Why did Russia abstain when UN Security Council Resolution 1973 came to a vote? Given Moscow's traditionally strong stance in favor of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, especially given the troubles Russia has faced in the North Caucasus, why did the Kremlin give the West the permission slip it has denied before (over Kosovo, Zimbabwe and Burma, among others)?
It is important to recall that "Russia does not have a singular foreign policy, but multiple foreign policies" Drawing an example from Russian history, to the 17th century proliferation of overlapping and competing government offices called prikazy, it is useful to think of Russian policy today resulting less from the autocratic will of the president (or the prime minister), and to consider instead a "prikaz model"--with policy emerging from the balancing of rival and competing interest groups.
Permitting the Libya resolution to pass through the UN Security Council, without a Russian veto, fit the interests of a number of different groups within the Russian foreign policy establishment. Certainly, for those partisans of the "reset" with the Obama administration, beginning with president Dmitry Medvedev, it was a low-cost way of showing Washington the benefits of continued cooperation with Russia--that the "reset" has not run out of gas following last year's passage of an Iran sanctions resolution and the ratification of the New START treaty. More importantly, however, permitting the resolution to pass was a favor done for French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who has, over the last several years, been developing a Franco-Russian partnership along the lines of the long-standing German-Russian partnership.
But while letting the resolution through appealed to the modernizing faction (the "pragmatic Westernizers") in the Kremlin, there were also tangible benefits for other groups as well, starting with the defense community. France's championing of the Libya mission is part of Paris's longer-term goal of revamping the focus of the NATO alliance, away from the east and towards the south, with the Mediterranean basin, not the Eurasian plains, the primary focus of the security organization. Even if Muammar Gaddafi goes quickly, the task of restoring stability in that country, as well as throughout North Africa, will take a great deal of time and engagement. Georgia, in that event, becomes far more distant and peripheral to the alliance.
And deputy prime minister Igor Sechin, who oversees the energy industry, must also be smiling. Instability in Libya reinforces the importance of Russia as a stable, reliable provider of energy to Europe. And instead of seeing the Russian government as the enemy, international oil companies, starting with BP and Exxon Mobil, are anxious to work with the Kremlin to access and develop more of Russia's hydrocarbon bounties--a trend that is likely to accelerate both in the wake of events in Libya and Japan's ongoing nuclear crisis.
And if events in Libya should go badly, and draw the Western powers into another nation-building enterprise in the greater Middle East, all the better. To the extent that the United States focuses more time and energy in this part of the world, there is far less incentive to play a more active role in the Eurasian space--this is one of the lessons that the Russians have drawn from the Iraq War.
Perhaps Gaddafi was expecting the Russians to extend the protection of their UN veto for old times sake. But the Colonel has spent the last number of years improving his relations with the West. Drawing the ire of the United States and France by blocking the UN resolution--especially since, given the 1999 Kosovo precedent of using a regional organization to authorize action was already in play, with the request made by the Arab League--would not have prevented action from taking place--and allowing the West to act could end up being very beneficial for Russian interests.
Russian foreign policy may be "schizophrenic"--to cite the complaint of U.S. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates last year--but when the interests of the different Kremlin groups align, action happens. We saw that in New York yesterday.
[As with all commentaries on this site, these thoughts represent personal opinions only.]