On Wednesday, July 19, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came to Berlin for important talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He arrived with updates from his conversation with President Barack Obama of Thursday, July 14, at which agreement was reached on Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and many other issues. It was up to Medvedev to bring the German chancellor aboard as the third party to those agreements.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 500 of July 15: A New Troika-Obama, Medvedev and Merkel Set Out to Cut Short Libyan War, Remove Assad).
Already shared by the Russian and German leaders was their opposition to US-led NATO military intervention in Libya from the start. It was therefore no surprise to hear Medvedev declaring that the UN Security Council's no-fly zone resolution for Libya had led that country into war. He said, "We don't want the events in Syria to unfold as they did in Libya. That is why we are cautious here."
The chancellor' put in that an international response was called for by events in Syria: "We must make clear that we don't operate with different yardsticks on Syria and Libya."
On Libya, they agreed on the urgency of a diplomatic solution for ending the civil war there. . "It won't be possible to resolve it with military means alone," Merkel said.
The Russian and German leaders then got down to brass tacks, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Moscow, Berlin and the Middle East report, formulating the guidelines to be handed Russia's Special Presidential envoy, Mikhail Margelov, who was appointed by the Obama, Medvedev and Merkel as "our man in Tripoli and Damascus."
The live wire in the Sudan accommodation
Margelov, at 47, has the distinction of becoming the first Russian diplomat ever named to perform a common mission in a Middle East trouble spot on behalf of three powers, the US, Russia and Germany.
Because he stays well out of the limelight, few people in the West will not have noticed that before his new missions, he had been shuttling between Middle East and African capitals for some months.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals that Margelov turned up in Khartoum not long ago wearing a Russian-American hat and is credited with persuading Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir not to go to war against South Sudan. He even convinced him to participate in the new nation's independence celebrations in Juba on July 9.
Today, the Russian diplomat may be the only non-African who holds the key to Bashir and South Sudan President Salva Kir achieving relations of co-existence.
Above all, they must come to terms on the sharing out of oil revenues. The oilfields are situated in South Sudan, but the black gold's only route to market is through the pipeline running outside its territory up to the Red Sea outlet at Port Sudan.
An Arabist fluent in American English
So what is known about the official bearing the weighty official title of Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of Russia?
In the first place, he doesn't spend much time in Moscow but always seems to be on the go. He is often to be seen in fancy hotels and restaurants in various Middle East capitals, including Tel Aviv, where he spends time hobnobbing with Israel-based Russian oligarchs.
He can also be frequently found in the most remote villages of Africa. There, he sheds his smartly-tailored suits for safari outfits and huddles closely with tribal chiefs or perhaps dances along with them to the tune of local African airs.
Margelov embarked on his remarkable career in the latter half of the 1980s as a teacher of Arabic at the Higher School of the USSR State Security Committee. All the teaching staff at this school were agents of the First Chief Directorate-Russian Foreign Intelligence, the counterpart of CIA counterintelligence.
His English is also fluent. He made his first known contact with Americans in 1990-1995 when he was employed by a number of US consulting companies exploring investment projects in the Commonwealth of Independent States after the USSR folded.
From there, he went straight into Russian politics and quickly took off.
In late 1995, he was appointed Project Director for the publicity campaign boosting the presidential aspirations of Grigory Yavlinsky, author of a plan for the Soviet Union's transition to a free-market economic and leader of the liberal Yabloko movement which found favor in the West.
A devout believer in Russian-US cooperation
There, his talents soon attracted notice. In 1996, he was head-hunted by President Boris Yeltsin and made chief coordinator for the president's campaign for re-election.
That job was to shape his future relations with Washington up until the present day.
During his time with the rumbustious Russian president, he made history as the only Russian of his day to have a Hollywood film made about his exploits.
The movie "Spinning Boris," screened in 2003, directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Jeff Goldblum, Anthony LaPaglia and Liev Schreiber, tells the story of a Russian political high-flyer who hired American consultants to lift Boris Yeltsin's 1996 reelection campaign out of its sinking approval ratings.
Most audiences treated the movie as another Hollywood political comedy. In fact it was a true story.
Margelov did hire three American PR consultants and with their help brought Yeltsin to victory.
As early as fifteen years ago, this high-achieving Russian became imbued with the fervent belief that US-Russian cooperation would promise both partners great benefits. He has held to this conviction up until the present, one of the few who ventured into this ambiguous area without crossing the boundaries of national loyalty.
From there, it was a short hop to the top. From January to March 2000, Mikhail Margelov served as a consultant at Vladimir Putin's Presidential Campaign Headquarters with responsibility for contacts with foreign media.
A well-timed interview to set the record straight on the Libyan war
He may be a consummate diplomat but when necessary he does not mince words in the public domain.
Last Thursday, July 14, NATO chiefs were bowled over to hear him say in an interview with the Moscow daily Izvestia that the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had a "suicidal plan" to blow up the capital Tripoli if it were taken by rebels:
"The Libyan premier told me: If the rebels seize the city, we will cover it with missiles and blow it up," Margelov said.
Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, NATO war commander in Libya, said initially that he could not confirm any plan by Qaddafi to demolish the capital Tripoli. But later, he indirectly confirmed Margelov's words when he said: "I can report that the Qaddafi regime has given direction to its forces to destroy certain facilities as they withdraw back."
The Russian diplomat departed radically from the NATO policy of presenting Qaddafi's forces as on the losing end of the war and left with scant resources for fighting on by coalition air strikes. Sharply questioning NATO's claims, Margelov asserted that Qaddafi still had an abundance of missiles and ammunition and, indeed, had never fired a single surface-to-surface missile. In theory, Tripoli might be short of tank ammunition and rifle cartridges, Margelov allowed, but he had plenty of missiles and explosives.
By shooting down NATO's picture of the balance between the opposing forces in the Libyan conflict, the Russian was preparing the public in the West for the realities of the negotiations which he is to lead. He wants it on record that the Libyan ruler is not coming to the table from a position of weakness any more than the NATO powers are coming from a position of strength.