Surprise Turn Against Qaddafi is Russia's Latest Westward Step

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Russian President Dmitri Medvedev's call for the Libyan leader to step down is another marker of the success of the French-led effort to end a century of Russia-Western antagonism

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Eric Feferberg/AP


Russia, a quasi-democracy and an imperial power that never quite gave up all of its colonial holdings, has dedicated much of its post-Soviet foreign policy to resisting everything that the NATO intervention in Libya stands for. It shrugs at human rights violators, abhors military intervention, enshrines the sovereign right of states to do whatever they want internally without fear of outside meddling, and above all objects to the West imposing its ideology on others. NATO itself, after all, is a military alliance constructed in opposition to the Soviet Union. But Russian President Dmitri Medvedev took a surprising break from Russian foreign policy precedent on Friday when, in the middle of a G8 summit in France, he declared that Libyan leader Muammar "Qaddafi has forfeited legitimacy" and that Russia plans "to help him go."

For Libya, Russia's call for Qaddafi to go is more than just symbolic. Russia abstained from the original UN Security Council resolution authorizing the no-fly zone, but was reportedly upset that NATO states stretched the resolution to launch an extended bombing campaign. Russia's angry reaction, it was widely assumed, meant it might outright veto any future Security Council measures on Libya. But Medvedev's recent statement makes clear that his government supports the implicit goal of the air strikes -- regime change in Libya -- and would not block further action toward that end. If Qaddafi had hoped that he might outlast the Security Council's will to fight, he is clearly nowhere close. The window for him to leave the country peacefully remains open, but is clearly closing quickly.

With this news, the Libyan government stands to lose something much bigger than hope for a reprieve from UN-backed intervention: money. Qaddafi has relied on his country's tremendous oil wealth to continue paying his troops and, as Libyan officers defect at an increasing rate, to ship in mercenaries from Sub-Saharan Africa. It's true that Libya will probably never want for buyers; most of its European importers are now bombing the country, but China's thirst runs deeper than any African well. But Libya lacks the ability to refine oil, a service for which it relies totally on foreign firms, particularly Gazprom. Owned and operated by the Russian government in a nakedly political fashion that even the Soviet communists struggled to achieve, Gazprom is unlikely to buoy Qaddafi for long now that Medvedev has called him out.

Qaddafi will struggle to endure this hit to oil revenue, only the latest such blow as his regime withers under tremendous international and domestic pressure. Ten days before Medvedev's announcement, oil minister Shukri Ghanem defected to Tunisia. As well as controlling the country's oil industry and managing its deals with foreign buyers and refiners, Ghanem was a key player in the regime's coalition of hardliners. He is the first high-profile defection from this group of hardcore, violent, anti-Western men who steered the country through its darkest periods: the terrorism-happy 1980s, the nuclear-seeking late 1990s and early 2000s, and again during the recent crackdown and ensuing civil war.

But the biggest significance of Russia's surprising turn may be for the country's relationship not to Libya but to the West. Over the past three years, Russia has rapidly thawed its long-hostile relationship with the U.S. and Western Europe. Though Russian domestic rule remains as brutal as ever -- Chechens are still occupied against their will; journalists still turn up dead -- its foreign policy, long marked by opposition to the West and obstruction of anything resembling collective Western intervention, has changed dramatically. Russia supported the UN sanctions against Iran proposed by the U.S., UK, and France; it has helped open supply routes into Afghanistan; it supported the Côte d'Ivoire sanctions earlier this year; and it refused to block the resolution against Libya, and act it almost certainly would have opposed only a few years ago. Russia's relationship with its former American enemy has improved as well, with both nations supporting the New START arms treaty, a crucial step in disassembling the legacy of Cold War hostilities.

Though the Obama administration's much-vaunted "reset" with Russia has surely played a role in the country's better behavior -- and will continue to play a role, with Obama inner circle member Michael McFaul just appointed the next U.S. ambassador to Moscow -- the Western country most responsible may well be an even older Russian enemy: France. Last March, Medvedev visited Paris for a week of heavily publicized jaunts with French President Nicholas Sarkozy, returning home with two of Russia's most-wanted items: modern military equipment (the French amphibious ships were the largest-ever arms sale by a NATO member to Russia) and manufacturing jobs, from French automaker Renault. In exchange, Sarkozy bought Russian integration into the Western economic and military system it had so long opposed.

At the time of Medvedev's 2010 trip to Paris, I wrote that the burgeoning France-Russia alliance could reshape Europe. It appears to have already done much more. Medvedev's declaration against Qaddafi, an act that could significantly hasten the Libyan's departure, came when the Russian president was in Paris, not Moscow. During the same G8 summit, Medvedev and Sarkozy also signed another set of deals. Russia will buy Mistral-class helicopter carriers worth about 2 billion Euros, and France will help build a chain of posh ski resorts in the North Caucasus region.

Of course, Russian foreign policy is still Russian. Its antagonism toward the Caucasus states, especially Georgia, remains volatile. Its relationship toward the former Soviet states of Central Europe, most of which are still led by anti-Soviet revolutionaries, is little better. Those European states are so wary of Russian military power that they have recently formed a military collective meant to stand against Russia -- a sort of post-Soviet NATO for a post-Soviet Russia. But Central Europe's relationship to Russia provides an interesting contrast to that of Western Europe and Russia. The land of Vladimir Putin is not very savory, and supporting the leadership there can be understandably distasteful to democratic, Western nations. But the Central European states that have continued to treat Russia as the enemy still find themselves stuck with the same antagonistic, distrustful, and at times outright hostile relationship. Further West, the former Russian enemies that have chosen to treat Russia as an ally, linking their economies and even their militaries, have found Russia able and willing to rejoin the Western world from which it had exiled itself for so long.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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