By Leonid Bershidsky
Those who are waiting for the first signs of cooperation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin should keep an eye on Libya.
The scene of an open rivalry between the European Union and Russia could suddenly turn on Trump, who could turn to Putin.
Libya is important for three reasons. It’s the starting point of the so-called Central Mediterranean route by which tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants reach the European Union . It’s also a major oil producer that can affect global prices. Lastly, the chaos in Libya makes it, in the U.S. State department’s terminology, “a terrorist safe haven.” That’s why presidents Obama and Trump have sought to limit the entry of Libyan citizens and those who have visited the country.
At an informal summit on Malta on Friday the leaders of European Union states affirmed their support for the UN-backed government, run from Tripoli by Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Serraj. They also backed a deal Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni signed on Thursday with Serraj. Italy is taking the lead in funding the construction of refugee camps in Libya, and the EU as a whole recently earmarked an additional 200 million euros ($215 million) for its efforts to keep potential migrants in Libya, Tunisia and Niger.
But refugees are not Putin’s priority in Libya. He’s far more interested in restoring Russian influence there, and establishing a military presence if he can.
Under Muammar Qaddafi, Libya was a Russian ally, a playground for Russian energy companies, and a buyer of Russian weapons. When he fell in 2011, the Russian state railroad monopoly lost a lucrative contract to build a rail line along the Mediterranean coast, one of many voided Russian investments.
Putin watched the Arab Spring with dismay — not just because it dispatched kleptocrats like himself, but also because those secular authoritarian rulers were often replaced with extremists. To Putin, these strongmen were a bulwark against jihadism. He drew a clear red line at Syrians’ Western-backed attempt to overthrow Syrian Head of Regime Bashar al-Assad, forged a cordial relationship with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and restored ties with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His alliance with Iran fits that line of behavior too.
In Libya, Putin’s axis of secular authoritarians cannot include Serraj since he holds onto power with support from some extremist groups and Putin’s Western adversaries. Khalifa Haftar, a powerful military commander who controls eastern Libya and resists the Serraj government, fits the bill much better.
Haftar chased extremist militants out of Benghazi and the surrounding area and took over Libya’s key oil terminals from pro-government forces last September, boosting the country’s output. The Kremlin has been cultivating a relationship with Haftar, inviting him for a visit to Moscow last November and then hosting him on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in January, where he held a teleconference with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Russia is obliged to follow the UN arms embargo against any Libyan forces except the al-Serraj government, so it cannot provide official military aid to Haftar. There have been unconfirmed reports, however, that the Kremlin has struck an unofficial deal to supply Haftar via Algeria, a long-time Moscow arms client.
That’s potentially scary for the EU. If a Putin ally takes over Libya, any deal on their primary issue — refugees — could be threatened. If Haftar allowed Russian military bases in Libya, Putin’s strength in Middle East politics would continue to grow as well.
This sets the scene for a potential clash between the EU on one side and Putin and Trump on the other. There are major reasons for Trump to support Haftar over Serraj. Haftar spent 20 years in the U.S., living not far from the Central Intelligence Agency’s Langley headquarters and working to undermine Qaddafi, his one-time friend and ally. Trump is also highly skeptical of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s actions in Libya as the Qaddafi regime disintegrated, and, like Putin, he doesn’t believe in imposing democracy on Middle Eastern nations where extremist groups enjoy popular support.
Haftar and his supporters celebrated Trump’s victory last November, seeing the new U.S. president as a potential ally against jihadists.
Moscow likely wouldn’t mind testing the opportunities for cooperation with Trump in Libya. On Thursday, the state propaganda agency RIA Novosti published a column by Avigdor Eskin, an Israeli political consultant close to the Russian nationalist right, asserting that the Trump administration — namely National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — had a plan on Libya that might involve Russian cooperation via Haftar. The supposed plan involves building new “micro-cities” rather than refugee camps in Libya, with factories and oil facilities to put them to work.
Although that sounds like wishful thinking, the Kremlin is highly likely to approach the Trump administration with offers of pacifying Libya and thus weakening ISIS. The U.S. wouldn’t even need to do anything except turn a blind eye to Russian support of Haftar. As in Syria, Putin’s unique selling proposition is that he is not squeamish when it comes to dealing with strongmen and that, unlike any Western leader, he is unconstrained by the need to seek political support at home: He knows by now how to create it through a powerful propaganda machine.
If Trump’s isolationist team is willing to cut its risks and outsource at least part of its promised fight against terrorism to Russia, an understanding on Libya is a possible first step down that road.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, and was the founding editor of Russia’s top business daily, Vedomosti.