Russia Keeps Mum On What To Do About Syria

Throughout the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Russia has kept analysts guessing. On Libya for example, the Russians want to find a peaceful way for Moammar Gadhafi to leave power. But at the same time, Russia is not putting pressure on Syria.

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Russia is trying to make its voice heard in the Arab world. A Kremlin envoy showed up yesterday in Tripoli, Libya. He was there to talk about a peaceful way for Moammar Gadhafi to leave power. At the same time, Russia is not putting pressure on Syria, and the different approaches suggests how the Russians see their interests.

NPR's David Greene reports.

Russia's special envoy, Mikhail Margelov, met with the Libyan opposition earlier this month and yesterday with members of Gadhafi's government. Margelov insists Gadhafi has lost his legitimacy as a leader. But he told the BBC yesterday that if Gadhafi steps down, it's possible he could remain in his country.

Mr. MIKHAIL MARGELOV (Russian Special Envoy): In the Arab world the tradition of forgiveness exists. If there is a kind of national reconciliation in Libya and if Gadhafi is involved in that process of national reconciliation, all options are open for the time being.

GREENE: There is no sign this visit accomplished anything. The Libyan opposition has insisted Gadhafi must leave the country. Libya's prime minister, on the other hand, said yesterday that Gadhafi remains Libya's leader and symbol.

Meanwhile, while the U.S. and NATO welcomed Russia's visit, Margelov returned the favor by criticizing NATO.

Mr. MARGELOV: The more bombs are falling, the more difficult it will be to reconcile for the nation. There are no military solutions for a political crisis.

GREENE: The fact that Russia is seeking any kind of solution in Libya has surprised analysts.

Alexander Shumilin, who directs the Center on Greater Middle East Conflicts in Moscow, was struck in March when Russia decided not to veto the U.N. resolution authorizing military action in Libya. Shumilin said by abstaining, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev was breaking from his predecessor, Vladimir Putin.

Mr. ALEXANDER SHUMILIN (Center on Greater Middle East Conflicts): Mr. Putin was more actively supporting the Arab radicals, Hamas always. Mr. Medvedev, he is more careful, is more selective.

GREENE: Shumilin hopes Russia's pressure on Gadhafi is a sign of more cooperation with the West.

Mr. SHUMILIN: This is a piece of hope for us, yes. A piece of hope.

GREENE: Other observers are more skeptical of Russia's behavior.

Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, peppered Russia with criticism recently in his regular column in London's Guardian newspaper. Whatever Russia is up to, he said, the country's diplomacy is often driven by a desire to be important and relevant.

Mr. CARNE ROSS (Former British Diplomat): The Russians have a tradition of seeing the world in a sense as a kind of chessboard, that if they're pushed back on one issue, they'll push back on another elsewhere.

GREENE: And Russia was feeling pushed around on Libya. With all the momentum to oust Gadhafi, including from the Arab League, Russia had little choice but to abstain at the U.N. and let NATO carry out military strikes. Now that NATO's stalled, Ross said Russia may be hoping to carve out some role as hero. But overall, he said, Russia feels they caved on Libya. Confronting the bloodshed in Syria, Russia has returned to form, opposing a resolution challenging President Bashar al-Assad. Ross said this is payback.

Mr. ROSS: And I think there is a sense of this in this case, that the West got its way over Libya and they should not be allowed to have it so easy over Syria. What is disappointing about it, it is not about the specific situation inside these countries. It's more about a global power political game over who is top dog and how the playground politics work out.

GREENE: Alexei Podsterob was Russia's ambassador to Libya in the '90s, and he also spent time as a Russian diplomat at the U.N. Security Council. In his mind, Moscow has a right to be angry over Libya. Russia stood by, he said, as NATO overstepped its mandate and got in the middle of a civil war.

Mr. ALEXEI PODSTEROB (Former Russian Ambassador to Libya): So are the results. We don't want to repeat this mistake, to make this mistake two times.

GREENE: The Kremlin strategy in Libya, he said, may be to clean up a mess made by NATO. From there, Podsterob prefers Russia pick up its old script.

Mr. PODSTEROB: The main lesson - it's impossible to impose democracy for the people. And we see now it in Libya too.

GREENE: Such views here in Moscow give you a taste of the pressure Russian leaders are under to say no when the U.S. and NATO come calling.

David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.

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