On Thursday, as NATO war planes prepared fresh strikes against the compound of Muammar Gaddafi, his prime minister, Baghdadi al-Mahmudi, put in an urgent call to Moscow. After months of civil war, he said, Gaddafi was ready to negotiate a ceasefire and he needed Russia to mediate the talks. That same day in the French resort town of Deauville, the French and U.S. presidents, who have been leading the bombing raids against Gaddafi, reportedly came to their Russian counterpart with a similar plea: Help us convince Gaddafi to leave so that a ceasefire can move forward. All the attention had to be flattering, and perhaps a little confusing, for Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. How is it that he has suddenly been pushed into the driver's seat in resolving the Libyan crisis? And more importantly, can he handle the job?
The answer, at best, is maybe. But of all the major powers in the world, Russia is the only one that has carved out a neutral position on Libya, while also taking care to stay involved. In March, it abstained from voting on the United Nations Security Council resolution that allowed the bombing of Libya; and over the past two weeks, Russia has played host to delegations from both the pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces. Neither of those talks in Moscow made much headway, but they did allow Russia to open up a dialogue with both sides a feat that no one in the West can claim.
On May 26, when the leaders of the Group of Eight gathered in France for their annual summit, President Barack Obama reportedly brought up Russia's balancing act during his one-on-one with Medvedev. "After an admission that the conflict is dragging on and the West has severed all contacts with Gaddafi and his circle, it was proposed that Russia step in as a mediator in talks with the Libyan leader," a Russian diplomatic source who attended the meeting told the leading Russian daily Kommersant. The proposed mission, according to the diplomat, would be convincing Gaddafi that the only way he will survive the conflict is by giving up power and leaving Libya for any country he deems safe.
Russia's initial response seems to have been incredulity. "We noted that the solution to the Libya problem that [the Americans] were suggesting does not seem realistic," said the diplomatic source. "We asked them, Do you really believe Gaddafi can be convinced to give everything up?" It was a fair point. The besieged Colonel's rants against the West have evidenced no desire to capitulate.
But the phone call that Libyan Prime Minister Mahmudi made to Moscow on Thursday showed a new readiness, even a desperation, to negotiate. For the first time since the war began, Mahmudi said, in his conversation with the Russian foreign minister, that Gaddafi's regime was ready for unconditional talks with the rebels. After taking a day to think about the offer to mediate the talks, Russia also seemed to change its tone. On Friday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov became the first Russian official to agree with the West that Gaddafi must give up power, and confirmed that Moscow is ready to broker a deal. "Colonel Gaddafi has deprived himself of legitimacy with his actions," Ryabkov told reporters in Deauville. "We should help him leave."
So far, however, Gaddafi's representatives have only offered to take part in a transition of power in Libya that would include constitutional reforms. That has not suited the rebels and their backers in the West, who insist that Gaddafi relinquish power and go into exile unconditionally. So negotiating a deal between them will not be easy, and may require more statecraft than President Medvedev can muster.
In March, his stance on Libya was already undermined by his senior partner, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who second-guessed Medvedev's decision not to veto the U.N. resolution against Gaddafi. Putin called the document "defective and flawed," and Western leaders were left to wonder where Russia really stood on the Libya question.
So Medvedev's sudden eagerness to mediate the conflict looks like a hasty attempt to claw back some foreign policy clout, says Matthew Rojansky, deputy head of the Russia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "But it's very difficult to picture Russia steering this ship safely to harbor," Rojansky says. "Gaddafi doesn't have a lot of incentives at this point, and Russia doesn't have a lot of leverage to convince him."
It's unclear, for instance, how Russia can guarantee that Gaddafi will not end up at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, whose top prosecutor said this month that he wants the Colonel arrested for crimes against humanity. On this front, the precedent set in 1999 is not likely to help. That was when the Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, a gifted negotiator, convinced Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosovic to step down in the face of a NATO bombing campaign. When those talks succeeded, Milosevic was put on trial for war crimes in the Hague, where he died in a prison cell in 2006.
On Friday, Medvedev did little to soothe such concerns at the G8's final press conference, where some of his remarks seemed confused. "When it comes to the departure of the current leader of the Libyan revolution, by which I mean, of course, Gaddafi, then in my opinion, I don't think it makes much difference," Medvedev said. To start the peace negotiations, he said he is dispatching Senator Mikhail Margelov, who has been the President's special envoy in Africa for all of nine weeks but, to his credit, speaks Arabic. The envoy's main objective, Medvedev added, would be to hold talks with the rebels in Benghazi and, "if there is a chance," he may visit Tripoli, too.
For its part, the White House said on Friday that it would stay in close touch with Russia as it pursues its conversations the Libyans. They'd better also wish the Russians luck. The U.S. exit strategy out of a potentially protracted war in Libya now seems to wind through Moscow.