Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, pleaded for Russian help to resolve the escalating security crisis in Libya, marking a fresh diplomatic approach to Moscow after months of EU pressure to curb its behaviour in Ukraine.
Mr Renzi’s move reflects growing anxiety within the Italian government — and among the Italian people — about the emergence of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) fighters in a nation ravaged by political instability and civil war just across the Mediterranean Sea.
Italy has significant energy interests in Libya that are being threatened by the violence, and is also worried about the wave of migrants seeking to reach its shores from the North African nation, often in rickety boats and under treacherous conditions.
“We need an incisive international response and Russia’s role can be decisive given its history and its role in the [UN] Security Council,” Mr Renzi said at a joint press conference after talks with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, in Moscow.
“Without Russia it is much more complicated to find a point of equilibrium,” he added. But Mr Renzi’s push raised concerns among some western diplomats that it could hurt the EU’s effort to maintain economic sanctions against Russia for supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Italy, which has enjoyed close commercial and political ties with Russia, has been seen as one of the more reluctant EU members over tough sanctions, though it has always ended up agreeing to the measures.
We need an incisive international response and Russia’s role can be decisive given its history and its role in the [UN] Security Council Matteo Renzi, Italian prime minister “Unfortunately, we don’t have a closed front on this,” said one western diplomat in Moscow. But another said enlisting Russia to play a constructive role in resolving conflicts beyond Ukraine offered a chance to repair its strained relations with the west — or at least “preserve what is left”.
Various Libyan political factions gathered in Morocco on Thursday for the latest round of UN-sponsored peace talks. Insiders say the discussions remain far from any breakthroughs on resolving differences between the Islamist-leaning Libya Dawn coalition in Tripoli backed by militias rooted in the third city of Misurata and the forces supporting the internationally recognised government in the eastern city of Tubruq.
Along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Russia is considered one of the main international supporters of the Tubruq-based government — and is therefore a key part of the diplomatic manoeuvrings surrounding the Libyan crisis.
When confronted with western criticism of its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the participation of Russian military in the war in eastern Ukraine, Moscow has responded by accusing Nato, the US — and the west in general — of destabilising the world by meddling in other conflicts.
Among the countries the Russian government frequently cites is Libya. Mr Putin, who appeared in good spirits, said at his joint press conference with Mr Renzi that their talks were held “in a well-wishing and constructive atmosphere”. He added that bilateral relations, as well as Russia’s EU ties, should develop further as this was both in Russia’s and the EU’s interest.
During Mr Renzi’s visit to Moscow, which followed a stop in Ukraine on Thursday, the state-backed Russian Direct Investment Fund launched a $1bn joint investment fund, the first such bilateral vehicle started with a western partner in more than a year.
Mr Renzi also laid a wreath at the site where Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader, was murdered last week. Finding a diplomatic solution to the Libyan crisis would be a huge feat. Talks for now are focused on creating a framework for discussions between both sides to end the 10-month-old civil war and pave the way for the creation of an inclusive unity government.
The hope is that this could help stem the rise of jihadi militants, including Isis, and revive a once robust and lucrative energy sector that has ground to a halt. Late on Wednesday, Libya announced the closing of 11 oilfields under force majeure.
Meanwhile, the air force under the command of Gen Khalifa Haftar, who was recently named commander of the pro-Tubruq forces, has been launching raids on airports under the control of Libya Dawn in Tripoli and Misurata but on Thursday declared it would abide by a ceasefire coinciding with talks.
“We have suspended our air strikes aimed at the militants for three days following the UN request to do so,” air force chief Saqer Jeroushi was quoted as saying.
James Politi, in Rome, Kathrin Hille in Moscow and Borzou Daragahi in Cairo.