Analysis: In Libya, Russia struggles to repeat Kosovo success

As NATO planes bombed Serbian forces to try to end the Kosovo war in 1999, Russia was quietly pursuing diplomacy which helped secure a peace settlement in time for a G8 summit in Cologne.

In the run-up to this week's annual Group of Eight summit, Moscow has been trying to help mediate in another conflict in which a NATO air campaign has failed to produce a decisive outcome, this time in Libya.

Some of the parallels between 1999 and 2011 are striking but the Kremlin may have less sway with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi than it had with Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Russia is now an established member of G8, playing a fuller role than when it first joined formally in 1998, though still set apart, economically and politically, from the seven traditional powers from north America, western Europe and Japan.

Moscow portrays itself as impartial on Libya. It abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote on the resolution that authorized military action to establish a no-fly zone and has strongly criticized the NATO air strikes.

Representatives of Gaddafi held talks in Moscow last week and opposition envoys were due to meet Russian foreign ministry officials late on Monday.

On the military front, France disclosed on Monday that it and other members of the NATO-led coalition planned to deploy attack helicopters for the first time in Libya, a potential game-changer that ratchets up pressure on Gaddafi's forces.

The news, leaked to the French daily Le Figaro, bore a distant echo of NATO moves in 1999 to feint preparations for a ground attack on Serbia via Hungary -- a bluff which was said to have shaken Milosevic.

Odds Against

Helping secure a diplomatic breakthrough would boost Moscow's continuing post-Cold War efforts to portray itself as a force in global diplomacy and improve its uneasy relationship with the West, especially the United States.

But the odds are still heavily stacked against Russia helping pull a deal out of the hat before the G8 leaders meet in the French seaside resort of Deauville on Thursday.

Unlike with Serbia, the Kremlin has little economic or political leverage on Tripoli, and Gaddafi is fighting for his survival in power, not just for control of part of his country.

Despite their frustration at Gaddafi's tenacity, Western powers may also be wary of giving Russia any role that could give it an economic or military foothold in oil-producing Libya.

"The demand for a mediator for Libya could grow but I doubt Russia is in a position to play this role," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, told Reuters.

The French, Italian and British governments, he noted, have had closer relations with Gaddafi than did Moscow: "There is no special relationship -- Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi and Tony Blair all had closer ties with Libya than Russia."

Parallels With 1999

It is a far cry from 1999, when Viktor Chernomyrdin, a former Russian prime minister, and then Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari led mediation on Kosovo under the aegis of the G8.

A deal was reached in time for the annual summit in Cologne attended by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, under which Serbia withdrew troops from Kosovo and Russian peacekeepers were installed on the ground along with NATO forces.

In 1999, as in 2011, NATO had been carrying out air raids for several weeks, without managing to persuade its adversary to stop fighting or accept a political settlement.

Western public opinion was showing signs of impatience and NATO faced criticism over the deaths of civilians.

The United States was trying to limit its own involvement and ruling out a ground operation, sanctions had not brought Milosevic or Serbia to their knees, and frustration was growing among European governments.

"The situation in Libya is becoming more and more like the situation in 1999 in Yugoslavia. But it was simpler then," Lukyanov said.

"Milosevic was cynical. He understood there comes a time when you have to reach an agreement. For him, the end of the Kosovo war did not mean the end of his rule in Serbia.

"It's different for Gaddafi. He is, to an extent, a fanatic, and was a convinced revolutionary. Can you make a deal with him?"

Attempts to be Impartial

In the 1990s, Russia trumpeted its traditional ties with fellow Slavs in Serbia and criticized the NATO bombing. It has fewer cards to play in Tripoli, and Gaddafi has seemed more interested in talking to the African Union than to Moscow.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has played down talk of comparisons between the conflicts in Kosovo and Libya.

"I don't think we can equate Serbia and Libya. They are completely different states. However, as I have already said, I am concerned about the ease with which in recent years decisions have been taken to use force in international affairs," he said after talks with Serbian President Boris Tadic in March.

President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin also appear to disagree on the handling of the Libyan conflict, which could hamper any mediation effort. Medvedev rebuked Putin for referring to the West's call for military action as a crusade.

Although Russia did not use its U.N. Security Council veto to block the resolution on a no-fly zone, its relations with the West are more difficult than they were under Yeltsin.

The United States and Russia have agreed to try to "reset" relations. Even so, the unease in ties is another reason why the West may be wary of Russia, an oil and gas producer, playing any role that might give it more in Libya once calm is restored.

[Source: By Timothy Heritage, Reuters, Moscow, 23May11]

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