David Cameron has attacked Russia for pledging to use its UN veto against limited military action against Syria. However, a significant reason for the Russian position is that they are convinced that Cameron himself, together with Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, deceived them at the UN two years ago over Libya.
In March 2011, the US, Britain and France sought a resolution at the UN to authorise NATO intervention against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. They justified such an intervention as a purely humanitarian response to the threat that Gaddafi would carry out a Srebrenica-style massacre in Benghazi.
The final UN resolution authorised member states to: -
“…take all necessary measures ...to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in Libya…while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”
The US, UK and France persuaded Russia and China not to use their vetoes on the grounds that the Resolution only authorised a limited humanitarian intervention, such as a no-fly zone and limited airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces threatening Benghazi. The same argument was used to persuade India, Germany and Brazil also to abstain.
However, it very soon became clear that the Western powers intended to use their overwhelming airpower to support one side in a civil war and to bring about regime change. They argued that this was allowed under the UN Resolution by stretching the meaning of the words “all necessary measures” far beyond what Russia and China had understood them to mean when they were persuaded to abstain.
The highly respected defence think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has commented that the “Resolution was contorted out of all recognition from the protection of civilians to, in effect, outright regime change.”
Vladimir Putin has denounced the US, British and French action as "a crude violation of the UN Resolution" and “a complete scandal and a complete affront to the international community.” The fact that Putin himself is known for his brutal methods and lack of respect for human rights should not change the force of his criticism.
In 2012, RUSI published a report on the British involvement in Libyan conflict. The title itself was telling, "Short War, Long Shadow." RUSI noted that the way the Western powers behaved over the Resolution “left a sour taste in the mouths of powers like China, Russia and India…”
In the report RUSI worried that a legacy of the Libya conflict would be that China and Russia would presume that “the model in future was actually regime change rather than the protection of civilians and so would use their vetoes more frequently.”
In 2013, the US and France are once again talking of launching a “limited” attack. It is not surprising that some countries do not trust them not to misuse any limited authorisation to go far wider, as they did in Libya. It was at the very least naïve to think that the West could be seen to trick Russia and China and others and that there would not be any consequences.