Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, going on for over a week now, has been condemned across the world. However, there are countries that had to walk a very fine line in deciding their reactions and contextualising them. It goes without saying that a country like Syria, for example, was likely to defend the Russian aggression, thanks to President Vladimir Putin’s great help to save his friend, President Bashar Al-Assad.
In an interview with Russia’s Sputnik News, published on 1 March, Syria’s deputy Foreign Minister, Bashar Jaafari, said that it is possible that the US would transfer terrorist of Daesh and others to Ukraine to fight the Russians. According to previous experiences, Jaafari said, he would not be surprised to see terrorists in Northern Syria fighting in Ukraine. Citing the fact that Syrian mercenaries have appeared in Libya and other countries, the Minister accused the West of being ready to do the same in Ukraine.
However, when a country like Libya takes a pro-Russian position, it is putting itself in a very difficult position that has the potential to further harm its internal affairs more than help sort its own house. Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with veto power, and Libya “needs all the help it could get” from such power, said a Tripoli-based analyst, speaking anonymously. He pointed out that, while Libya imports much of its wheat needs from Ukraine, it does not mean that “we have to be fully on the side of Kyiv” when we could be neutral. Many Libyans study in Russia, while others study in Ukraine, which has been the favourite destination for medical Libyan tourists with many Ukrainian medical professionals regularly visiting Libya for work.
Yet, Libya’s Foreign Minister, Najla Mangoush, chose to side with Ukraine from day one. In a 24 February tweet, she wrote “we strongly condemn” the Russian attack on Ukraine, while calling for de-escalation—two contradictory positions in one statement! Many Libyans responded by denouncing and ridiculing the Minster, accusing her of “meddling” in a far away conflict without any benefits for Libya. One user, named Ali Hussin, asked the minister “why didn’t you [Mangoush] condemn the NATO attack on Libya”, reminding her of the western alliance’s bombardment of Libya back in 2011. Another called on her to resign since “you do not know much” about the international political game. While someone called Menem asked the Minister why “did not you say anything about the Russians in Libya.” He was referring to the thousands of Russian mercenaries still in Libya since Russia’s Wagner Group first brought them there in 2016 to help Khalifa Haftar, where they played a vital role in his 2019 failed war to take Tripoli.
Libya’s incoming Prime Minister, Fathi Bashaga, in his vote of confidence speech yesterday, avoided the conflict in Ukraine. He is now an ally with Russia, supported Haftar and the Ukrainian conflict is hot potato for him. However in a 2 March tweet Bashaga wrote that Russia’s “attack on Ukraine is a violation of international law” avoiding the use of stronger language, while calling for dialogue.
Minister Al-Mangoush, though, did not seem to care about public opinion, instead, repeating her condemnation of Russia during her speech before the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva on 1 March. However, this time she also condemned the Israeli “aggression against the Palestinian people.”
The Ukrainian conflict puts many small nations in a dilemma in terms of their foreign polices and how they should react on similar situations involving super powers like Russia and the US—both of which have a long history of violating international law and sovereignty of other countries.
I put the question to Daw Mansouri, a law professor and member of Libya’s constitutional assembly. He said “they should be careful in their reactions” since big powers will not listen to them, anyway, and superpowers “do not really care” what Libya says. He added, however, being “perceived as supporter of one side” could have very “negative consequences for Libya”. Mr. Mansouri, recalling President George Bush, Junior’s famous line “if you are not with us, you are with the terrorists”, concluded by saying “neutrality and calls for de-escalation is always safe positions.” Former President Bush made that remark while preparing his invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
There are those who played it safe like Egypt, for example, who reacted to the Russian invasion by emphasising “dialogue and diplomacy” as preferred approaches to solving political issues. In a Foreign Ministry statement, Cairo also said that political solutions will “safeguard international security”. Egypt was walking a tightrope because Russia and Ukraine provide 80 per cent of its wheat imports. Angering Kyiv or Moscow is a luxury Cairo cannot afford.
Yet, the reactions coming from the Middle East seem to be contradictory and confusing, too. Kuwait, a former victim of 1990s Iraqi invasion itself, unsurprisingly, cosponsored the UNSC resolution aimed at condemning Russia. While United Arab Emirates, a close US ally and a temporary member of UNSC, abstained from voting for that resolution which Russia’s representative vetoed, anyway.
Lebanon, like Libya, stood out in condemning the Russian invasion, prompting the Russian Ambassador in Beirut to say “we always look at who stands with us and who stands against us”— coded warning to already troubled Lebanon.
The League of Arab States, the regional bloc comprising all Arab countries, reacted with a statement calling for dialogue while noting that all sides to the “crisis” are friends to its member states. Most Arab countries depend heavily on Russia for arms and on Ukraine and Russia for wheat imports, too.
If Moscow is violating international law by its attack on Ukraine, it is following what Israel and US have been doing for decades. From Palestine to Iraq, and all the way to Afghanistan, Israel and US have a long history of aggression and disregard for all international laws.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.