Following Russia’s success in reestablishing its military presence in Syria and Egypt, Moscow now could be planning a military intervention in Libya.
On March 13, press reports emerged that Russian special forces personnel and drones had been sighted in Egypt’s coastal town Sidi Barrani, located only 100 km. from the eastern Libyan territory controlled by the Russian-backed Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. If Moscow acts to change the balance of power in Libya, as it did in Syria, it would create a Russian ring around the southern half of the eastern Mediterranean, entirely overturning the strategic calculus of every actor in the region.
In the immediate term, Russia’s actions could be beneficial in stemming the tide of militant activity in the North African theater being conducted by Islamic State affiliates and other jihadist organizations. However, over the longer term, the prospect of an outsized Russian influence in the eastern Mediterranean could prompt Turkey toward provocative action in Cyprus and elsewhere to prevent the erosion of its own strategic position.
Israel can ill-afford such a deterioration in the security domain of the eastern Mediterranean, let alone one that pits Turkey against Egypt and creates openings for Iran to expand its influence in the region in conjunction with Russia.
Russia’s deployment at Sidi Barrani is, at minimum, intended to help Egyptian President Abel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime prevent the chaos challenging its western neighbor from bleeding across the border.
From 1956 to 1972, in the days of the Soviet Union, Moscow enjoyed a robust military alliance with Cairo.
Last October, Russia and Egypt held their first joint military exercise since the Soviet era.
In contrast, the US has not conducted a joint exercise with the Egyptian military since then-president Barack Obama canceled the biannual US-Egypt Brightstar exercise in 2013, breaking a practice of regular joint exercises that Washington established in 1980. In the absence of the US, Moscow’s assistance in protecting Egypt’s western border is serving to reforge the military links of its former alliance with Cairo. (According to Egyptian sources, Russia also sent six military units to an Egyptian base farther east, in Marsa Matruh, in February.) The Sidi Barrani deployment has the hallmarks of a support mission for Haftar, whose forces faced an attack on March 3 against the Ras Lanuf and Es Sider oil ports under their control. The attacks were conducted by the Benghazi Defense Brigades, a coalition of Islamist and jihadist militias in control of a coastal enclave within Haftar’s eastern territory.
The 73-year-old Haftar, who retains the loyalty of the parliament in Tobruk, is a central actor in the Libyan civil war. A former ally of deposed Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, he received his military training in the Soviet Union and maintains deep ties with Russia.
Haftar’s forces control most of Libya’s oil facilities, particularly after they captured the ports along Libya’s “oil crescent” in September. Since then, oil production has more than doubled, from 300,000 barrels per day to over 700,000 bpd in January.
On February 21, the Russian oil giant Rosneft signed an investment and crude-oil purchasing agreement with Libya’s National Oil Corporation, paving the way for a major Russian role in Libya’s oil industry. Rosneft’s agreement with the National Oil Corporation parallels its December 12 acquisition of a 30% stake in Egypt’s massive Zohr natural gas field. (Costing $1.575 billion, Moscow is now the second-largest stakeholder in Zohr.) Russia’s expanding commercial energy interests in the eastern Mediterranean will further prompt Moscow to deepen the level of its security commitments in the region.
The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has already begun the process of increasing its level of support for Haftar.
In late December, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov roundly rebuked the United Nations’ special representative for Libya, German diplomat Martin Kobler, for his partiality to Haftar’s rivals, particularly the UN-backed administration of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli. Gatilov extolled Haftar as a constructive figure who is “doing a lot to fight Islamic State terrorists and help the government restore control of oil production.”
In January, Haftar was invited aboard Russia’s aircraft carrier stationed in the Mediterranean in order to conduct a video conference with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
As Russian influence has advanced in Libya, Turkey has been struggling to restore its own position there.
Mirroring Egypt’s 2013 expulsion Turkey’s ambassador and its freezing of Turkish investments, Libya’s internationally recognized government reduced its level of relations with Ankara. The government of then-Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s ill-fated attempt to create its own government based in Tripoli instead of supporting the new Libyan parliament, the Council of Deputies, housed in Tobruk.
Ankara’s relations with the Tobrukbased parliament deteriorated to the point where all Turkish firms were eventually expelled from Libya. At the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011, Turkish firms held approximately $3b. in assets in Libya, as well as $1.5b. in overdue payments. In the two years prior to the Arab Spring, Turkish firms were awarded 124 projects whose value was estimated at approximately $8b.
Turkey’s current foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, visited Libya last May and succeeded in securing an agreement with Sarraj’s administration for Ankara to complete 304 projects begun during Libya’s civil war and worth approximately $18.5b.
However, members of the Tobrukbased Council of Deputies have now accused Turkey of sponsoring Benghazi Defense Brigade attacks on the oil terminals. During the time of the attacks, Sarraj himself was in Moscow for high-level talks, a sign of how much the Libyan game board has tilted in Russia’s favor.
The strategic repercussions of a Russian military intervention in Libya would reverberate across the eastern Mediterranean to Greece and Cyprus, enhancing Moscow’s image as a credible security provider in the face of a Turkish threat. A distance of only 195 nautical miles (360 km.) separates Tobruk from Crete’s capital, Heraklion.
Greece already enjoys a robust security relationship with Egypt, with Athens and Cairo annually conducting joint naval exercises. Considering that a February Gallup poll found that most Greeks preferred Russia over NATO as their security provider, it is not out of the realm of possibility that a beleaguered Athens would engage in some form of trilateral security cooperation with Cairo and Moscow.
The Greek Cypriot majority in the Republic of Cyprus that controls the southern part of the ethnically divided island similarly views Russia as the most desirable security provider, placing Moscow 11 points higher than Athens in a study conducted by a respected Cypriot research organization.
The Republic also maintains strong cooperation with Egypt, and unlike Greece, is not a NATO member.
A successful Russian intervention in Libya would help encourage it to view Russian security cooperation as a viable alternative to reaching a compromise with the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus on a framework for the binational reunification of the island.
Russia’s intervention in Syria demonstrated Moscow’s ability to act adroitly and decisively. As a result of its enhanced credibility in the region, Moscow was able to reestablish military ties with Egypt. A similarly successful intervention in Libya would further strengthen its position in the energy and security architectures of the eastern Mediterranean.
By creating an arc of strategic partners across the southern half of the region, Moscow could entice Greece and the Republic of Cyprus to engage in greater cooperation. Such an outcome would be a strategic nightmare for Turkey. In addition, while the policy orientation of the Putin government toward Israel has been even-handed, Israel could find its own position eroded without a new level of engagement with Moscow.
A Russian intervention in support of Haftar would likely secure Moscow’s commercial energy interests in Libya. Beyond this limited objective, as each nation in the region recalibrates its strategic and commercial calculus, Moscow could find itself at the center of a new alignment in the eastern Mediterranean.
Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a fellow in the Middle East and Asia units of Hebrew University’s Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. Follow him @michaeltanchum.