By Anna Borshchevskaya and Mohamed Eljarh
The following report is based on points raised during a Mediterranean Advisory Group meeting on “Russia in the Mediterranean” held by the KAS Regional Program South Mediterranean in September 2017 in Tunis.
The report includes additional analytical commentary by the authors.
Minbar Libya chooses to publishe the section of the report on Russia’s ambitions in Libya.
North Africa: New Theatre for Russian Presence
Beyond Syria, the five North African countries on the southern Mediterranean create the perfect arena for the Kremlin’s ambitions to expand and develop its economic, military and political power.
Moscow is reinforcing its position in North Africa by consolidating and strengthening its traditional alliance with Algeria, and developing stronger relationships with Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Libya: Russia’s ambitions
Libya is increasingly a key target for Moscow’s growing ambitions to influence the Middle East and North Africa, but it is unclear if the Kremlin has a strategic plan on how to handle the Libyan case.
The conventional wisdom is that that the Kremlin supports Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in Eastern Libya, against Islamist groups and the Western-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). However, experts disagree on the extent to which Moscow leans towards Haftar.
Certainly the Kremlin is reaching out to other Libyan stakeholders. Putin is keeping his options open for Libya by widening Moscow’s contact base in Libya to also include Haftar’s opponents.
In June 2016, GNA deputy Ahmed Mitig visited Moscow and met with Russian officials to discuss cooperation opportunities and support for the Libyan Political Agreement as well as the UN-backed GNA.
In March 2017, the head of the UN-backed GNA Faiez Serraj visited Moscow with the same agenda.
Then in April 2017, Moscow 5received a delegation from the powerful city of Misrata to get the perspective of Haftar’s opposition on the ground.
Meanwhile Moscow has limited engagement with Haftar on counter-terrorism issues which involves technical assistance and limited hardware support that is being channeled through Egypt.
That said, Moscow did airlift in February 2017 approximately seventy of Haftar’s wounded fighters and flew them to Moscow for treatment, something it had not done for any other actor in the country.
Regardless of the true extent for Moscow’s support for Haftar, these actions show that the Kremlin is comfortable operating in Libya militarily.
Moscow’s strategy in Libya is likely to revolve around some key issues including economic interests, where Russia lost billions of dollars in contracts signed with Qaddafi regime in energy, construction, infrastructure and weapons markets.
The regime in Moscow will be looking to safeguard those economic interests going forward.
On February 20, Russia’s energy giant Rosneft signed a deal with Libya’s state oil company for investments in Libya’s energy sector.
The move serves as an indication that Moscow could use Rosneft as one of its foreign policy tools in a geopolitically shaped southern Mediterranean region.
After Moscow’s military success in Syria, Putin might be interested in bolstering his diplomatic credentials and facilitating his role as a peace-maker in Libya as well as fixer of the West’s perceived mistakes and failures.
Needless to say that this presents an opportunity for constructive engagement with Russia. Russian officials expect to be involved in international discussions on Libya.
Moscow also has military and geopolitical interests in Libya and the Kremlin would like to have a naval base on the country’s eastern coast.
In 2008, Moscow discussed the possibility of setting up a naval base in Benghazi with the Qaddafi regime to counter-balance U.S. interests in Africa.
In 2009, a Russian military official told media outlets that Russia had decided to establish naval bases in Libya, Syria and Yemen within a few years; a clear indication of Russia’s interest and ambitions in projecting its power in the Middle East and North Africa region.
However, given the current security situation and the ongoing struggle for power between various stakeholders in Libya, the idea of setting up a naval base in Libya right now is less attractive than it was in 2008.
Nevertheless, Libya presents a valuable geopolitical bargaining chip for Russia against the West in general and Europe in particular.
In its standoff with the West, Moscow could opt for confrontation in Libya, and could use the insecurity inside the country and mass migration from Libya as leverage against Europe.
Russia’s game in this regard could be to just keep the country in the current unstable state in order to ensure a continuous flow of high numbers of migrants into Europe.
Anna Borshchevskaya is the Ira Weiner Fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East.
Mohamed Eljarh is a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, where he is a political analyst on Libyan issues. His research serves to provide crucial information and insight on Libyan politics and security. Eljarh currently lives in Libya.