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Putin finds opportunity in Libya…

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has criticized the UN Security Council resolution on Libya for allowing foreign military intervention in a sovereign state. Putin called the resolution “defective and flawed,” adding that “it allows everything and is reminiscent of a medieval call for a crusade.” Putin noted that Russia, which abstained on the UN. resolution vote and is not involved in the operation, wanted to avoid direct intervention and admonished the West, especially the US, for acting too aggressively.

Putin’s comments indicate the strength of Russia’s geopolitical position in the midst of several ongoing crises. The Western-led intervention in Libya is an opportunity for Putin to return to a familiar confrontational position on the US in order to advance Russia’s interests even further at a difficult time for Washington.
As several crises continue unfolding across the world – the nuclear accident in Japan, growing unrest in the Persian Gulf and now the military invention in Libya – no country has benefited geopolitically from these developments more than Russia. Growing instability has caused oil prices to rise, boosting Russia’s income. Japan’s dependence on nuclear power for energy has caused Tokyo to turn to Russia for more natural gas supplies, and concerns over the safety of nuclear power have led the Europeans, Russia’s primary energy market, to reconsider many future (and existing) nuclear plants. The chaos in Libya, even before the Western-led military intervention began, took much of Libya’s oil and natural gas exports offline, and Russia has been more than happy to make up the difference to Italy and other European countries. Perhaps most important, it appears that the window of opportunity that led to Russia’s geopolitical re-emergence in the first place – US distraction in the Middle East – will be growing for the foreseeable future.

The conflict in Libya has not only opened up a third theater for US military involvement, it has also given Putin the chance to characterize the United States as overly aggressive and willing to invade anywhere, while Russia prefers a more cautious approach. Russia’s position is strong enough that it feels it can easily switch between cooperation with and opposition to the United States. Russia has been more cooperative under the “reset” in ties between Washington and Moscow, but Putin is reverting to the tactics he used when Russia was geopolitically weaker, from the mid-2000s through early 2009, when he constantly and publicly railed against the US.

Besides using the opportunity to criticize the US, Putin has two other reasons for his confrontational push. First, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in St. Petersburg meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. Missile defense is the key topic, and Washington is offering a small concession on this controversial issue in setting up an exchange center for sharing data. However, this is not enough for the Russians, who want actual participation in missile defense. Putin’s speech criticizing the US involvement in Libya symbolically was made at a ballistic missile factory on the same day Gates was in the country. Putin noted that the Libyan intervention “once again confirms the rightness of those measures which we undertake to strengthen Russia’s defence capacity” and that Russia would increase its ballistic missile capabilities.

The second issue is that Putin personally is not happy with the United States after US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Russia. When Biden was in Moscow, he met with Russian opposition leaders – something that displeased the Kremlin, particularly since Biden mocked a famous quote from former US President George W Bush about Putin during these opposition meetings, saying he “looked into Putin’s eyes and saw no soul.”

Given that US commitments are increasing while Russia’s ability to maneuver is growing, Moscow is using the current opportunity to make its displeasure with Washington known. Reprinted with permission of STRATFOR.

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