The entrance of the Russian aircraft carrier the “Admiral Kuznetsov” into Libyan territorial waters on 11 January, followed by a visit on board by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), stirred widespread speculation regarding the Russian role in Libya. Observers expect Russian involvement in the Libya crisis to increase, but to what extent? Is Moscow preparing to revive old military agreements with Libya? Is Russia seeking to support a local Libyan partner as a means to establish a foothold for Russian influence in North Africa? To what extent are such aims possible in a country torn by six years of conflict and strife?
According to a Russian Defence Ministry statement, General Khalifa was given a short tour of the aircraft carrier after which he held a videoconference with the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, in which the two sides “discussed pressing issues in the fight against international terrorist groups in the Middle East”. The Libyan leader also accepted a gift of humanitarian aid from the Russian Navy and then signed the guest log of the aircraft carrier.
On 7 January, the Russian chief-of-staffs announced that, in accordance with instructions issued by Russian President and Supreme Commander of the Russian Armed Forces Vladimir Putin, the Admiral Kuznetsov, escorted by the battlecruiser Piotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) and other components of its naval group, had withdrawn from Syrian waters and would head back to its home port in Severomorsk in northern Russia. That homeward route evidently led through Libyan territorial waters.
Observers who anticipate that Russia will become more actively involved in the Libyan crisis in the forthcoming days noted that Haftar visited Moscow twice in 2016 to meet with senior officials there. They link this with the strong support he receives from Egypt, which has enjoyed increasingly close relations with Moscow during the past three years. Such developments indicate that Haftar, appointed commander of the LNA by the House of Representatives in Tobruk, may serve as Russia’s key to reviving the strong influence it once had in North Africa. The Russian role in this region largely receded over a decade ago in favour of Western powers that forged a better network of relations with Maghreb countries in that period.
In spite of the extensive military cooperation between Moscow and Tripoli under Gaddafi, the Kremlin has not concealed its desire to revive military pacts that it once had with the Gaddafi regime. However, this wish faces numerous obstacles, not least of which are the ongoing UN Security Council resolution banning the provision of arms to Libya, and the continued fragmentation that has riddled the country since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011. Another major problem is the lack of a unified vision on the Libyan crisis among international and regional stakeholders. If Moscow moves to strengthen its influence in Libya it might trigger reactions by Western powers that could hamper attempts to promote the political settlement process and restore peace and stability in the country.
Unlike Syria, Libya is nothing that can be called a stable transitional system of government. In Damascus, the Bashar Al-Assad regime still exists and remains active in the international order. Western powers have not sought to prevent Al-Assad or his senior officials from taking part in the activities of the General Assembly, Security Council or other UN bodies. Libya is still gripped by fierce rivalry between local political and military players, each working to undermine its adversary at home as well as regionally and internationally. Any party that intervenes in Libya will inevitably have to take sides, which would only aggravate the complexities of an already intractable crisis on which parties at home and abroad are sharply divided. To make matters worse, the situation in Libya is extremely fluid and alliances are fragile and constantly mutating.
According to news reports, Russian civil and military companies in Libya have incurred $5 million in losses as the result of the turmoil in Libya since 2011. A good part of Moscow’s motives for reviving old agreements may stem from the desire to make up for those losses. Apart from the complexities of the crisis and uncertainties regarding European/Western reactions, Moscow needs to manoeuvre itself into a position where it can become an acceptable mediator between rival political parties so that it can broker understandings that will enable it to reinstate old agreements. Given the current political impasse and tensions, all that seems out of reach.
In all events, Russia appears disinclined to rush into actions that might anger Western powers. For example, in November 2016, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and North Africa Mikhail Bogdanov stated that his country was interested in discussing lifting the arms embargo against Libya in order to help it recuperate the defence capacities needed to protect itself against security threats and to fight terrorism more effectively. However, he simultaneously stressed the need for steps to lift the embargo to be coordinated within the framework of the UN Security Council.
In this regard, Corriera della Sera, citing Libyan sources, reported that Russia is working to arrange a meeting in Cairo between General Haftar and Fayez Al-Sarraj, head of the Tripoli-based Presidency Council and prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), bodies created in accordance with the Libyan Political Accord (LPA) signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015. According to the report, Al-Sarraj’s visit to Cairo last week was part of steps to arrange the meeting between him and Haftar, which Libyan and Algerian sources had previously indicated was to be held in Algiers last week.
The Italian newspaper said that the purpose of the meeting between Haftar and Al-Sarraj was to discuss how to dismantle militia groups and restore peace to Tripoli and Cyrenaica. This has long been an Egyptian desire, but efforts towards that end have always encountered a constantly changing terrain. This may again be the case. Sources close to participants in the Libyan National Dialogue committee report that the participant factions have agreed to reopen the LPA for amendment. This, in turn, opens the possibility of dramatic changes that could alter the nature of the main players in the Libyan crisis, especially since the amendments are likely to affect the composition of the Presidency Council and might introduce a provision separating this body from the GNA. Prominent players might vanish from the scene in the event that such amendments are introduced, among them Al-Sarraj himself.
The influence that Russia is gaining in the Libyan crisis derives in part from the lack of consensus in the EU on this question. The European Council struck the Libyan question off the agenda of the European foreign ministers meeting that was recently held in Brussels most likely because of differences in outlook between key players in the Libyan crisis, most notably Italy, which is a chief supporter of the Presidency Council headed by Al-Sarraj, and France, which wants Haftar included in any political deal and is keen to bring Libya’s neighbours on board in the process.
Russia’s excellent relations with both Egypt and Algeria are also instrumental to its growing influence. Perhaps, too, Moscow’s care to maintain balance in its communications with both Tripoli and Tobruk is also lending momentum to its role. However, a chief determinant remains unknown so far: Washington. This factor is contingent on the outlooks and policies of the new administration headed by Donald Trump, who has yet to declare his position on political and military developments in Libya since the end of military operations in Sirte. The US had taken part in those operations since August 2016, which succeeded in wresting that city from the grip of IS (the Islamic State group).