The Backdrop to Russia’s Operations in the Mediterranean

Over the past decade, Russia’s return to Arab affairs has raised speculation around the virtual enactment of Peter the Great’s dream to access the warm waters of the Mediterranean.


Russia’s regained influence in the region is all the more impressive in that the Kremlin has put security concerns at the heart of bilateral ties whilst managing to sustain relations across the region’s ideological spectrum.

This means that President Vladimir Putin is as welcome in Ankara as he is in Riyadh, and that his close military collaboration with Iran in Syria has not weakened his strong ties with Egypt or the UAE.

Of course, this impressive feat can be partly explained by the feeling of gradual abandonment felt by the Arabs towards the US and the growing need to find a counterbalancing force in the region.

However, the truth remains that Russia exercised considerable diplomatic efforts to perturb and even replace US influence in the region.

These gains have been achieved with far less resources but a decisively more pragmatic foreign policy that revolves around military cooperation, armament and narrow investments in energy or construction. 

Russia and NATO’s “cynical deception” in Libya: 

Without a doubt, Libya does not sit at the top of the Kremlin’s list of foreign policy priorities.

The latter is currently dominated by Syria, managing tensions with the European Union and the United States, and strengthening relations with rising powers in Asia.

However, the North African country has remained a bastion of Russian diplomacy over the last decade and has even played a role in shaping the Kremlin’s foreign policy in the region.

Even though Russian presence and influence in the country goes back several decades, the Libyan civil war of 2011 had a seminal role in anchoring Russia’s non-interventionist and Western-sceptic foreign policy.

Back then, Russia was called on by the head of Libya’s foreign affairs committee to veto UNSCR 1973 on the grounds that such a resolution would lead to regime change and the collapse of the Libyan state.

Despite written correspondence directly addressing Sergei Lavrov, the Gaddafi official lost the battle for influence in the last minute to France and Qatar.

The latter and the former lobbied heavily for Russian inaction, arguing that NATO powers would limit themselves to establishing a no-fly zone and protecting civilians. 

The direct military intervention and the civil war that ensued had a deep imprint on the Russians and arguably led them to their early position on Syria.

Russian officials have been very clear about their reservations towards the 2011 military intervention that led to the toppling of Gaddafi, despite not arguing against the fact that Libyans needed a change from the 42-year autocracy.

During the 2018 Palermo conference, Dmitry Medvedev, former President of Russia at the time of the Libyan revolution, went as far as describing the NATO-led intervention as a “cynical deception” that distorted and violated the decisions of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

In fact, what happened in Libya reinforced Russia’s wariness towards Western countries and their self-professed desire to spread democratic values in the Middle East.

Moscow saw the Arab Spring as a dangerous development that would breed instability and terrorism rather than seeing it as an auspicious sign for the region.

Unfortunately, Russian pessimism proved to be correct as Libya fell into severe instability by the end of 2013.

On October 21st, 2013, Russia’s embassy in Tripoli was briefly stormed by a group of 10 armed men, thus prompting Russian diplomats to follow their peers from other countries in moving to Tunis.

The ambassador at the time, Ivan Molotkov, rightly anticipated that Libya would fall into years of armed conflict due to extremism and vested interests — likening the North African country to Iraq.

Libya’s presipitous slide into instability later led Russia to put terrorism on top of its list of preoccupations in Libya and vote for UNSC resolutions 2249 and 2259, which underlined the need to fight terror groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, revive the Libyan economy and restore the rule of law in the country. 

Facing the post-2011 reshuffling of cards 

The onset of the post-revolutionary era also meant that Russia had lost lucrative ties to a regime with which it had signed significant arms and energy deals, valued around $4 billion.

To this day, most weapons used in Libya are Soviet-era armaments — mementos of the close ties that Gaddafi had entertained with Moscow at the expense of Washington.

These past ties with the dictator negatively impacted Russia’s relations with Libyan revolutionaries – in 2011, for instance, two Russians declaring to be oil contractors were found guilty of repairing military hardware for the old regime and spent 3 years in jail before Moscow could repatriate them.

Throughout the post-revolutionary era, Russia has had to deal with Libya’s multiple centres of power.

Above all, it has had to deal with the Government of National Accord (GNA) to free its nationals who had been accused of illegal trade such as fuel smuggling or, in recent months, of working to weaken Fayez al-Sarraj’s government through targeted social media campaigns.

Although not completely arbitrary, the public nature of those arrests also shows that the GNA and acting militias have sought to advertise such cases in order to compromise Russia, contradict its claims of non-interventionism and, above all, attract the favour of Western states. 

Regardless of the repeated incidents involving Russians in Western Libya, the 2011 revolutionaries were quick to appeal to Moscow.

Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of the National Forces Alliance, called for a “new page” in relations between the two countries on February 2013.

In fact, Russia’s decision not to veto UNSCR 1973 was received well throughout Libya and led militia commanders to believe they could receive training, modern weapons and technical cooperation from Moscow.

Interestingly, in 2012, this newfound openness towards Russia led to $250 million in trade turnover between the two countries — the highest turnover Russia had recorded in Libya since 2000.

Libyan officials like Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdelaziz recognised Russia’s “central role in resolving problems on the international scene”, inviting Moscow to mediate in Libya and involve itself financially through oil contracts. 

Gradually, however, as the second civil war approached in 2014, the Kremlin’s focus turned to combating terrorism.

This led Russia to see more common interests with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) located in the East of the country.

Highlighting this growing support, Russia allegedly printed more than 10bn Libyan Dinars from 2015 to 2018 for the Eastern-based Al Bayda Central Bank, which was facing liquidity shortages it blamed on the Central Bank of Libya (CBL). 

Russia and Libya’s post-Skhirat political process

Similar to France and the Arab countries, Russia’s cooperation with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) started when the latter waged ‘Operation Dignity’ to oust terror groups from cities like Benghazi.

For Moscow, Haftar’s role in fighting ISIS, Al Qaeda and militias behind ‘Operation Libya Dawn’ made the Field Marshal worthy of taking a central role in Libyan politics and a good contact to maintain.

When the Skhirat agreement was signed in December 2015, recognising the GNA as the national unity government, Russia’s Foreign Ministry was lukewarm about a political process it considered rushed and fragile.

For Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, the reality on the ground was vastly different from the substance of political negotiations.

In his view, the latter failed to acknowledge that -despite the formation of a new national unity government- Libya was still reeling under fighting that was underpinned by foreign financing and competition for natural resources.

The sudden rise in popularity of the GNA among the international community was interpreted by Moscow as another sign of Western interference and deception.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not fail to highlight the fragility of Libya’s political compromise in June 2016, later claiming that the West only resorted to conflict management instead of conflict resolution.

For him, the GNA’s lack of recognition by the HoR meant that a crucial step of the political process had been skipped and that the international community had compromised on a solution in which the main Libyan actors could never be  consolidated in power.

Back then, Lavrov was concerned that the GNA did not have an adequate security apparatus to comfortably exert its power over Tripoli, let alone Libya.

The subsequent disputes between the GNA and the HoR, and the rising pressure from European powers -primarily the French- to organise elections and solve the political quagmire exacerbated Russian suspicion of Western mediation efforts.

During the 2018 Palermo conference, Dmitri Medvedev actively denounced the urge to set “artificial deadlines for the intra-Libyan dialogue”.

Indeed, the Russian position has long been that elections are premature in a country where political actors are often paper tigers.

The Kremlin has gained points in the Libyan sociopolitical sphere by avoiding Western callousness and by regarding Libya’s political arena as non-representative of the country as a whole.

This view has pushed Russia to open its doors to anyone it deems to have a chance at temporarily ruling over parts or the entirety of Libya.

However, given Libya’s volatility, this has also meant that different groups within Russia’s foreign policy establishment have been in disaccord regarding the most promising contender for the political throne in Libya.

As was the case earlier this year, some called for more active support for Haftar as a way to replicate Russia’s successful backing of Bashar Al Assad in Syria.

Others have managed to rein in this support by stressing the need for neutrality and utilising their good ties with Misrata -primarily with Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Mitiq- to seek contracts in Agriculture, Oil & Gas, and reactivate a dormant railway project signed during the Gaddafi era.

Yet another set of hardliner policymakers in Moscow have rejected any support to Libyan actors — excluding Saif al-Gaddafi, who they regard as too inimical to the West and therefore amenable to cooperate with Russia.

To date, the Kremlin has not adopted one route over the other and has maintained a certain level of pragmatism and flexibility at the core of its Libya policy.

This approach is likely to put Russia on the side of the victor but also undermines the consistency and intensity of support for the various Libyan parties, making Russia’s position at any given point in time difficult to pinpoint. 

to continue in part 2




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