By Samuel Ramani
Since the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, Russian policymakers have consistently condemned NATO’s decision to carry out a regime change mission in Libya and placed the burden of responsibility for the breakdown of central authority in Libya on the West.
This vantage point has caused Kremlin policymakers to expand Moscow’s geopolitical role in Libya, and to look back on the Gaddafi era with feelings of relative nostalgia.
To gain more insights into Moscow’s historical perceptions of Libya and Russia’s strategic objectives in the war-torn country, I interviewed former Russian ambassador to Libya Veniamin Popov.
Popov’s tenure as ambassador began during the last days of the Soviet Union in 1991 and ended in 1992, with Libya facing profound international isolation due to its involvement in state-sponsored terrorism.
Despite the marked downturn in Russia-Libya relations during the 1990s and Moscow’s frequent tensions with Tripoli under Gaddafi, Popov insisted that Russia’s relationship with Gaddafi’s Libya was “friendly.” To justify his positive assessment of Gaddafi’s Libya’s relationship with Russia, Popov cited joint economic projects like the metallurgical plant construction in Misrata, and substantial Moscow-Tripoli military cooperation.
Popov also believes that Gaddafi’s ideological perspective strengthened relations between the Soviet Union and Libya. In our interview, Popov highlighted Gaddafi’s rhetorical commitment to the creation of a socialist society, invention of Third World theory and propagation of the Green Book as sources of ideological compatibility. In Popov’s view, Libya’s extensive oil wealth fostered Gaddafi’s outsized ideologically premised geopolitical ambitions, which “began with Arab unity and later morphed into African unity projects.”
In addition to these ideological synergies, Libya’s close relationship with the USSR benefited the Soviet economy, as Gaddafi paid for Soviet weaponry with both hard currency and oil wealth. In our interview, Popov noted that Libya’s reliability as an economic partner differed markedly from the Soviet Union’s credit-based relationship with other Arab countries. These credit-based partnerships frequently resulted in Moscow’s Arab partners refusing to repay the Soviet Union for military equipment sold to them.
Despite common socialist objectives and close economic links, Popov’s tenure as ambassador was a tumultuous one for Moscow-Tripoli relations. In response to the Lockerbie terror attack, Moscow supported UN Security Council Resolution 748 in March 1992, which imposed sanctions against Libya for state-sponsored terrorism.
Popov attributed Russia’s hostility towards Gaddafi during the early 1990s, to President Boris Yeltsin’s desire to thaw relations with the United States. Popov highlighted the withdrawal of Russian military advisors from Libya and the Gaddafi regime’s retaliatory attempts to bomb the Russian embassy in Libya as particular low points in the bilateral relationship.
The mixture of positive and negative memories of Gaddafi’s rule contributed to the creation of deep divisions within the Russian elite establishment over Moscow’s response to the outbreak of mass protests in Libya in 2011. In our interview, Popov argued that Dmitry Medvedev’s authority as president gave him more decision-making authority on Libya than Vladimir Putin possessed as Prime Minister. Popov also claimed that Medvedev did not expect Gaddafi to be forcibly overthrown by NATO forces when UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was approved.
The abrupt dismissal of Russian Ambassador to Libya, Vladimir Chamov, over UN Resolution 1973 in March 2011, brought disagreements within the Russian elite establishment on Libya to the fore. Popov explained Chamov’s opposition to Medvedev’s policy towards Libya by insisting that Chamov was merely fulfilling his duty as an ambassador to maintain positive relations with Tripoli.
Despite concerns raised by Putin and Chamov on Libya, NATO’s decision to conduct a full-scale regime change mission in Libya surprised Russian policymakers. Popov’s assessment of NATO conduct in Libya is overwhelmingly negative, as the Libyan civil war resulted in 50,000 fatalities and injuries and the “destruction” of a once-wealthy country.
During our interview, Popov argued that the overwhelming majority of Libyans believe that NATO involvement was the cause of Libya’s destruction and stated his belief that these anti-NATO sentiments have increased favorable perceptions of Russia in Libya. In Popov’s view, even Libyan Islamists believe Russia should be an integral part of Libya’s political solution, as the United States, United Kingdom and France are deeply distrusted by Libyans of all political stripes.
Even though Russia has been careful not to form a military alliance with any faction in Libya, Moscow has recently strengthened its diplomatic and economic links to Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based government. In our interview, Popov confirmed that the Tobruk government’s foreign minister strongly supports Russia’s involvement as a stakeholder. Yet Popov believes that closer Moscow-Tobruk relations should be balanced by positive diplomatic engagement with the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
After assessing the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, we concluded by discussing the lessons of the Libyan civil war for Western and Russian policymakers. Popov believes that the Libyan public’s loss of confidence in the West presents a powerful lesson for policymakers of all nationalities. Popov argues that the overthrow of Gaddafi was conducted in the name of “democratization by Western standards,” and civil strife amongst rival tribes and Islamist organizations was the ugly consequence of this democratization at all costs approach.
In Popov’s view, Libya’s disintegration also demonstrated that military interventions must only be conducted under the purview of the United Nations. This recommendation applies to Russia, even though Russia’s counter-terrorism campaign in Syria has arguably increased Moscow’s influence in the Middle East and given Russia reluctant praise from its principal strategic rival in the region, Saudi Arabia.
To bring about durable peace in Libya, Popov believes that Moscow should refrain from Syria-style military action and pursue a strictly diplomatic solution. Popov justified this pro-diplomacy prescription by stating that supporting military action in Libya would overextend Russia’s military capabilities and dilute Moscow’s support for political stability in the Middle East.
While Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in Libya continue to evolve, Popov’s advice is to embrace a diplomacy-first approach and emphasize the immediate restoration of stability in Libya. As Russia seeks to extend its conflict arbitration skills to new theaters, the concerns and ideas outlined by Popov in our interview are those that are likely to define Russian foreign policy thinking on Libya for years to come.
(*) Veniamin Popov – Former Russian Ambassador to Libya
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy and Russia-Middle East relations. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post, The Diplomat magazine, Russian International Affairs Council, and the Kyiv Post.