Although Russia had regained a foothold in Libya by the late 2000s, it was ousted again following the NATO operation and the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The failure of all international attempts to unify the diverse Libyan factions, together with Russia’s increasing influence in Syria following its intervention there, have provided Moscow with an opportunity for a comeback in Libya.
Within the country proper, Russia is carving out a niche for itself in post-conflict efforts at political and economic reconstruction. Across the region, if the Russians manage to reconcile the groups competing for power in Libya, this will not be an end in itself but will have repercussions well beyond the local context, helping Moscow to further crystallise its influence in North Africa and the Middle East.
An abortive return
Gaddafi’s Libya became a client state of the USSR in the 1970s. The first major arms deal between the two countries was signed in 1974, and between 1973 and 1982 there were 11,000 Soviet “advisers” stationed in Libya to train troops in the use of weaponry delivered by the USSR and which massively equipped the Libyan armed forces.
In 2008, Muammar Gaddafi went to Moscow – his first visit since 1985 – and managed to negotiate the cancellation of his country’s debt – estimated at $4.5 billion – in exchange for the resumption of trade between the two countries.
New contracts, worth somewhere between $5 and $10 billion dollars, were signed. Russian energy operators and arms manufacturers were not the only companies to regain footholds in the Libyan market: RZD (Russian railways) landed a $2.2 billion contract to build a 550km high-speed line between Sirte and Benghazi. This was part of a regional project, a rail corridor through North Africa, but its construction was stopped by the events of 2011.
The overthrow of the Gaddafi regime put a damper on all these projects, but in April 2015, Abdullah al-Thani, prime minister of the Tobruk government which was internationally recognised at the time, went to Moscow and hinted that the Russo-Libyan contracts dating from the Gaddafi era might soon be on the table once more.
Besides economic aspects, the Libyan question is also of political importance to the Kremlin. Dmitri Medvedev, then president of the Federation of Russia, had refused to use the Russian veto to block resolution 1973 – which laid the grounds for the NATO operation in Libya.
Libya was one of the very few issues which gave rise to public disputes between President Medvedev and his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who argued in favour of the veto.
Since then, Russia has been afflicted with the “1973 syndrome”, which goes a long way towards explaining its intransigence and constancy on the Syrian issue. Moscow has systematically used its veto over the past few years to block any resolution critical of the Damascus regime.
Libya is indeed a template for the Russian position in Syria, and also seems to be an entry point for Russian influence in North Africa.
Khalifa Haftar, an ‘entrance ticket’?
Moscow’s leaders may well have found in General Khalifa Haftar the reliable partner they have been lacking in post-Gaddafi Libya. Commanding the self-styled National Libyan Army, Haftar is at war with groups he accuses of being “Islamists” currently holding sway in the Benghazi region.
Today, he appears to be the strongman in the Eastern part of the country. His two trips to the Russian capital in June and November 2016, his turning up on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov which happened to be passing the Libyan coast in January 2017 – show the degree of Moscow’s interest in a man whose political and military mindset is keenly appreciated in the Kremlin.
For Haftar, the object of those meetings was probably to obtain the delivery of weapons which the Russians, assuming they would be willing to ship them, are for the moment unable to provide since Libya is under a UN arms embargo.
Since the end of 2015, Libyan affairs have been placed under the direct responsibility of Mikhaïl Bogdanov, Vice-minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of the Near-East, which attests to the importance the Kremlin attaches to the question.
The Russian objective was restated by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on February 1, 2017, at the conclusion of the fourth session of the Forum on Russo-Arab Co-operation in Abu Dhabi. As he put it, Moscow desires “to help the Libyans to restore their territorial integrity, their own state” – in other words to contribute to the reconciliation of the various players whose power struggles are a threat to the country’s territorial integrity.
In May 2016, the Kremlin began to take a more active role: Russia reportedly printed four billion Libyan dinars (approximately $3 billion) on behalf of the Tobruk government, eliciting protests from the Libyan Central Bank in Tripoli, seat of the government of national unity, which is recognised by the international community.
By helping him build his strongman image and consolidating the legitimacy of Khalifa Haftar, Moscow hopes to make him a central figure in Libyan politics so that Tripoli will have to accept him. Here, Russia has more latitude than France, Italy or the United States which can only support Tobruk covertly, for fear of finding themselves at odds with Tripoli authorities whom they are meant to be favouring.
Moscow’s is a long-term strategy, looking towards the end of the embargo, when the Russians will want a reliable partner in Libya to whom they can deliver weapons with a minimal risk of their falling into the hands of extremists.
However, Russian support for Haftar is by no means unconditional, as indicated by the visit to Moscow which Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj is planning to make this month. This journey demonstrates the influence the Kremlin has acquired in the inter-Libyan political process and illustrates the Russian rejection of a zero-sum game, which is one of the major principles of its diplomacy in the Near-East and North Africa.
Moscow’s renewed interest in Libyan affairs is not limited to the local context – it has a regional dimension. There are many other players active on the Libyan scene: North-African (Algeria, Egypt), Near-Eastern (United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey) and Western (France, Italy, US).
Haftar is backed by some of these (Egypt and the UAE and reportedly more discreetly by Italy, France and the US), and for this reason he provides a common ground between these countries and Russia.
Having gained the upper hand in Syria, both militarily and diplomatically, since its armed intervention in September 2015, the Kremlin cannot afford to consider a military option in Libya which could compromise its position in Syria.
At the very most, Russia has offered to participate in a multinational naval operation designed to prevent the seaborne delivery of weapons and reinforcements to the jihadists. On the other hand, Moscow has displayed considerable diplomatic activity founded on its capacity to promote wider discussions, and fuelled by a recently acquired influence due to its Syrian breakthrough.
Its action in Libya has allowed it to enhance its already fruitful relations with certain States (Egypt, UAE) while providing more latitude in its damaged relations with other players (Qatar, France, US).
Moscow’s involvement also echoes that of Algiers – another important partner for Russia in North Africa – which has been acting as a mediator in the Libyan situation, albeit without much success. And Russian initiatives could also build on the efforts of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
For months, Cairo has been urging the international community to openly support Haftar, and, according to certain sources Cairo is shipping weapons to the Haftar’s troops in spite of the UN embargo.
And yet Russia’s willingness to support Haftar’s rise to power and at the same time maintain a dialogue with the weakened Tripoli government may be perceived as a form of duplicity. While the Western powers find themselves increasingly marginalised in the settling of the Syrian crisis, Moscow’s Libyan role also strengthens Russia’s hand in the tug-of-war with the Euro-Atlantic community over Ukraine and Syria, which has lasted for several years now.
The Libyan affair is a delicate one which, via the migration problem, is fuelling divisions within the European Union. And yet, potentially, Libya provides a space for dispassionate co-operation between Russia, the Western powers and the regional players in the struggle against Islamist terrorism.