Russian policy in the Middle East and North Africa has changed gear over the last 12 months. Moscow has begun to look for alternatives to military means when it comes to marking its presence in the region. Efforts are underway to reevaluate Russia’s capabilities and draw up a fresh list of priorities.
Libya, it turns out, is a key priority. The country has been locked in civil war since 2011. The downfall of its long-serving dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, has left a power vacuum. A complex mix of global, regional and local actors are still struggling – and fighting – to fill it. It would be an exaggeration to say that Libya was a key regional partner for Moscow in Gaddafi’s last years in power. Nor was Libya of great significance in the years right after his toppling. This is indirectly confirmed by Russia’s position on the UN Security Council Resolution No. 1973 in 2011 on the introduction of a no-fly zone over Libya. Having no serious economic, political or military interests in this country, Russia’s leaders chose to distance themselves from the conflict. The outcome of the conflict appeared unpredictable, the benefits from weighing into yet another war seemed limited with Ukraine and Syria already taking their toll.
This choice was understandable. Before 2011, Moscow and Tripoli had agreements on the supply of Russian equipment and weapons. Possibly, these reached USD 4.5 billion. But actual contracts were signed only for USD 2 billion. There were also agreements that Russian oil and gas companies Lukoil, Tatneft and Gazprom would begin investment projects in Libya. But their losses as a result of the conflict (if any) can hardly be called significant.
Even the position adopted by those opposing the decision of the then-President Dmitry Medvedev was based not so much on the economic reasons. Instead of focusing on whether the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime would bring losses to Russia, most detractors of Medvedev invoked an emotional perception of the geopolitical situation. For example, in his article ‘Libyan Drama: The Vision of a Russian Diplomat,’ Vladimir Chamov, the former Russian ambassador to Libya, explained his disagreement with the president’s decision as follows: ‘As readers may remember, the Libyan leader has always spoken highly negatively against NATO, criticising its actions in Serbia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, its expansion to the east, and inclusion of the post-Soviet states into its orbit. Gaddafi didn’t become more popular with NATO after his categorical rejection of the idea of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO, his interesting and daring articles on the subject, or, finally, his open support for Russia’s military actions to save the population of South Ossetia from the Georgian genocide in August 2008.’
Opinion polls from the Levada Center share these emotional perceptions. Only 13% of Russians supported Dmitry Medvedev’s decision on Libya. More than half of them were inclined to interpret the Russian presence in the Middle East in general and the position on Libya in particular through the ‘us-them’ opposition. In other words, it was important for the majority of Russian citizens to ‘support the friendly regime of Muammar Gaddafi.’ This corresponds to the slogan thrown among the Russian public by Vladimir Putin, who claimed ‘we don’t abandon our folk.’
This perception of the geopolitical situation among Russians has persisted to this day and plays into the hands of its rulers. The ambition in the Kremlin, is to pursue an active policy in the region via Libya. Why is that so? Russia’s interests in Libya today may not be not obvious; but they are made up of several factors which prove greater than the sum of their parts.
First of all, a Russian presence in the region allows its rulers to earn dividends from cooperation with regional players. This proved to be the case during the Syrian crisis. Moscow’s active involvement there helped to force regional actors to interact with the Russian authorities. At the same time, in recent years Russia started to be of interest to regional players. It was seen as a force capable of influencing the Syrian regime, Iran, Khalifa Haftar in Libya or the Hussites in Yemen.
In this regard, Moscow senses the importance of the moment. New opportunities for cooperation in the economy, energy and military technology resulted from its active military and diplomatic participation in Middle East affairs.
Of course, the US approaching the region with uncertainty and ambivalence also played its part. No longer in a position to guarantee the status quo in the Middle East and North Africa, and without a clear strategy on how to go about the new security architecture in the region, Washington has left scant choice for local elites other than to diversify their foreign policy ties. The best example is the relationship between Moscow and Riyadh. Given that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to reorient itself from the U.S. to Russia, one can say that a few years ago it was hard to imagine such a marked increase in mutual interest.
In this context, Libya has offered added value compared to Syria. This is because Moscow’s position in the Libyan crisis brings it closer to the Gulf countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Egypt. Here, support for Khalifa Haftar in Libya is no longer perceived as negatively as support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It does not enflame negotiations with regional actors.
Russian officials are also ever more aware that military dominance in the region does not guarantee longer term political leadership. Although Moscow has gained a military breakthrough in the Syrian conflict, its advantages on the diplomatic track, as well as in post-conflict Syria, do not seem obvious. Moscow’s role as a ‘regional broker’ in the Syrian conflict has been hindered by a shrinking set of tools to influence its ‘allies’ in the Middle East. So the strengthening of its presence in Libya, where the prospects for resolving the conflict are still quite illusory, becomes more important for Moscow against the backdrop of a normalising situation in Syria.
Libya also plays an important role in gaining more leverage over Western countries. As Nikolay Kozhanov points out, “having entered the Libyan conflict, Moscow shows to Europe and the USA that it will not limit itself to Syria and Ukraine, and that its ‘success’ in Syria is not accidental.” As in the case of Syria, the Russian authorities are trying to establish themselves as a mediator. Yet unlike in the Syrian crisis, Moscow is trying to maintain close relations with both sides. Russia is actively cultivating contacts with both the Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar, and the National Salvation Government, led by Fayez al-Sarraj and the ‘Misrata Brigades’.
This tactic is not unsuccessful. During several years of involvement in the Libyan crisis, the Kremlin has focused its leverage on domestic players. The outcome of the Libyan conflict does not depend on Russia’s preferences, granted. But Moscow can help craft a compromise between the parties to the conflict, or has tools in place to aggravate it. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it was thanks to Russia’s support that Khalifa Haftar managed to strengthen his position in Libya. Moscow will also determine the degree of compromise he would be willing to accept in negotiations with his opponents.
This allows Moscow to use its influence here in negotiations elsewhere with the EU.. It means Europe is becoming convinced that it has to factor in Russia to resolve the Libyan crisis. So Moscow once again has an opportunity to continue its dialogue with the EU. It will no doubt strive for the latter to assume a softer position on issues which are more sensitive for the Kremlin.
Libya opens another window of opportunity for Russia in negotiations with the EU. This is due to peace-keeping efforts launched by various EU member states have been incoherent and fragmented. In particular, Italy’s recently resurgent activity. Rediscovering its sense of duty for its former colony, its role is causing suspicion and irritation from others in on the European side of the Mediterranean, not least France. Meanwhile, warm relations have evolved between the populists from Rome and the Kremlin. It means both sides could — theoretically — play their respective Libyan cards in a coordinated manner.
Unlike the Syrian crisis, Russia’s participation in the settlement in Libya is not costly for Moscow to date. Once their positions in Libya have been marked, the Russian leaders can hope that their interests will be taken into account in the post-war redistribution of the country. Therefore, the Russian leaders have set a course to preserve their position in Libya by resuming most prior agreements. During his visit to Moscow in August 2017, Khalifa Haftar already expressed his readiness to act as a guarantor of all the Russian-Libyan military contracts. Russian Railways as well as a few Russian energy companies (for example, Gazprom, Rosneft, Tatneft and Lukoil) are already beginning negotiations with the Libyan side. The aim is to resume the old projects and implement new undertakings in Libya.
At the same time, the Libyan oil and gas sector is unlikely to be of serious interest to Russia as such. Here, one could agree with Mikhail Krutikhin, who points out that Russia’s policy in Libya is “not to start mining, but to prevent others from doing so.” The Italians, together with the Libyan National Oil Company, currently own the Green Stream gas pipeline. This supplies up to 11 billion cubic meters of gas per year to the south of Italy. Last year, Italian oil and gas company ENI purchased 42.5% of British Petroleum’s share in the production and sharing agreement with the Libyan National Petroleum Corporation. France’s Total owns the rights to develop oil production in many Libyan oil fields. The implementation of these projects depends on the security situation in Libya, which in turn depends in part on Moscow’s efforts. The same factor will be significant in solving Europe’s migration problems. The continent has been experiencing an influx of refugees via North Africa and Libya in particular. This is especially true when the attitude towards migrants is becoming a wedge issue during elections across Europe.