Why the Shadow of Libya Looms Large Over Russia

Russia’s leadership has sought to navigate the revolution in Libya akin to someone searching for a clear depiction of reality in a warped mirror at a house of mirrors. However, they’ve only encountered reflections of their own biases and preconceptions instead.

Similar to the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, the discourse surrounding Libya has fixated on peripheral issues. Rather than delving into an examination of Libyan society, Russian political experts have become entangled in debates over a clash of values. These arguments fail to advance Russian comprehension of the developments in North Africa.

Russian analysts and commentators either criticize or express sympathy towards the regime of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Arguments from both perspectives often revolve around personal sentiments and lack substantial political depth beyond occasional slogans.

Numerous Russian leaders were evidently repelled by the eccentric conduct of the Libyan leader, his inadequate efforts in combating terrorism, and his frequent fluctuation between ideological extremes and stances on nationalism versus alignment with the West. Nevertheless, there were also those within Russia who applauded Gaddafi.

The discussion surrounding Gaddafi mirrors the ceaseless and unproductive dispute between Stalinists and anti-Stalinists. For Stalinists, his oppressive and despotic governance stands as the primary factor for their masochistic admiration of him.

They rationalize Stalin’s years of repression by citing the Soviet Union’s accomplishments such as the industrial revolution, eradication of illiteracy, and scientific achievements. However, the outcomes of Soviet modernization lack emotional resonance for them and are only referenced as positive byproducts of authoritarian rule.

On the other hand, anti-Stalinists are inclined to utterly dismiss those achievements and may even deny their existence altogether. This reaction stems from an emotional desire to lash out against the same tyrannical power that continues to captivate them, akin to how a snake charmer mesmerizes a cobra.

Similar patterns characterize the ongoing discourse surrounding Libya. Beneath numerous official Russian statements lies a latent, perhaps subconscious, aversion to democracy. This aversion isn’t rooted in critique of Western liberal institutions but rather in a pathological distrust of the Russian populace. Leaders perceive the lower class of society merely as labourers or as tools of the state, capable of manipulation and expected to obediently fulfil the ruler’s directives.

Discussions regarding a welfare state often devolve into calculations of the amount of rubles allocated to various social programs and debates over whether the funds reached their intended targets or were misappropriated. The notion that certain individuals prioritize freedom, human dignity, and social progress appears frivolous and simplistic to the country’s leaders. As long as this mindset persists, prospects for the emergence of social movements or the advancement of civil society seem bleak.

Meanwhile, Russia is confronted with the imperative of rectifying its internal affairs. However, leaders can only accomplish this objective when they start to cultivate respect for themselves and the populace at large, viewing them as fellow citizens and collaborators—not merely as masses to be governed by the appropriate ruler.

When Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, was pulled from his hiding place in the sewers of Sirte in 2011 and killed by his own people, Vladimir Putin publicly expressed his disgust at the footage of Gaddafi’s murder, possibly indicating a certain concern about his own possible fate.

That incident remains a notably sensitive issue for Putin, occurring during the period from 2008 to 2012 when he held the position of prime minister, having temporarily yielded the presidency to his ally Dmitry Medvedev. According to Putin’s supporters, Dmitry Medvedev was misled into endorsing a UN resolution permitting a restricted intervention, which was subsequently exploited by Western powers to oust and eliminate Gaddafi. They dismiss the argument that the Libyan intervention was justified on humanitarian grounds, contending that the situation spiralled out of control as the Libyan uprising intensified.

During historical moments like these, when a leader deploys military force to invade another state, we frequently reflect on the past, searching for the events that led us to this point, endeavoring to discern early indicators of what lay ahead. In the case of Putin, this endeavor has focused on his domestic political trajectory and his interactions with the Western world. However, one can draw a direct connection from the Libya incident—during which Putin’s nation initially remained neutral, coinciding with his four-year absence from the presidency while serving as prime minister—to the current devastating conflict in Ukraine.

Putin viewed Gaddafi as an example of someone who had acquiesced to Western demands but still faced dire consequences, a fate that could potentially await him. This lesson serves as a grim warning for Ukraine: in Putin’s current perspective, yielding or offering concessions equates to a fatal outcome.

[Photo by Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Fuad Alakbarov is a freelance foreign policy analyst from Glasgow with a focus on South Caucasus, Africa and Central Asia. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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