Libya Tribune

By Ferhat Polat

This policy outlook examines Russia’s strategy towards Libya post- 2011. The Kremlin ’s various interests in Libya are assessed and used to explain Russia’s policy in Libya and its effect on the Libyan conflict.

.PART (I)

Russia’s approach towards Libya is driven by numerous interests, which range from geostrategic, economic, political and military, with a priority of marking the Russian presence in the Mediterranean region.

Russia has used Libya’s conflict to increase its influence on Europe’s southern flank and its access to Libya’s natural resources. Russia has arguably been filling the vacuum left by NATO to further its interests regardless of the cost to international peace and stability.

Introduction

The current conflict in Libya can be traced back to the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi, the subsequent NATO intervention in support of

anti-Gaddafi revolutionary militias and Gaddafi’s eventual toppling. The overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime failed to create stable political structures. The country steadily fell into conflict fueled both by internal contradictions underlying the rivalry of various political-military forces, as well as external interference by regional and international actors pursuing their own economic and political-strategic interests.

In 2011 Russia avoided a direct military response in Libya unlike in Syria, where Russia has heavily supported Moscow’s long-time ally, President Bashar al-Assad, since 2015. However, since 2015, Russia has been ramping up its engagement in Libya by lending support to Khalifa Haftar, a former general in Gaddafi’s army and leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), in his offensive against the UN-backed government in Tripoli.

Until December last year, Haftar’s forces had the edge in the country’s civil war due in no small part to support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia, and France. Since November 2019, when Turkey signed a military pact with UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Ankara has given considerable military assistance to Haftar’s opponents, including armed drones and air defence systems, which have shifted the balance of force onthe ground.

With crucial support from Turkey, since April, forces aligned with the GNA have inflicted a string of defeats on Haftar’s forces, leading to the eventual collapse of his militias in western Libya. As a result, hundreds of Russian and Syrian mercenaries, which had been deployed in support the LNA, have been pulled back from Tripoli’s frontlines.

GNA forces are now fighting against Haftar’s LNA militias in Sirte, a strategic coastal city and the gateway to the oilfields and the east.

Recently, Turkey made its position clear that solving the issue of Sirte and the al Jufra air base is a pre-requisite to any sustainable settlement to the ongoing conflict.

Even though Haftar has failed to capture Tripoli following a 14-month campaign, his foreign sponsors appear to be repositioning themselves to be able to protect their commercial and political interests in eastern Libya and oil resources east of Sirte.

As a result, Russia has reportedly sent 14 MiG 29 and Su-24 fighter jets to the Haftar-controlled al Jufra airbase. Furthermore, Egyptian President Abdal Fattah el-Sisi warned that Cairo would not allow forces fighting for the GNA to seize the coastal town of Sirte or the al-Jufra airbase in central Libya.

What drives Russia’s policies in Libya?

Russia’s strategy towards Libya is driven by numerous interests, which range from geostrategic, economic, political and military, with a priority of marking the Russian presence in the Mediterranean region.

Umberto Profazio, Maghreb Analyst at NATO foundation, told TRT World Research Centre, that: “The main drivers of Russia’s policy towards Libya are the Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions and its economic interests, especially in the energy sector. After Russia’s strong comeback in the Middle East, Moscow sensed an opportunity in North Africa, where the partial disinterest of the Trump administration paved the way for major overtures by the Russians in terms of investment, arms sales and military support for their allies.

The faltering multilateral approach adopted by the EU and the divide among member countries, especially evident in the conflicting agendas of France and Italy in Libya in 2017-2018, favoured major inroads by Moscow”.

Russia has used Libya’s conflict to increase its influence on Europe’s southern flank and its access to Libya’s natural resources. Russia has arguably been filling the vacuum left by NATO to further its interests regardless of the cost to international peace and stability.

Samuel Ramani, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations, told TRT World Research Centre that: “Russia’s policy in Libya is much more opportunistic than it is in Syria. Russia’s policy in Libya is motivated by its desire for influence in the country and is not wedded to any particular regime structure or balance of power.

Russia’s support for Khalifa Haftar is due to its general preference for authoritarian rule and military dictatorship but is not a deeply rooted alliance like Moscow has with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and is chiefly a means of projecting influence in Libya. From a strategic standpoint, Russia views Libya as a valuable market for future arms deals and energy-related reconstruction contracts, especially if sanctions against eastern Libya and the arms embargo are eventually lifted in the event of a peace deal.

Russia also views eastern Libya, especially Benghazi, as a potential location to construct a Russian base, which would revive its Soviet-era superpower status in the Mediterranean and build on Putin’s 2008 meeting with Gaddafi. Finally, Russia wants to insert itself as a diplomatic stakeholder in Libya to show that its status in Middle Eastern diplomacy extends beyond Syria to the broader MENA region”.

Political Interests

Under Gaddafi, Tripoli and Moscow enjoyed strong relations and significant economic and political ties, including arms deals and licensing agreements for Russian oil and gas companies. More significantly, Russian involvement in Libya has had a historical geopolitical dimension, particularly in its desire for access to Mediterranean ports. Libya is therefore important to Russia both economically and politically.

After the collapse of Gaddafi regime, Russia sought to position itself according to the shifting political scene in Libya. U.S. disengagement from the region encouraged Russia to expand its influence in the country.

Grzegorz Kuczyński, Director Eurasia Program at the Warsaw Institute, a Polish non-profit think tank, told TRT World Research Centre that: “Libya is a matter of prestige for Putin, he wishes to regain the influence Russia once had in Libya and wants to make up for its mistake of not blocking the 2011 NATO air operation in that country. Moscow views Libya as yet another case of the negative impact that the socalled Arab Spring had on the entire region (Putin is hostile towards all kinds of social revolutions). Furthermore, Russia views Libya as another important field for rivalry with the West and the different Middle Eastern players.

A strong position in Libya would cement and even expand the Russian presence in the Mediterranean and North African regions. We should also remember that Libya is a “gateway to Europe” for a large majority of illegal immigration coming from Africa. Moscow would love to play a key role here in order to influence the migration processes to be able to use these for potential destabilisation of the EU”.

Peeling Western partners away from the United States and into Moscow’s orbit is a significant Russian ambition. Putin seeks to establish himself as a peacemaker. Thereby presents himself as a more reliable player. Reducing Western influence is a vital Russian objective in the region.

According to Profazio, “the importance of Libya in the Kremlin’s plans must not be underestimated. It provides an opportunity for Russia’s diplomacy to reverse the results of the NATO-backed intervention that toppled Gaddafi in 2011, restoring Moscow’s position and prestige in the region.

At the same time, it provides a strategic link between a long-term ally in the Maghreb, Algeria, and Egypt, a new strategic partner to which Moscow wants to show the full extent of its reliability. By expanding its influence in Libya, with the aim of assuming a leading role in the peace process, the Kremlin also pursues its long-term strategic goal of posing a threat to the southern flank of NATO, sowing division in and undermining the alliance”.

Geostrategic (military) and Economic Interests

Libya emerged as significant arms market for the Soviet Union after World War II. In the 1970s, Gaddafi opened up to Moscow. Libya subsequently became one of Moscow’s most significant arm buyers. Gaddafi also signed contracts to bring around a thousand Soviet engineers and military advisers to Libya to establish more modern missile bases. Reportedly, since then, more than 11,000 Russian soldiers have been to Libya.

Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, commented that “The zero-sum struggle with the West over geostrategic positioning and access to energy resources and ports continues to guide the Kremlin’s thinking today. Putin began reviving ties with Libya soon after becoming president in 2000, and relations improved significantly after he met with Gaddafi in Tripoli in 2008. Soon afterwards, Moscow wrote off most of Libya’s nearly $5 billion debt in exchange for contracts on oil, gas, weaponry, and railways”.

In 2011, the NATO-led operation in Libya cost Moscow its long-term access to Libya and billions of dollars in contracts. When Gaddafi was toppled, Russia seemed concerned that the country could fall under the orbit of NATO. As a result, the Kremlin has sought to win back access to Libya while simultaneously increasing Russia’s comprehensive naval capabilities. For instance, in 2013, Moscow announced a permanent Mediterranean naval presence.

Russia also seems to be interested in reconstruction projects. After years of conflict, Libya requires major reconstruction, particularly with regards to infrastructure such as roads, railways, and ports. In Kuczyński’s opinion, “as a large crude oil producer, Libya is an attractive market for investments by Russian oil companies that need to look for new oil deposits, especially due to the expected depletion of currently exploited sources in mainland Russia.

Further to just crude oil, Libya is also a potentially large outlet for Russian armaments contracts as well as very profitable infrastructure projects (e.g. construction of railways). Just like in Syria, the Russians want access contracts for the reconstruction of a war-ravaged country funded by the Gulf monarchies or the West. In recent months Libya has increased in economic importance due to plans for the exploitation of its large gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean – bringing the idea of the EastMed gas pipeline one step closer to existence see Turkey’s maritime agreement with the government in Tripoli”.

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Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policy.

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