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For Russia, Qaddafi's Downfall Is No Cause For Celebration

  • Tom Balmforth

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) welcomed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi on his visit to Moscow in November 2008.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) welcomed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi on his visit to Moscow in November 2008.

MOSCOW -- Muammar Qaddafi is dead, Libya has declared itself free, and NATO is celebrating a much-needed victory.

But not everybody is happy with this outcome, least of all Russia.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Libyan rebels violated the Geneva Conventions when they shot Qaddafi after capturing him near his hometown of Sirte on October 20. Qaddafi, he said, should have been treated as a prisoner of war.

Speaking to three Russian radio stations on October 21, Lavrov also condemned NATO for bombing the Libyan dictator's convoy as he tried to escape. Lavrov said the strike exceeded NATO's mandate as defined by its UN Security Council resolution and called for an investigation.

"Air-to-ground strikes, including on the convoy, have nothing to do with a no-fly zone," Lavrov said. "In this particular case, we cannot even talk about saving the lives of innocent citizens because the convoy did not attack anyone."

It was far from the first conflict between Russia and the West over Libya since Moscow reluctantly agreed not to veto a UN Security Council resolution in February authorizing NATO to impose a no-fly zone over the country in order to protect civilians from Qaddafi's forces.

Moscow had long enjoyed good relations with Qaddafi, going back to Soviet times. Moreover, Russia could now lose billions of dollars in arms sales and infrastructure projects in Libya, as many of the deals were signed by Qaddafi personally.

No Cheering In Moscow

Russia has always insisted that the UN resolution be interpreted narrowly and accused the Western alliance of using it as cover to overthrow the Libyan leader.

"One thing was declared – they [NATO] said that they were conducting their operation in defense of the peaceful population from Qaddafi forces," says Aleksei Mukhin, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information think tank.

A memorial board for Muammar Qaddafi at the Russian State University of Trade and Economics in Moscow reads: "On October 20, 2011, Muammar Qaddafi died heroically. Shame on Muammar Qaddafi's killers."

A memorial board for Muammar Qaddafi at the Russian State University of Trade and Economics in Moscow reads: "On October 20, 2011, Muammar Qaddafi died heroically. Shame on Muammar Qaddafi's killers."


"But in the end it basically turned out that the aim of the NATO mission in Libya was the killing of Qaddafi. There is more evidence of this in the fact that Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced straight after Qaddafi was killed that the war was over."

Mukhin adds that unlike in the West, where Qaddafi was portrayed as a brutal -- albeit clownish -- figure, Russia has always seen him as a reliable ally. "For us he was a legitimate leader at an international level who had all the legitimacy to rule, but some of the [media] outlets in the West presented him practically like a cannibal," he notes.

Russian officials have also expressed skepticism that a stable regime is likely to form in the post-Qaddafi political vacuum in Libya.

The contrast in visions is even visible in the tabloids. "That's For Lockerbie!" screamed the headline in Britain's "The Sun" the day after Qaddafi was killed, referring to Qaddafi's purported role in a terrorist explosion on a plane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie that killed 270 people in 1988. The Moscow tabloid "Metro," on the other hand, ran the more somber and respectful "The Colonel Went Down Like A Man."

The Unwelcome Color Of Spring

Analysts say that in addition to the loss of lucrative contracts in Libya, the Kremlin has been wary of the Arab Spring rebellions that swept the Middle East and North Africa this year, seeing them as an extension of the "colored revolutions" that brought pro-Western regimes to power in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-05.

The Kremlin has always seen these uprisings as resulting "not from internal processes within the country, but rather from foreign intervention" from the West that could be replicated in Russia, says Aleksandr Golts, a Moscow-based defense analyst and deputy editor of the website "Yezhednevny zhurnal."

"Of course, you can't compare the regime in Russia with the Qaddafi regime. But at the same time, they [the Russian authorities] take into account that we have a democracy of a rather specific kind," Golts says. "The Russian leadership is also paranoid that the West will at some point organize some kind of 'colored' revolution."

The sorts of color (Ukrainian protesters in 2004) that the Kremlin would rather not see again.

The sorts of color (Ukrainian protesters in 2004) that the Kremlin would rather not see again.


U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) fed those fears when he told the BBC that Qaddafi's killing should serve as a warning to the world's "dictators" and singled out Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in particular.

Russia's outspoken and often bombastic NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, retorted on Twitter on October 21, "The joy on the faces of 'global democracy's' leaders is like that of somebody recalling how in their childhood they hung homeless cats in their cellars."

Analysts say Russia could lose as much as $10 billion in contracts due to Qaddafi's fall. Most observers say the Kremlin's belated recognition of the National Transitional Council in September was a last-ditch effort to gain favor with the new Libyan authorities and hold on to their old business ties.

And given this reality, Russia's opposition to Qaddafi's killing has only gone so far. When three parties -- the Communists, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist Liberal Democrats, and the center-left A Just Russia -- pushed a resolution in the State Duma sending condolences to Libya for Qaddafi's death, the measure was blocked by the ruling United Russia party. The measure failed by a vote of 153 to 98.

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