By Vitaly Naumkin
Reviewing the latest Paris summit, it seems that a new glimmer of hope shines around the possibility of settling the conflict between Libya’s strongmen, Libyan National Army LNA Chief Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who controls two thirds of the country, including oil-rich territory, and the head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj.
The summit drew the attention of international and regional players back to the North African country which they once had ruled out to ‘fail’ in terms of statehood. Libya has found its way back into the political agenda of world major powers—Russia, for example, has displayed growing interest in the recent past.
In his recent Moscow visit, fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations Mattia Toaldo said that President Vladimir Putin on one hand seeks providing Haftar with limited support, while on the other hand wishes to present himself as a mediator.
True to that, all Russian-linked visits and calls, and more importantly the printing of Libyan banknotes in Russia, prove Toaldo’s claim on Putin backing Haftar.
It remains to be said that what Putin offered fell way beneath Haftar’s expectations. Which was to overcome the UN Arms embargo on Libya.
Alternatively, GNA leader al-Sarraj was welcomed in Moscow, as well as Misurata delegations.
It is nonsensical to blame Russia for not adopting a clearer policy on Libya. Time and time again, Moscow clarified that it supports peace over war, despite its ally countries in the region placing their bets on Haftar, who is leading the fight against militant Islamists.
Falling into expectations, Moscow likely shows interest in joining international peace efforts, but for its own national interests.
Reviewing Russian-Libyan relations in depth, it is vital that historical facts are considered. History is a major factor into Russian-Libyan dynamics.
A large number of people today forgot about the post- World War II heated debate which consumed United Nations powerful states over the former Italian colony.
At the time Libya consisted of three different entities; based in Tripoli, Barca and Fezzan.
Baraca and Tripoli were occupied by British and American forces. Fezzan was under full French control. At the time, Western superpowers wanted to keep Moscow out on the process shaping Libya’s future. But Moscow was far from indifferent concerning Libya.
The rarely remembered Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet Union foreign minister between 1939 and 1949, told Russian author Feliks Ivanovich Chuev that Moscow had taken note of a movement in Libya.
Although Motolov described it as weak at the time, he said that Russia viewed the movement as a front for national liberation, and expressed a desire to provide support, and establish a military base there.
Molotov tells Chuev, that when the subject was brought up, Britain’s statesman Ernest Bevin succumbed to a striking panic attack to the point that medics hurled in to administer a calming shot.
In ‘Molotov Remembers’– through conversations with the poet-biographer Chuev– Molotov offers an incomparable view of the politics of Soviet society and the nature of Kremlin leadership under communism.
The Soviet Union’s proposition merely made to test waters- most likely, the Soviet leadership did not view presence in Libya as a pressing matter (the Soviet Union does not need any military base in Libya) – but such a proposal was employed to pressure the United States away from founding a military base there. It was also made to drive British occupation forces out of Libya.
As a compromise, the then four superpower leaders decided to instruct their foreign ministers to prepare a joint resolution that would be later ratified. But no such decision was reached, because Moscow insisted on the immediate independence of Libya.
The Western rejected this, forcing the Soviet Union to come up with a new plan of action.
Soviets then said they were ready to reign in Tripoli and putting it ultimately under their administration. This proposal was also aimed at placing pressure on the three major Western countries, since in Moscow knew that its experience was limited in terms of t Libya’s internal affairs.
Eventually, and with no avail in sight, the proposal was withdrawn from the Soviet’s agenda, but Western allies did not give in and controversy endured.
In his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations on 9 May 1949, then-new Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko ended matters by proposing that a unified Libya would be granted independence within the maximum period of five years.
Over those five years, Gromyko suggested that Libya will be governed by a joint multilateral committee and remain under. But even then, the proposal did not come to the liking of the West which sought to divide the country.
Idris Senussi, the then Emir of Cyrenaica and key Libya political leader, with British support declared Barca’s independence, which London immediately recognized.
France, however, conditioned its agreement to the British controlling Tripoli and Barca by it having administrative control over Fezzan.
Moscow called for the immediate establishment of a self-governing body for a unified Libya, the withdrawal of foreign troops and the closure of the US military base there.
The Kremlin was unable to reach this goal, yet no one else did.
The UN General Assembly Resolution 289 (IV) on 21 November 1949, adopted with the active support of Moscow, states that Libya must form a united, independent and sovereign state.
It also says that the oil-rich North African country should establish a national assembly and form an interim government as soon as possible.
Despite that on December 24, 1951, Libya officially gained its independence, announced a federal monarchy with Senussi as king, the US military base and the British occupation forces did not withdraw until 1969.
Moscow recognized Libya and established diplomatic relations with it. Therefore, Russia today has all the right to consider itself a key factor in Libya’s independence and unification.
One other historical event is the Security Council resolution of March 17, 2011, in which Moscow abstained and did not use its veto, hoping that Western powers would abide by the mandate on establishing a Libya no-fly zone, and do not interfere in the country’s internal conflict.
Today, the Russian leadership believes it was deceived by the West with its forces directly intervening in the Libyan crisis, and having the regime changed using brute military force. Moscow took a lesson from these events and has ultimately lost confidence in its partners.
Russia’s pragmatic and geopolitical policy calculations will most likely converge with past lessons and its long-established desire for a unified Libya.