DEAUVILLE, France – Russia abandoned one-time ally Moammar Gadhafi and offered Friday to mediate a deal for the Libyan leader to leave the country he has ruled for more than 40 years.
The striking proposal by a leading critic of the NATO bombing campaign reflects growing international frustration with the Libyan crisis and a desire by the Kremlin for influence in the rapidly changing Arab landscape.
With Gadhafi increasingly isolated and NATO jets intensifying their attacks, Russia may also be eyeing Libya’s oil and gas and preparing for the prospect that the lucrative Libyan market will fall into full rebel control.
Early today, two NATO airstrikes shook the Libyan capital, Tripoli. It was not immediately clear what was targeted.
“He should leave,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said of Gadhafi. “I proposed our mediation services to my partners. Everyone thinks that would be useful.”
The proposal thrust Medvedev into the spotlight at a summit in France of Group of Eight rich nations. Talk of this year’s Arab world uprisings has dominated the summit.
Analysts question whether Russia still has any leverage over Gadhafi, and the leaders of France, Britain and Germany said there’s no point in negotiating directly with the Libyan leader himself.
“If Gadhafi makes this decision, which will be beneficial for the country and the people of Libya, then it will be possible to discuss the form of his departure, what country may accept him and on what terms, and what he may keep and what he must lose,” Medvedev told reporters.
Medvedev said he is sending envoy Mikhail Margelov to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi immediately to start negotiating, and that talks with the Libyan government could take place later. Margelov said earlier Friday that it’s necessary to negotiate with all “reasonable” representatives of the government, including Gadhafi’s sons.
In response, Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, said: “Russia is one of the traditional friends of Libya. … We don’t think that Russia will sway its position to side with NATO.”
He would not say whether Gadhafi had been informed of Medvedev’s proposal, but told reporters in Tripoli that the Libyan leader was constantly watching the news.
South African President Jacob Zuma is also using his party’s ties to Gadhafi to work out a peaceful outcome, heading to Libya on behalf of the African Union.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner called Russian, South African and U.N. mediation efforts with Gadhafi “constructive,” but said they needed to make clear that the Libyan leader must leave power.
“I don’t know if it’s up to the international community, given what Gadhafi has done against his own people, to prepare him any kind of easy exit or some kind of golden parachute to leave Libya,” Toner told reporters.
Asked what value the mediation might then hold, Toner said the efforts could be useful “to make him or his regime see clearly the writing on the wall.”
“There’s no way out,” Toner added. “He’s no longer the legitimate leader in the eyes of the international community, in the eyes of his own people. The sooner he accepts that and moves on, the better.”
It’s unclear what exactly Gadhafi – known as the Leader of the Revolution or Brother Leader in Libya – could step down from. He has no constitutional executive position, but wields power by force of his personality and presence, making it difficult to guarantee that he has given up power as long as he and his sons remain in the country.
The opposition wants Gadhafi exiled. Medvedev said he wouldn’t offer Gadhafi refuge in Russia but said with a grin, “such countries could be found” that would be willing to take him in.