(The New York Times) MOSCOW — Upon learning of the violent death of the United States ambassador to Libya on Wednesday, many Russians responded with variations on “I told you so.”
Russia has long argued that the West should not support popular uprisings against dictatorships in the Middle East lest Islamic fundamentalism take hold. Vladimir V. Putin, then serving as prime minister, was especially enraged last fall after an angry crowd killed his ally, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, an event he later condemned as a “repulsive, disgusting” scene.
Since then, Russia has blocked Western initiatives to force Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, from power despite a bloody crackdown on the opposition. Russians’ responses to the storming of the American Consulate in Benghazi underlined the deep policy divide. A prime-time news report pointedly juxtaposed images of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’s death with Colonel Qaddafi’s, pointing at their similarities, then cut to footage of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reacting to the Libyan leader’s death with a cursory “wow.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Margelov said that passions had been stoked by the uprisings and that they “splash out in the form of terrorist acts or massacres of nonbelievers or an attack on embassies and consulates.”
“The frequency of these outbursts, unfortunately, has been growing since the ‘Arab Spring’ brought to power political groups of Islamic orientation, either open or indirect,” Mr. Margelov said, in comments to the Interfax news agency. A telegram from Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov to Mrs. Clinton condemned the attack as a crime, and said “it confirms once again the necessity of combining the forces of our countries and the whole international community to fight with the evil of terrorism.”
But many commentators were far less diplomatic, especially on social media. The first commentaries on Twitter were bitingly sarcastic — “The democratized residents of Libya thanked the staff of the American Embassy for its support,” one read. Another read, “This is what you call exporting democracy, it seems. America gives Libya a revolution, and Libyans, in return, kill the ambassador.” Aleksei K. Pushkov, the head of Russia’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote via Twitter: “Under Qaddafi they didn’t kill diplomats. Obama and Clinton are in shock? What did they expect – ‘Democracy?’ Even bigger surprises await them in Syria.”
Yevgeny Y. Satanovsky, president of the Institute of the Middle East in Moscow, said American leaders should not expect “one word of sympathy” from their Russian counterparts.
“It is a tragedy to the family of the poor ambassador, but his blood is on the hands of Hillary Clinton personally and Barack Obama personally,” Mr. Satanovsky said. He said Russian warnings against intervention in the Middle East came from the bitter experience of the Soviets in Afghanistan.
“You are the Soviet Union now, guys, and you pay the price,” he said. “You are trying to distribute democracy the way we tried to distribute socialism. You do it the Western way. They hate both.” He said dictators were preferable to the constellation of armed forces that emerges when they are unseated.
“They lynched Qaddafi — do you really think they will be thankful to you?” he said. “They use stupid white people from a big rich and stupid country which they really hate.”
Russia’s case against American involvement in the Middle East dates from the post-Sept. 11 campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it has been at the forefront of Russian discourse for at least a year, since Mr. Putin broke out of his role as prime minister and delivered a passionate criticism of the NATO bombing campaign in Libya, leaving the clear impression that he — unlike his predecessor — would have used Russia’s power in the United Nations to stop it.
Mr. Putin has dug his heels in on the issue of Syria, frustrating Western hopes that he could persuade Mr. Assad to leave his post voluntarily. Fyodor Lukyanov, a respected analyst and editor of Russia in Global Affairs, said violence like Tuesday’s had been at the heart of Russia’s warnings. He said Russia had formulated a “post-Communist position: If you try to impose anything on others, as the Soviet Union tried to do, the result will be the opposite, and disastrous.”
“This killing is just strengthening the views which are already quite widespread — that the Western approach to the Arab Spring is basically wrong,” Mr. Lukyanov said.