By Michael Burleigh
So bloody and extensive is President Putin’s record of aggression, not least in Syria and Ukraine, that an incursion into the empty deserts of North Africa might hardly seem worth noting.
It is a step of huge significance, and one with potentially disastrous results for Western nations.
Libya has both oil and Mediterranean ports, and Russia is hungry for both – cause enough for concern, perhaps.
Yet the real fear for European governments is this: Libya, with its porous southern borders, has become the main jumping-off point for the hundreds of thousands of African migrants now seeking to cross the Mediterranean to the shores of the EU and, in particular, Italy.
More than half a million adults and children from Ghana, Senegal, Kenya and Nigeria, as well as war-ravaged Eritrea and Somalia, have made the perilous voyage in the last five years, the human cargo in a £6 billion-a-year trade more lucrative and less risky than smuggling drugs.
Now, by establishing military bases in the port cities of Tobruk and Benghazi, Putin has raised the nightmare prospect that Moscow could soon take control of that migrant flow, turning it on and off like a tap. And that means threatening European governments who oppose him with outright political chaos in reply.
The Russian presence in Libya has been building for months. In the port cities, it comes in the shape of private military companies such as the Wagner and RSB groups, tough-guy contractors who, while not formally part of the Russian army, nonetheless work closely with Putin’s paramilitary GRU.
These contractors have also been seen in eastern Libya, near the border with Egypt, where they have been defending critical oil wells against Libya’s many armed militias. They have also been training Libyan troops and providing intelligence for the Libyan army.
Earlier this year, the Tunisian authorities took possession of a ship flying the Panamanian flag which was found to be carrying 24 containers of Russian military equipment and 66 Russian military transport vehicles. The ship was bound for Libya.
There are also plausible reports that Russian missile systems – thought to include the Kalibr anti-ship missiles and S-300 air defence missiles – are now established on Libyan soil.
Russia even has a tame Libyan warlord with his own ‘National Army’. Putin has for some time been cultivating 75-year-old Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (a naturalised American who, after helping put Colonel Gaddafi in power in 1969, eventually fled to the US after the two men fell out).
Today, he is the main recipient of Russian arms and money, including notes printed on Moscow presses.
This is not the first time that Libyan migration has been used as a threat. In 2010, Gaddafi notoriously told then Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi that he could ‘turn Europe black’ by simply deciding to loosen his control of the Mediterranean coastline.
“What will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans?’ asked the dictator. ‘We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united Continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.’
To demonstrate his power, Gaddafi then ‘encouraged’ tribal people smugglers in Libya’s wild southwest with a £4 million bribe to focus on exporting fuel and flour southwards, rather than moving migrants northwards towards Europe. It worked.
Indeed, it was Gaddafi’s sudden removal in 2011 – thanks to America, Britain and France’s vainglorious attempt at regime change – that established Libya as the number one staging post for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
If Gaddafi’s main aim was survival, Putin has a more expansive game to play, one that he hopes means a restoration of the power and influence that Russia enjoyed before the abject humiliation of the 1990s. First, there are the diplomatic objectives. Putin wants to boost his military presence on the EU’s southern border.
Nato, he feels, has been encircling Russia, now he intends to give Europe a taste of its own medicine by establishing an emphatic presence in the Med. His navy has at present only one Mediterranean base, at Tartus in Syria. Another near Benghazi – less than 300 miles from southern Italy – would be a major statement of Russian sea power.
Serious money is a motive, too. Russia – this time in the form of Rosneft, the huge oil company controlled by Putin’s sinister crony Igor Sechin – is interested in a slice of Libya’s vast oil reserves, the largest in Africa.
Libya currently produces about 700,000 barrels of oil per day, but the country could increase its output to 2.5 million if peace were eventually established.
Down the line, a continued Russian presence means Moscow would be in pole position to win lucrative contracts to rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure and, of course, to gain a hugely profitable market for arms sales.
Aside from oil and gas, weapons are one of the few Russian products in demand from other nations. Russia had huge business interests with Gaddafi’s Libya and lost around $10 billion in oil and other contracts – including $3 billion for a railway project and a $4 billion arms deal – when he was deposed.
Part of Putin’s drive is his continuing fury at the Western military intervention that brought chaos to the Middle East and damaged Russian interests in the process.
Today, the Russian President is conspicuously helping stick the pieces back together. Moscow is involved in international talks regarding the futures of Afghanistan and Syria. It would like to present itself as the saviour of Libya, too.
Putin has established himself as a go-to man for the Middle East, so potentates from King Abdullah of Jordan and King Salman of Saudi Arabia to Israel’s President Netanyahu and Iran’s President Rouhani, visit the Kremlin to pay assiduous court.
Trump, it is worth noting, is yet to appoint ambassadors to Saudi Arabia or to Turkey, let alone to Libya.
On a more personal note, Putin was alarmed at the horrific fate of his fellow leader: after a six-month Nato bombing campaign, Gaddafi was shot in the head in a roadside culvert with a bayonet rammed into his backside.
Or as Russian officials put it, he was killed ‘like a mangy old cur’. That is not, presumably, how the Russian President thinks regional strong men should be treated.
Above all else, however, Putin is an opportunist. He seeks not just the lifting of sanctions against his country, but the continued destabilisation of Europe, which is why he has so avidly supported its separatist and nationalist parties.
It remains a hugely successful tactic. The West, meanwhile, after years of diplomatic ineptitude and catastrophically wrong-headed intervention, seems unable to muster a response.
Should we co-operate with Russia and with other world powers to rebuild the shattered Libyan state? Might that at least help rein Putin in, however distasteful a partner he might seem? It is a dilemma we must now face.
Today, through a combination of Italian bribery and diplomacy, the Libyan coastline is at least partially secured.
But if, tomorrow, Russia really does seize control of the Libyan state and its vast reservoir of desperate migrants – one of the great destabilising forces facing Europe – the prospect for us all is terrifying indeed.