayhem in Libya and wider Middle East turmoil could eclipse those plans.

"Events in the Middle East are going to deeply affect the whole calculus about missile defense, and what to do about Iran, and many other common problems," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.

"It may be that [Gates and Medvedev] will put off that conversation and focus on what's going on in Libya and other Arab countries. Until the dust settles there, it makes no sense to talk about things in the same old way since nobody can say what the world is going to look like," after these revolutions end, he says.

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