Russia extends its Middle East reach with an eye on Libya

Russian President Vladimir Putin is especially keen on exerting his country's influence on conflict-worn Libya.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses UN General Assembly (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses UN General Assembly
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin has had been busy in the Middle East this month. On March 9 he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The next day he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and on March 14 Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s envoy in Moscow. Since Libya fell into civil conflict after 2011, Haftar has emerged as the most powerful leader in eastern Libya.
Reports have emerged that Russia has sent special forces to Egypt, eyeing a Libya role.
The decisions by Russia represent an increase of its influence in the region. The Kremlin is already the key power broker in Syria, so what is Moscow up to in Libya?
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, according to an article at RIA Novosti says it is supporting only an “inclusive dialogue” in Libya that will lead to a “stable arrangement, designed to bring the country out of a prolonged political crises.”
Russia recently hosted a delegation from the Government of National Accord (GNA), the UN-recognized government of Libya that is stronger in the west of the country.
Lavrov also met with the chairman of the Presidential Council of the GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj, in September of last year. At the time, Russia’s Foreign Ministry underscored “its commitment to Libya’s independence, unity and territorial integrity, as well as the need to involve representatives of the major political groups, tribes and country’s regions in the formation of the national unity government.” Translation: Include Gen. Haftar and his supporters in Benghazi and Tobruk.
In February, The Guardian reported that “European diplomats fear that [Haftar] could join what has been described as Vladimir Putin’s axis of secular authoritarians in the Middle East, alongside Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.”
Netanyahu meets Putin in Moscow (credit: REUTERS)
The EU diplomats supposedly worried that Haftar, with Russian backing, could take over much of Libya.
A map of Libya’s various armed groups shows why that’s not realistic. Like Syria, the country has been riven by six years of conflict that has devolved into regional power- centers. In December, Libyan GNA re-took Sirte from Islamic State after the extremists held it for a year and a half. Similarly, Haftar is bogged down in a battle with the Islamist Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB).
Alex Grinberg, a research associate at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at IDC Herzliya, says Russia’s recent moves are a “preventive measure to help out Haftar and also prop-up Sisi.” Grinberg argues it is wrong to see Haftar as a “real ally” as Assad has been to the Kremlin. The reason Haftar has appeal is because of his relations with Egypt’s Sisi and his hostility toward Islamists, a loathing Russia shares.
“Do the Russians support Haftar because they want him to be the strongman and power broker, or he is the strongman and power broker and that’s why they support him?” asks Grinberg. Since Russia’s declared goal is stability, Grinberg says the real calculus may be ensuring Haftar moral support.
“They can help here and there, but to remove the BDB from the oil crescent [oil ports along the coast] would require serious massing of forces.”
On March 3 the BDB rolled into oil ports Ras Lanuf and Es Sidr on the coast, undermining Haftar. In Haftar’s favor is the fact that he is a trained military officer and that, although the GNA is internationally recognized, “it is completely impotent and incapable of reining in the anarchy of militias in Tripoli,” says Grinberg. But he cautions that we should not see the conflict as solely between secular generals and Islamists, but rather a series of tribal feuds and “horrendous crime rates” making Libya unstable.
There is no simple story in Libya. Some see oil as being a principle driver of relations and conflict. Others see the EU’s hands in Libya trying to forestall a migration wave of African migrants who use the chaos there as a jumping off point for a sea voyage that has killed thousands in the last years. If the Russians had wanted to intervene more, they could have done so in January when their aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov was off the Libyan coast and Haftar paid a visit, speaking via phone with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Russia is officially devoted to international law, and through that lens it will not intervene except with a veneer of legality.
Putin condemned the US-led intervention in 2011 as a “crusade.”
In Syria, Russia was invited by Assad to assist in the war. In Libya, the UN stands by the GNA and Haftar is seen as a renegade. Thus arms cannot flow and neither can warplanes support him.
The US is paying close attention.
Africa Command Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser told senators on March 10 that the situation was worrisome. “Russia is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who becomes and what entity becomes in charge of the government inside Libya.” It was comparable to Syria.
Support for Haftar dovetails with Russia’s cultivating closer ties in Cairo. Sisi has expressed concern over the 1,000 km Libyan border with Egypt since he became head of the armed forces in 2012. In the long-term Haftar, who is 73 years old, is not a solution for Libya, and Russian interests there may only serve to prod the EU and US to take a new interest in Libya’s problems.