By Wolfgang Pusztai
Americans say, an aircraft carrier is 100,000 tons of diplomacy. The Russians give it a little bit less… But in January of this year, their sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, was used as 60,000 tons of diplomacy, when they invited the controversial commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Field Marshall Heftar, to visit their ship.
The news headers in the region were theirs.
But what do the Russians want in Libya? What are their strategic interests? What are their tools for strategy – other than their aircraft carrier – and what can they achieve with them?
Nowadays, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has become a major player in the Middle East and North Africa, pursuing its security and economic interests very consistently also in Libya.
Of utmost importance to the Kremlin are security interests and power projection as a means of influence.
Currently the naval facility in Tartus (Syria) is the only permanent base for the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean. Although there are plans to expand the base, it is considered too small to harbor large warships like the Admiral Kuznetsov and his major escort ships, like the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy. Therefore, the Russians are looking for a larger base to allow a sustained significant maritime presence in the region. It seems to be that their preferred option is Tobruk in eastern Libya.
Russia considers Islamic extremism a major security threat. Consequently, it fights jihadists not only on its own territory, but also abroad and seeks regional partners in the struggle against Sunni terrorists. As Moscow has realized that Libya breaking up in an uncontrolled way would become a major hub for terrorism in the region, it supports Libya’s parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR) and its LNA in its fight against the Islamists, while also maintaining contacts with rival groups.
On the economic side, Libya is an important export market for Russia’s revitalized armament industry and other companies. Cooperation on the hydrocarbon sector is also in the interest of the Kremlin. These are good reasons to seek cooperation with all the major Libyan players.
Russian diplomacy has a high credibility in Libya and in the region. It did not have a prominent role with the UN-sponsored, for the time being, unsuccessful “Libya Political Agreement” (LPA) and gives a more lukewarm support to the “Government of National Accord” (GNA), established by the LPA. However, the Kremlin has launched its own diplomatic offensive, talking not only to the HoR, Heftar and the GNA, but also to the political and military leadership of other important actors, like the city of Misrata.
Moscow has also strong connections with Libya’s most important neighbors. Algeria is a major buyer of Russian military high-tech hardware, from YAK-130 training jets to top-modern 4.5 generation Su-30 Flanker fighters and warships.
Since the fall of President Morsi, relations between the Kremlin and Egypt have strongly improved on the diplomatic, economic and military side.
Egypt, currently a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has been more than once supportive to Russian positions in this important forum. When President Putin visited Egypt in 2015, among several other contracts, an agreement for financing and constructing a nuclear power plant was signed. Based on the negative experiences from the break with the Soviet Union in the early 1970s and with support from the United States in 2012/13, Egypt wants to avoid one-sided dependencies in the armament sector.
Consequently, it is now buying more Russian military hardware. Even its two brand-new French Mistral class helicopter carriers will most probably be equipped with sophisticated attack helicopters of Russian origin. These good regional relations could be very helpful for any Russian diplomatic initiative in Libya.
Libya is subject to an UN weapons embargo. However, Russia is delivering equipment and weapons, from spares to attack helicopters (through third nations, like the United Arab Emirates) and fighter jets to the LNA. Support through civilian companies includes technicians, air transport, and possibly also pilots.
Russian intelligence gathering capabilities for North Africa are considerable and include satellite reconnaissance, all kinds of signal intelligence as well as human intelligence on the ground. Modern drones could eventually be operated out of Egypt. It is likely that some intelligence support is already provided to the LNA.
Putin’s military has certainly the capability for powerful strikes on targets in Libya. The whole country is well within the range of the strategic bomber fleet and of various missiles of its warships. It should not be problem for the Russians to find a number of suitable targets for their bombs, if they want. Special Forces are well trained, equipped and experienced from the wars in Chechnya and Syria. They could certainly fulfill a potent role in Libya, if ordered.
Nevertheless, a major permanent unilateral involvement like in Syria is rather unlikely. Deploying a larger force to Libya would be logistically much more challenging than in Syria. The Russian navy would not be able to sustain a considerable fleet capable for land attack off the Libyan coast for a very long time. But, on the other side, a military cooperation with Arab states like Egypt in Libya is very much possible.
Altogether, Russia has the capability to project military power into Libya, albeit it is unlikely that it has either the will or the capacity to support the LNA to achieve a military solution of the conflict. The ground forces of the LNA do not lack only equipment, but also numbers of fighters to be successful in defeating a relatively well-trained force like the Misrata in urban combat in Tripolitania’s larger cities, let alone in Tripoli, in open warfare.
Libya is an important market for Russian civilian companies. For strategic reasons, an influence on Libya’s hydrocarbon industry is desirable for Moscow.
In 2009, Gazprom was already close to signing a major gas contract with Gaddafi. This would have allowed the Russians to dominate the European gas market even more than what is already the case. Rosneft, a major Russian oil company, has signed last February an agreement with Libya’s National Oil Corporation for investment into its energy sector. Other projects could include a 2.4 billion dollars high-speed railway project between Sirte and Benghazi, which was suspended in 2011…
Even if Russian major companies do not act on the order of Vladimir Putin, frequently their businesses are in line with the objectives of the Kremlin.
Russia’s intention is to thwart a radical Islamist state in North Africa and to prevent an uncontrolled break-up of Libya.
Moscow wants to establish a lasting foothold, at least in the east of this geostrategic important country. Achieving this would certainly serve Russia’s strategic interests. It would also strengthen the Kremlin’s position in the rest of the Arab world.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is an actor in Libya, which needs to be reckoned with. It could be a useful partner for the stabilization of the country, but it is probably not a good idea for the West to leave Putin more or less alone in the “playground”, by sticking to a dead-end policy.
Wolfgang Pusztai – Security and Policy Analyst – Former Austrian Defense Attaché to Tunisia and Libya (2007-2012) Chairman of the Advisory Board of the National Council on U.S. – Libya Relations