A plethora of emotional and political explanations have been offered for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and a variety of events have been identified as turning points leading to this moment: There is his current emotional state, his isolation since the onset of the pandemic, or his sense of humiliation after the fall of the Soviet Union. Experts note the perceived threat that a democracy next door poses to his hold on Russia, as well as a 2007 speech in which he attacked the post–Cold War order. The amalgam provides a rounded view of a man taking the world into what experts such as Fiona Hill have described as World War III.
But one event is missing from these analyses, an episode that combines political and emotional aspects, and helped crystallize Putin’s distrust of the West, his own sense of vulnerability, and his ultimate decision to return as Russia’s president: the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya that resulted in the violent death of the country’s eccentric dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
In epochal moments such as these, when a strongman uses the might of his military to invade another country, we often look backwards to search for the moments that brought us to the present, seeking out signs of what was to come. In the case of Putin and Russia, this effort has concentrated on his domestic political evolution, and his relations with the occupants of the White House. Yet one can trace a straight line from the Libya episode—in which Putin’s country initially stood on the sidelines, and which occurred when he was on his four-year hiatus from the presidency in the prime minister’s office—to today’s devastating war in Ukraine.
Having largely gotten away with the takeover of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, Putin saw the Libya intervention as the result of a chain of revolutions followed by Western military interventions that could eventually reach him. And he saw in Gaddafi someone who had accepted the West’s terms and yet nevertheless paid the price, a fate that could ultimately await him. The lesson is a dire one for Ukraine: In Putin’s current worldview, backing down or making any concessions is a death sentence.
Rewind to the Arab uprisings of 2011. After the fall of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, street protests engulfed much of the region, including Libya and Syria. Gaddafi threatened to crush the protesters like “cockroaches.” France and Britain were agitating to intervene. The Obama administration first dragged its feet before throwing its weight behind efforts to establish a United Nations–backed no-fly zone.
U.S. administration officials such as then–Vice President Joe Biden pressed the issue with Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president at the time, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped seal the deal with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over the phone, standing backstage at a television studio after a town-hall event in Tunis. The UN resolution authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya, which included, but was not limited to, a no-fly zone. Russia would not approve the resolution, so the Obama administration was hoping that it would at least abstain, rather than veto the move, during the vote at the Security Council. “C’mon, Sergei, this is important, and the Arab League and the Arab countries are behind us,” Clinton told Lavrov. Medvedev agreed to abstain and, a few hours later, the vote passed. Within a few days, the military campaign over Libyan skies began.
Russia’s abstention was seen by the Obama administration as a diplomatic success. Putin, however, saw it as proof of the West’s treachery. He described the resolution as a “medieval call for a crusade,” another war in a long line of wars initiated by the West—from Serbia to Afghanistan to Iraq—to pursue regime change, sometimes under false pretexts, and ultimately dictate the rules of the global order.
Putin also believed that Medvedev had been naive. In his book All the Kremlin’s Men, Mikhail Zygar, a former editor in chief of the independent Russian TV station Rain, writes that Putin’s entourage whispered in his ear, “Medvedev betrayed Libya, he will betray you as well.” Medvedev had expressed sympathy with the protesters in the Arab world and their democratic aspirations, and would later be accused of having had a hand in Russian protests months later against alleged vote rigging, the largest demonstrations the country had seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. All of these factors only added to Putin’s paranoia.
Zygar writes that “Putin was apoplectic” when Gaddafi was killed. According to several accounts, including in current CIA chief William Burns’s book The Back Channel, Putin frequently replayed the gruesome footage of Gaddafi’s capture in a drainage pipe, being beaten to death. The capture, trial, and execution of Saddam Hussein did not seem to affect Putin as much. He had flippantly told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he would hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili just as “the Americans had hanged Saddam Hussein.” But the lesson Putin drew from Libya was different: Being a pariah had served Gaddafi best; only when he had opened up to the West had they come after him.
To some extent, the psychoanalysis of “why” Putin invaded Ukraine doesn’t matter at this stage. But the Libya episode remains relevant for several reasons. It shows us the lengths to which Putin is willing to go to ensure his supremacy and survival; it illustrates the ways he tries to outmaneuver the West, including with diplomatic and UN processes; and most tragic, in what followed in Syria, it provides a visual reminder of what victory looks like for someone like him.
Despite his initial fears about the Libya intervention, Putin was able to turn it into an opportunity for expanding and entrenching Russia’s power and influence in the region—notably by establishing a military presence, mostly through private military companies like Wagner, in Libya, on NATO’s southern flank.
Back in the Kremlin since early 2012, Putin also watched closely as protests morphed into civil war in Syria, a longtime client of the Soviet Union which established a naval base, in Tartus on the Mediterranean, in 1971.
Stung by the experience with the UN vote on Libya, Russia vetoed UN resolutions on Syria 16 times in the years that followed, on issues such as humanitarian aid, calls for a cease-fire, and an end to aerial bombings. The 2013 redline episode with President Barack Obama, in which the U.S. never backed up its threat to enforce a “redline” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the subsequent agreement on the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons provided an opportunity for Moscow to insert itself further into Syria, pretending to be the problem solver for a problem no one in Washington wanted to deal with.
The full-scale Russian military intervention that then began in September 2015 turned the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, with indiscriminate aerial bombardments targeting key infrastructure including hospitals, and leveling whole neighborhoods. Russia’s footprint in Syria increased at both the Tartus naval base and the newly built Hmeimeem Air Base, as it tested and improved its war arsenal—including long-range precision weapons, paramilitary forces, and cyberwarfare. But perhaps the most important achievement in Moscow’s eyes was how the intervention in Syria “helped solve the geopolitical task of breaking the chain of ‘color revolutions,’” Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu told Russian diplomats in Moscow in 2017. In doing so, it had shown the pursuit of democracy to be a destructive, unappealing endeavor.
Air strikes in Syria continue to this day, even as Russian troops march through Ukraine and launch missiles that are devastating entire parts of large cities. Though Syria has long disappeared from the headlines in the U.S. and around most of the world, Syrians are watching closely what is unfolding miles away, and many are expressing solidarity with Ukrainians as they wonder with trepidation how the outcome will affect them and Russia’s hold on their country.
Some will be rooting for Putin to be deposed by disgruntled oligarchs, but even if this were to be the ultimate outcome, they know the devastation that will first be wrought on Ukraine. More than most perhaps, they understand how the impunity with which Russia was able to conduct the war in Syria, the first large-scale Russian military intervention outside the borders of the former Soviet Union, emboldened Putin. Unlike the West, he did not see Libya or Syria as faraway places with no strategic interests, but as part of a chessboard, one where every square—from the Middle East to Ukraine—mattered.