By Kirill Semenov
Russia’s Libyan strategy has been rather contradictory since the 2011 February revolution in the country.
The Kremlin’s refusal to back any one party to the conflict and its constant manoeuvring and zigzagging on the Libyan field ultimately brought Russia unexpected dividends, as this strategy allowed the country, together with Turkey, to lead the settlement of the Libyan crisis.
Significantly, the decisions that the Russian leadership openly calls mistakes today (then President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev refusing to veto UN Security Council Resolution 1973 about a no-fly zone over Libya) have in fact boosted Russia’s image in the eyes of every single Libyan political force in power since the February revolution and the first civil war.
Consequently, the parties to today’s Libyan conflict hold no bias or resentment against Russia, unlike, for instance, the Syrian opposition.
This makes it far easier to maintain contacts with Libyans, even though they do not understand Russia’s repeated statements condemning the destruction of the Jamahiriya and the overthrowing of Muammar Gaddafi.
The Kremlin rather quickly and unconditionally recognized the legitimacy of both the National Transitional Council in September 2011 and the elections to the General National Congress (GNC) in July 2012.
This allowed Moscow to launch a constructive dialogue with the new authorities of the post-Gaddafi Libya. At that time, Russia was primarily concerned with the prospects of implementing the large economic projects that had been agreed upon with Gaddafi.
These included, for instance, the construction of the Sirte–Benghazi railway at a total cost of €2.5 billion (Russian Railways had already spent RUB 10 billion on preliminary work under the contract when the civil war broke out).
MTC contracts between the two countries that could not be implemented because of the war were estimated at USD 4 billion, while unfulfilled oil and gas contracts were said to be worth USD 3.5 billion.
Consequently, Russia’s military-industrial complex was interested in the restrictions on arms deliveries to Libya being lifted as soon as possible, while Russia’s Gazprom and Tatneft were interested in resuming their work in the country.
In turn, Tripoli assured Moscow that all agreements would be honoured. Still, the new domestic political storms battering Libya prevented these assurances from becoming a reality.
The Islamists and the Military: Russia Banks on the Military
Despite the constructive nature of the dialogue between Moscow and Tripoli, the background of their interaction was negatively affected by the Kremlin’s attitude to the events of the Arab Spring as a whole.
The Russian authorities had an emphatically negative attitude to all manifestations of Islamism and to the revolutionary events that resulted in the strengthening of the Islamist component of the Arab world.
In addition, Moscow became increasingly suspicious of the new Libyan authorities, since they adhered to the ideas of political Islam and systematically introduced Islamic principles into the Libyan political agenda.
Curiously, Moscow’s antagonism against Islamism often prompted Russian media and experts to falsely represent the late Muammar Gaddafi as a secular leader and contrast him with the new Libyan authorities dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in Russia as a terrorist organization).
Gaddafi had instituted Sharia law in Libya, and many scholars defined his ideology as “Islamic socialism”.
When the GNC adopted a resolution in late 2013 enshrining Sharia as the foundation of Libyan legislation, the Council was merely demonstrating continuity with the country’s previously established legal system. However, this step could hardly be taken well in Russia.
Consequently, when General Khalifa Haftar (who attempted to assume dictatorship during the February revolution, but found himself rejected as the commander of the revolutionary forces) incited another mutiny against the GNC in May 2014, Moscow was sympathetic towards his cause.
Like the majority of the global community, Russia recognized the elections to the House of Representatives, a new legislature that was to replace the General National Congress.
The elections themselves prompted many questions. For instance, they were essentially carried out at the point of the “bayonets” of Haftar’s forces and took place against the backdrop of continued fighting between Haftar’s forces and GNC supporters.
As a result, voter turnout was only 18 per cent (compared to 65 per cent in 2012), and the Libyan Supreme Court declared the elections invalid. However, that did not prevent the UN and the global community from recognizing the elections and declaring the House of Representatives a legitimate legislature.
Consequently, the international community put the GNC (that refused to dissolve itself) outside the legal framework. At that point, a duality of power emerged in Libya and the second civil continued between the Libya Dawn coalition supporting the GNC and Operation Dignity launched by General Haftar and the Libyan National Army he had formed, which acted on behalf of the newly elected House of Representatives.
The situation was exacerbated by the many hotbeds of terrorist activity in the country led, for instance, by Al-Qaeda (banned in Russia as a terrorist organization), Islamic State (IS, banned in Russia as a terrorist organization) and other groups fighting against both Libya Dawn and the LNA.
Libya’s Nasser or Libya’s Sadat?
The Kremlin was particularly sympathetic towards the LNA and its commander. They were secular Arab forces led by military people who had been educated in the Soviet Frunze Military Academy.
Moscow could understand these people and had grown accustomed to interacting with them since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Consequently, Russia unequivocally supported Operation Dignity. However, the LNA’s initial drive was fizzling, while most objectives still remained unrealized, and it was becoming clear that at the present stage Khalifa Haftar would not become “Libya’s el-Sisi.”
This prompted increased pessimism on the part of Moscow’s and mistrust towards the self-legitimized rebel commander.
There were several reasons for this. Unlike Bashar al-Assad, Khalifa Haftar had never severed his ties with the United States and the West. On the contrary, he had attempted to gain their support and always received it.
The American, French and British special operations units aided Haftar in his operations against al-Qaeda and radical IS Islamists in Benghazi.
Russia was fully aware that Haftar had American citizenship and had lived in the United States for a long time while at the same time being a member of the Libyan opposition to Gaddafi’s regime. His ties to the CIA thus appeared obvious. These factors probably prevented Moscow from giving practical aid to the LNA, despite the latter’s repeated requests.
Additionally, the second civil war in Libya reflected the global trends in the Arab world, where the Turkey–Qatar duo (and the Muslim Brotherhood they supported) was locked in a fight against the “triple alliance” of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that had initially spearheaded Haftar’s mutiny and was the LNA’s chief sponsor.
At this stage, it appeared too risky for Moscow to become enmeshed in these convoluted coalitions. Consequently, Moscow supported the Libyan Political Agreement that the UN developed in December 2015 and which was signed in Skhirat (Morocco).
The agreement was finally adopted by the parties to the conflict on the night of April 5–6, 2016, when the General National Congress in Tripoli transferred power to the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj.
The GNA committed to hold elections in Libya within a year of the signing of the agreement. The start of the peace process that put an end to the second civil war opened many more opportunities for Russia to boost its standing in Libya without directly or indirectly participating in the conflict.
Additionally, Moscow was occupied with its military operation in Syria that at that point was far from being a success.
Kirill Semenov – Director of the Centre of Islamic Research at the Institute of Innovative Development.