By Colum Lynch and Kavitha Surana
Russia derailed the appointment of a dual American-German national as the U.N.’s top official in Libya, flexing its diplomatic muscle in a region where Moscow has been steadily seeking to expand its influence, according to several diplomatic sources.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres had decided in recent weeks to tap Richard Wilcox, a senior official at the World Food Programme who served as director of U.N. affairs in the Clinton White House, as his special representative in Libya. But before an official offer was made, Russian diplomats in New York registered concerns about Wilcox’s fitness for the job.
It remains unclear precisely why Russia objected to the candidacy of Wilcox, and the Russian mission to the U.N. did not respond to a request for comment. But two sources familiar with the matter said that Moscow said he didn’t have the right profile, or have sufficient stature, for a job that was previously held by senior foreign diplomats, including Martin Kobler, a former German ambassador to Egypt and Iraq, and Bernardino León, a former Spanish diplomat who left the job in disgrace.
While in the midst of negotiations on a power-sharing arrangement in Libya, León was in talks with the UAE on a lucrative arrangement to lead the Gulf country’s diplomatic academy.
In New York and Washington, diplomats were left mostly left to speculate, with one senior U.N. based official suggesting Russia likely objected to the U.N. hiring another top envoy that they perceive as too close to the United States and its Western partners.
“Quite honestly, what the Russians are probably doing is sending a reminder that they can interfere with things in an unhelpful way if they are not brought along” with the West’s policies in Libya, said one former U.S. official who has tracked Wilcox’s work. “And a good candidate was the collateral damage.”
Importantly, the move comes a time when Russia is seeking to expand its own role in Libya’s future. In January, Libyan militia leader Khalifa Haftar, who heads the Libyan National Army, which represents the country’s key eastern militias, was given a tour of Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov as it transited the Mediterranean, a signal meant to underscore Moscow’s support for his anti-Islamist forces. Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, spoke to Haftar by video conference during the visit.
Together with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Russia has backed Haftar, who opposed the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which is led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
The Obama administration and its European allies largely backed the GNA, reasoning that Haftar lacked the military power and political reach to rule the country on his own. But with the arrival of the Trump administration, observers speculated that the White House might gravitate toward Haftar, which would provide an opportunity to work with Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates in the fight against the Islamic State.
The terror group established a beachhead in Libya after the United States and its Western allies stepped up military pressure on the extremist movement in Syria and Iraq.
But those expectations may be colliding with the reality of Haftar’s limited power.
“The assumption has been that the Trump administration would be interested in leaning more towards Haftar, but I suspect briefings from any of the agencies with a relevant stake in Libya will suggest Haftar can’t do it all by himself,” said Eric Pelofsky, a former Obama administration official handling the Middle East and North Africa. “They need to consider alternatives.”
“I would assume the administration does realize Haftar can’t do it alone and that that strategy is not one that would lead to a favorable outcome,” he added.
Despite President Donald Trump’s initial calls for improved relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his top national security team has repeatedly butted heads with Moscow.
On Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had developed friendly ties with Putin when he lead ExxonMobil, said economic sanctions against Russia should “remain in place” until it returns Crimea to Ukraine.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has emerged as a particularly harsh critic, telling U.S. senators in late January that “Russia will never be a credible partner” as long as Putin is in charge.
The prospects of improved relations appear increasingly dim amid FBI and congressional investigations to determine the extent of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
But Russia’s action in New York underscored Moscow’s desire — and ability — to make Washington pay a price for maintaining sanctions on Russia.
The informal veto of Wilcox came after the Trump administration in early February blocked the selection of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for the top U.N. Libya job. In opposing Fayyad, Haley said the United States “does not currently recognize a Palestinian state or support the signal this appointment would send within the United Nations.”
One U.N. diplomat said the United States had “opened this can of worms by opposing Fayyad,” setting the stage for “tit-for-tat” provocations by both sides.
But diplomats said that while the Trump administration approved of Wilcox’s nomination, they had not put his name forward for the job. And they didn’t put up a fight with the Russians on behalf of Wilcox, who began his U.N. career as a political officer in Bosnia in the 1990s, before going on to a career at the World Food Programme.
It was there that Wilcox established an insurance plan for covering the humanitarian fallout from droughts, the first of its kind. He later set up an office for the African Union to provide insurance for natural disasters and epidemics, including Ebola.
In part because the United States under Trump has so far been missing in action in Libya, Europe has taken the lead in trying to shape the future of the North African country, which has become a major transit hub for refugees and migrants headed across the Mediterranean.
Italy, a former colonial power in Libya with energy and security interests in the region, has stepped up its role trying to shore up Sarraj’s U.N.-backed government. In January it reopened its embassy in Tripoli, the first and only Western country to do so since instability in 2015 forced evacuations.
On Sunday, Rome announced a new deal aimed at curbing migration, bringing together representatives from 60 Libyan tribes to patrol the southern border, through which pour sub-Saharan refugees. But the initiative is also intended to thwart Haftar’s expansion, said Karim Mezran, a North Africa expert at the Atlantic Council.
The measure may be an attempt to corral competing tribes, long a source of instability, into a peace agreement loyal to the government in Tripoli, Mezran said, and “de facto constitutes some sort of a barrier for the penetration of Haftar’s forces” seeking to spread through the interior.
“I think the real purpose [of the deal] is to put them together and show them there is some advantage to supporting the government in Tripoli rather than fighting each other.”
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter.
Kavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on Europe and the Mediterranean.