MOSCOW -- The American-led military intervention in Libya is creating new tensions with Russia, complicating the Obama administration’s hopes of improving one of Washington’s most important strategic relationships and highlighting the diplomatic risks of a prolonged offensive against Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi.
(PICTURES: Air Strikes in Libya)
The strains were on full display following an hour-long meeting on Tuesday between Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his visiting American counterpart, Robert Gates. With Gates sitting stonily at his side, Serdyukov accused the U.S.-led military coalition of causing widespread civilian casualties throughout Libya and pushed for an immediate cease-fire in the war-torn country.
Serdyukov said Russia continued to support the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya, but he made clear that Moscow was uneasy about the scale and intensity of the military campaign, which began on Saturday and has since involved a daily barrage of cruise missile strikes and air raids by American, British, and French warplanes.
"Unfortunately, recent developments in the country demonstrate that it is experiencing real hostilities, destroying civilian facilities, and the killing of civilians," Serdyukov told reporters gathered at Russia’s Ministry of Defense. "This shouldn't have been let to happen and we informed our U.S. counterparts of our opposition."
Gates, in his own remarks alongside Serdyukov, said the coalition was going out of its way to avoid civilian deaths, noting that most of the strikes have targeted Libyan defensive systems located far away from major population centers. Gates also said he expected major combat operations over Libya to taper off markedly within the next few days; he is the first senior American official to put any sort of timetable on the ongoing offensive there.
The Pentagon chief took an even stronger line after departing Russia’s Ministry of Defense. Speaking to reporters at his hotel overlooking the Kremlin, Gates said he was taken aback by the ferocity of the Russian criticism of the ongoing American-led military operations and unaware of any civilian deaths within Libya because of a coalition air or missile strike.
"I'm a little curious, frankly, about the tone that has been taken," Gates said. "It's perfectly evident that the vast majority, if not nearly all, civilian casualties have been inflicted by Qaddafi... and it's almost as though some people here are taking at face value Qaddafi's claims about the number of civilian casualties, which as far as I'm concerned are just outright lies."
Qaddafi-controlled media has reported that dozens of civilians have been killed in coalition airstrikes, but presented no evidence to substantiate those claims. The U.S., France, and Britain have all said they have no indications of any civilian fatalities inside Libya from coalition raids.
Gates’s comments appeared to be an implicit rebuke of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who on Monday accused the U.S. of causing significant civilian casualties in Libya and likened the entire American-led operation there to "medieval calls for crusades."
Gates came to Russia on a goodwill trip of sorts, which began on Monday with an address at a Russian military academy in St. Petersburg and then the ceremonial firing of a cannon mounted on the top of the city’s ancient fort. The Defense secretary spent his earlier career at the Central Intelligence Agency studying and spying on Russia. Gates plans to step down within months, and the current trip is likely to be his final visit to Russia as a high-ranking American government official. In a sign of the trip’s emotional significance to the Defense chief, he has been accompanied by his wife, Becky, who rarely travels with him.
But the entire trip has been clouded by an unusual public spat between Putin and his nominal ally and successor, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, about the country's support for the U.S.-led military campaign against Libya. In his remarks on Monday, Putin said Russia erred by failing to veto the no-fly zone resolution when it was before the U.N. Security Council. Under the country’s constitution, Russia’s president has sole responsibility for foreign policy, which means that Putin’s blunt declaration that the U.N. resolution was “defective and flawed” amounted to a broadside aimed squarely at Medvedev.
The Russian president fired back at Putin, calling his comments likening the air campaign in Libya to a medieval crusade “unacceptable” and misguided. Medvedev said he stood behind his decision to have Russian diplomats abstain during the vote on the no-fly zone.
“Russia did not exercise [its veto] for one reason: I do not consider this resolution to be wrong,” Medvedev said. “Moreover, I believe that this resolution generally reflects our understanding of what is going on in Libya.”
American officials traveling with Gates said Putin and Medvedev had never clashed so publicly before, though the U.S. officials acknowledged they didn’t know whether the arguments were genuine or part of a pre-planned agreement between the two men to forge more distinct political identities ahead of the country’s next presidential elections. Despite the stinging rhetoric, the U.S. officials said that -- at least for the moment -- they didn't expect Russia to take any concrete steps to revoke the UN authorization or force the U.S.-led coalition to stand down.
Gates, in his comments to reporters on Tuesday, said the military campaign in Libya was going so smoothly that he expected the major combat portion of the operation -- the ongoing strikes on Qaddafi’s radar arrays and anti-aircraft batteries -- to wind down within days. He added that the U.S. also remained on track to transfer command of the offensive later this week to a non-American officer, probably from Britain, France, or another NATO country.
The military progress, however, comes as key American allies have begun to express reservations about the campaign, leaving the Obama administration increasingly isolated internationally as the fighting inside Libya continues. On Tuesday, the Indian government said foreign militaries had no place in Libya, while Brazil called for an immediate cease-fire. China’s largest state-controlled newspaper, meanwhile, said the U.S. was wrong to attack a sovereign country and likened the American-led strikes to Washington’s earlier invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The harsh criticism from Russia and China raises a deeply unsettling prospect for the Obama administration. It may be able to accomplish its military mission inside Libya quickly and with little to no American casualties. But this is not a war that the White House wanted to fight, and the mounting diplomatic tensions mean that the Libyan conflict -- whenever and however it ends -- may ultimately prove more costly than senior U.S. officials had imagined.