The War in Libya has triggered diverse and interesting reactions in Russia: from the refusal to veto the UN Security Council resolution 1973, to the highly contrasting declarations of Putin and Medvedev and the firing of the Russian Ambassador to Libya. These are crucial events that let us better investigate and interpret on-going political changes in Russian domestic and foreign policy.

Adopting the UN Resolution 1973, the Security Council authorized Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians. The implications of this resolution, however, extend beyond North Africa and the Arab Countries only. The war in Libya entails significant consequences at a global level. Focusing on the Russian Federation, three events require our attention: the Russian abstention from the UNSC resolution 1973; the contrasting declarations of Putin and Medvedev over the military attack; the firing of Vladimir Chamov - former Russian ambassador to Libya. These episodes suggest the existence of contested and on-going debates at the heart of the Russian political elite in the realm of domestic politics and foreign policy. They are also key factors that let us glimpse into the future relations between Russia and the West as well as the domestic discourse in the context of the approaching presidential elections in 2012.

Russia has always been against military intervention, from Kosovo to Iraq. The reason of its strict adherence to the principle of non-interference is to be found in the Cold War and the post-1991 anti-Americanism. The Soviet statesman and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Gromyko, was nicknamed in the West Mr Nyet (Mr. No) due to his habitual attitude towards Western proposals and interventionist policies. The Russian cautious position persisted even after the end of the Cold War. Recently, in 2008, The Economist published an article entitled ‘The return of Mr Nyet’ after Russia had blocked the efforts to isolate and punish the despots of Zimbabwe. In contrast, in March 2011, on Medvedev's orders, Russia abstained from the UN resolution, refusing to use its veto which would have blocked its passage. These developments can be interpreted as an unprecedented and pivotal moment in Russian Foreign Policy hence it deserves a closer analysis especially for its implications on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts.

Domestic Politics: (real) split in the ruling ‘tandem’?

The military attack of the Western coalition of US, France and UK, stirred contrasting and diverse reactions within the Russian political elite. The Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned the actions of the Western governments, while calling Libya “a complicated country,” the UN Security Council resolution “inferior and defective” and the strikes against Libya “a crusade”. “So where is (Obama’s) logic and conscience?” exclaimed the Premier, as reported on Novaya Gazeta. Similar views were shared by the former Russian ambassador to Libya, Vladimir Chamov.

Vladimir Chamov is a distinguished Russian diplomat. He worked in Iraq before he became Ambassador to Libya in 2008. He was abruptly fired before the UN gave the permission to the military intervention. Chamov himself revealed his dismissal came after he sent a telegram to President Dmitry Medvedev saying that siding with the West against Libya would essentially amount to betrayal of Moscow's interests. He also said, as reported on The Moscow Times, that Qaddafi was “a very adequate person” and, when asked to comment on Putin’s Crusades comment, he replied: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, and this is something I particularly like about him, gave a very precise, short and profound definition. And here, I think, he is not far from the truth.”

Medvedev’s responses to Putin’s and Chamov’s statements was very firm. As far as Putin is concerned, he responded by saying it was “inadmissible to use expressions like the Crusades that, in essence, can lead to a clash of civilizations. I don’t think the resolution (of the UN Security Council – A.K.) is wrong… That’s why flapping one’s wings now and saying that we didn’t know what we were doing would be wrong: we did it on purpose, and such were my instructions to the Foreign Ministry. And they have been fulfilled.”

Vladimir Chamov was fired whilst the disagreements between Putin and Medvedev were quickly dispelled. Yet, what is the significance of these contrasting positions? Is it a critical split in the Russian elite between those who believe Russia should cooperate with the West and those who want it to follow traditional interests? Or it is simply a political game anticipating the presidential elections of 2012?

The 2012 Russian presidential election is already the key factor shaping the country’s political developments. Beyond simply choosing a new president, the election will set the political and economic model for the next decade, determining whether Russia modernizes or remains overly reliant on natural resources (Carnegie Moscow Center). It seems too much of a coincidence that such an important political divergence at the heart of the ruling ‘tandem’ - as the Russian President and Prime Minister are often nicknamed - occurred shortly before the release of the next presidential candidate of United Russia (the ruling party of Putin and Medvedev).

At this regard, Andrei Kolesnikov argues in Novaya Gazeta that the divergences between Putin and Medvedev over Libya are ‘A wrestling match. An imitation of conflict. A distribution of roles to play. Bad cop/good cop.’ In other words, the opposed opinions of Putin and Medvedev are created on purpose in order to enhance Medvedev’s moderate, pro-Western and pro-modernization outlook. This suggests to political analysts that Medvedev will be the upcoming candidate for the presidential elections and he is therefore already setting his agenda by emphasizing the much needed change towards modernization and closer relations with the West.

Change in Russian Foreign Policy?

Russia’s vote on March 17th in the United Nations Security Council sheds light also on the changing nature of Moscow’s foreign policy. Moscow could not prevent NATO’s air war against Serbia or the U.S. invasion of Iraq, yet its UN veto represented a clear message to the West that it opposed unsanctioned military aggression against sovereign states. As a result, in 1999 and 2003 Russia’s relations with NATO and the United States were at record low points. During the current crisis in Libya, Russia for the first time did not stand in the way of the West. What has changed then since 2003? Is there a link between the change in Foreign Policy and the abstention from the resolution 1973? Yes, we can draw a pungent correlation: by ‘allowing’, the military intervention in Libya, Moscow avoided to jeopardize its improving ties with the United States and Western Europe. Two main factors support this positions: Russia’s urgent need for modernization and the relative success of the “reset” of the relationship with the US.

Moscow redefined its Foreign Policy agenda focusing predominantly on modernization. Russia cannot aspire to become a major player and power in the international arena without adequate and efficient technologies.

Essentially, a new economy and the accession to the WTO represent some of the highest priorities to be fulfilled in the foreseeable future, according to contemporary Russian leaders. Russia is therefore seeking closer relations with the countries that can assist it in this project. The United States is at the top of the list in regards to its technological prowess. Generally speaking, Russia is also seeking technological assistance from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and its members.

Secondly, the new trend of improved relationship with the West is largely enhanced by the success of the Obama-Medvedev Commission. The US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission was launched at the July 2009 Moscow summit. It aims at strengthening the cooperation between the two countries and a broad range of issues. Having fallen to a historic low after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, the US-Russia cooperation is again on the rise, thank to last year’s “reset” of the relationship. Led by Presidents Obama and Medvedev, the Commission’s Coordinators are US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who oversee seventeen working groups that are in turn co-chaired by senior executive branch officials from both countries.

The Commission has produced remarkable results in its first year. Just to mention some achievements: new binding arms control and nonproliferation agreements, joint efforts to combat terrorism and drug trafficking and concrete Russia assistance for the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The fact that the Kremlin dropped its former policy of vetoing anything in the UN Security Council that it doesn’t like can be interpreted also as another success of the improved relation between the US and Russia.

In short, Russia current foreign policy is focusing on the country’s main priorities: above all modernization. This achievement can be reached only through a close cooperation with the West, OECD members and the US. By allowing the US and the coalition of other Western states to intervene, Russia did not betray its business benefits with Libya as Chamov stated. It appears instead to be focusing on its truly vital interests and priorities only.


The war in Libya generated interesting debates within Russia in both the domestic and foreign policy realms. Most importantly, Russia’s standing defines its priorities that are mainly focused on modernization hence cooperation with Western Europe and the US. Whilst these policies are still controversial within the current Russian political elite, President Medvedev clearly states new directions for the country. He is also most likely to exploit these circumstances for his own personal electoral campaign in the context of the upcoming presidential elections in 2012.

Marzia Cimmino is an intern at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

This article originally appeared on the Equilibri site.