What is Russia's game in Libya?

What is Russia's game in Libya?
7 min read
22 Aug, 2017
Comment: Although Russia appears to be shoring up relations with Khalifa Haftar, it is acting strategically to keep all potential emerging leaders on side, writes Guma ElGamaty.
Russia is pursuing its interests in Libya by keeping channels open with all key players[Anadolu]
Moscow received Khalifa Haftar this month for a third official visit in a year. Haftar met with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 14 August and the two held a joint press conference. 

Over the last year, Russia has stepped up its contact and engagement with Libya compared to the years following the fall in 2011 of the Gaddafi regime. Russia had close relations with Gaddafi throughout most of his era, especially as the relationship between Gaddafi and western countries including the US was mostly tense and antagonistic.

In 2008 Gaddafi visited Moscow for the first time in 23 years, during which he struck deals with Putin, who was then the prime minister. Agreements included reducing and rescheduling debts that Libya had accrued over decades in return for new trade deals worth around $10 billion in areas of arms, railway construction and oil and gas exploration.

Putin also asked for a strategic naval base on the Mediterranean, but Gaddafi only agreed to Russian fleets having access to Benghazi's port for very short periods.

It is therefore understandable that Russia was not keen on supporting the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi in February 2011, and was very critical of the NATO military involvement in implementing UN Security council resolution 1973.

Yet, Russia did not veto this resolution that allowed military intervention, nor has it vetoed any resolutions on Libya since. So what exactly is Russia's strategy in Libya today, given the apparent warmer relations? Contact has not only been established with Haftar, but also with other key Libyan factions such as the Tripoli based Government of National Accord (GNA) as well as influential military and political groups from the city of Misrata.

This in effect, would mean a new pro-Russia military dictator taking charge of Libya

It seems that Russia has two distinctly different possible options to pursue in Libya today, as the country goes through a crisis of deep conflict fuelled partly by damaging regional interference.

The first option, is a soft diplomatic and political approach in which networks are maintained with all the key and influential Libyan stakeholders, where Russia encourages a more inclusive dialogue that may lead to a genuine accord and stabilisation of the country.

The second, is an aggressive one-sided approach in which Russia chooses to back Khalifa Haftar militarily and politically in order to influence the balance of power in his favour, so that he can extend his control across all of Libya's territory and take political power.

This in effect, would mean a new pro-Russia military dictator taking charge of Libya, where he can serve Russia's geopolitical, economic and energy interests in Libya and the wider region.

Read more:  Is France paving the way to Haftar's return in Libya?

In putting its full weight behind Haftar, Russia will be joining other countries, such as the UAE, Egypt and even France to a lesser extent. Such a strategy is not guaranteed success, as there are still powerful forces at work within Libya who remain staunchly opposed to Haftar taking control.

Moreover, this strategy will put Russia directly at odds with the interests of the US and key European countries including the UK, Italy and Germany who appear to be against the idea of a total Haftar hegemony, and who support a more inclusive political solution within a UN sponsored framework. 

Haftar supporters are keen to emphasise that Russia is actually backing their man, and point to the regular high profile contacts and visits that are taking place. In reality however, Russia has not delivered - until now - any substantial material support to Haftar in terms of advanced arms or military training.

Russia has not delivered - until now - any substantial material support to Haftar in terms of advanced arms or military training

Russia is still adhering to the embargo on arms sales to Libya that was imposed by the UN in 2011. Putin insists Russia will only consider supplying arms to Haftar, once the ban has been lifted. Perhaps Russia has realised then, that a strategy of putting its full weight behind the 75-year-old Haftar - a divisive figure in Libya with controversies and accusations such as war crimes against his name - is a very risky strategy.

The prevalence of war crimes by Haftar's men led the International Criminal Court (ICC) very recently to issue an arrest warrant against one of his field officers in Benghazi, Head of Special Forces, Mahmoud Werfalli. 

All the indications point to a Russia keeping its options open by maintaining contact with all the sides of the Libyan conflict. In February of this year, following the second visit by Haftar to Moscow, Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, announced that they expected head of GNA Sarraj to visit Moscow soon, which he ended up doing while leading a large delegation.

Zakharova told a news briefing that Russia was trying to help ensure Libya held together as a single country and wanted competing factions to resolve their differences through talks, not violence. She went on to say: "We are carrying out consistent work with both centres of power in Libya,". A new official invitation has also been extended recently for Sarraj to visit Moscow again following Haftar's third visit in August.

Following Haftar's latest meeting with Russian foreign minister Lavrov, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement which maintained the official line, stressing "the importance of the continuation of the inclusive intra-Libyan dialogue involving members of all major political forces, tribes and regions of the country in order to reach mutually acceptable solutions". The statement stressed that Russia will keep in contact with all Libyan parties.

It is becoming clear that Russia is playing a pragmatic game in Libya, pursuing its interests by keeping channels open with all the key players, while Libya navigates a very difficult transition to a new and stable political order.

All the indications point to a Russia keeping its options open by maintaining contact with all the sides of the Libyan conflict

Russia is clearly taking a medium to long-term strategic view of Libya and wants to position itself in a way that it can still benefit from a close relationship, whoever the new emerging leaders of the country will be.

Last February, the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC), which is aligned to the GNA in Tripoli, signed a major cooperation and investment deal with Rosneft, the Russian oil giant, which will allow Rosneft to have access to investment in the Libyan oil sector and to buy Libyan oil crude for the first time.

Geopolitically, Russia is aware of Libya's importance to the global energy market. Libya has the highest reserves of oil in Africa, and most of it has not been explored yet.

Libya is also already supplying gas to Europe through a pipeline under the Mediterranean Sea which runs into Italy. Russia is a major supplier of gas to Europe and by investing in the Libyan market, Russia will still maintain its dominant market share and a leverage in supplying energy to Europe.

Given Russia's ambitions for more influence in the Middle East, it could potentially benefit greatly from gaining a permanent naval facility on the Libyan coast in the strategic Mediterranean area, similar to the one it already has in Syria. Such a permanent facility could become a geopolitical bargaining card for Moscow against Europe and NATO.

However, Gaddafi refused Putin such a facility in 2008, and Haftar does not have the mandate or the power to grant this, given it is a highly sensitive sovereign issue for Libyans.

Russia will most likely continue to follow the patient long-term game of attempting to realise its pragmatic economic and geopolitical interests in Libya, and will probably maintain its anti-western and NATO rhetoric as well while doing so.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab