Russia’s comparative approach to the crisis in Libya and Syria
Author: Aref Bijan
PhD student in Political Science and Regional Studies, State University of Saint Petersburg
After Syria, Libya is the second Mediterranean country that Russia increasingly accentuated. Prior to the Arab Spring, bilateral relations between Russia and Libya were neither close nor indifferent. Instead, the Russians saw Libya as a place to promote their energy interests, sell weapons and challenge Western dominance over the Mediterranean. In the civil war, Russia supports both opposition groups such as General Haftar and the legitimate government of Mr. Seraj, who is approved by the United Nations. So the question that arises as to what is Russia’s role and policy towards the Libyan crisis, and is the Libyan crisis as important as the Syrian crisis? What can be answered is that Russia has used the United States‘ serious non-involvement in the Libyan crisis for its bold presence to benefit political and economic relations as well as its mediating role and the facts show that, unlike Syria, which is part of Russia’s red line, Libya is not Russia’s top priority.
Russian mediation goals in Libya
Russia to provide economic benefits in Libya, Russia is seeking to strengthen its influence on Libya for a future diplomatic agreement, according to the United Nations. On April 8, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for the elimination of Libyan national army leader General Haftar. This action of Russia, approved its position as one of Haftar’s allies alongside Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and emphasized at Moscow’s desire to protect Haftar from international criticism.
To defend the progress of Libya’s strategy, the Russian Ministry of Defense has said it has provided little military assistance to the LNA. In March, it was reported that Wagner’s group, a Kremlin-based security firm, said it had deployed 300 Russian troops to Benghazi. This was after an initial meeting in November 2018 between General Haftar, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Wagner Group Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Russia hopes to present itself as a stronger mediator in Libya that can negotiate with all relevant political factions. Advancing Haftar’s interests in a diplomatic agreement could also strengthen Moscow’s relations with Egypt and the UAE. To achieve these ambitious goals, Russia has established an intra-Libyan contact group headed by businessman Lev Dengov that has attempted to facilitate dialogue between various political factions. On February 16, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova announced the Kremlin had decided to host a comprehensive Libyan dialogue forum in Moscow, though the date of this event has yet to confirm. Russia has also invited the president of Libya’s State Council, Khaled al-Meshri, to Moscow—despite his past links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Moscow has designated a terrorist organization—and engaged with the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous Operation, an umbrella force comprised of GNA-aligned militias, to highlight its openness to facilitating dialogue between the various actors in Libya.(1)
Even though the outcome of Haftar’s offensive is still unclear, Russia’s alliance with the LNA leader and its ongoing diplomatic relations with the GNA ensure that it is well placed to stake out a prominent conflict mediation role in Libya. A Russian mediation role in Libya would add credibility to Lavrov’s goal of highlighting Moscow’s contributions to stability in the Mediterranean, which has been central to his outreach efforts to Italy and the Maghreb, and further bolster Moscow’s emerging status as a great power in the Middle East.
Syria experience for Libya
Since 2011, Libya and Syria have faced an internal crisis in the Middle East. In Syria, this same vacuum allowed Russia to gain military influence and involvement in the conflict. Russia is likely to use current unstable conditions in Libya today for its own interests, much as it has done in Syria, beginning over four years ago.
The inability of the US to engage effectively in Syria widened the power vacuum in the country, creating an environment ripe for Russian influence. Two main factors resulted in low US involvement in Syria: weak domestic support and the influence of the Iranian nuclear deal. Due to the exhausting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lack of domestic support for American involvement in another Middle Eastern conflict is understandable. According to a 2014 Chicago Council survey, seven in ten Americans felt the two wars, spanning the previous decade, were not worth the cost. The fatigue from Iraq and Afghanistan likely influenced the public’s sentiment on the Syrian war. Only seventeen percent of respondents of the survey supported sending troops to Syria.
After the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya and the removal of Qaddafi, US involvement has been limited to air strikes on ISIS targets. In fact, the abandonment of Libya by the international community is seen as one of the critical mistakes that contributed to the unraveling political and security crisis. The US and Europe supported UN-led diplomatic negotiations from the beginning, but no country has made Libya a top priority. The lack of urgency in Western capitals to solve the Libyan crisis paved the way for Moscow to throw its weight behind strongman Khalifa Haftar, who controls the eastern half of the country with his self-declared Libyan National Army (LNA).(2)
The presentation of ISIS and other extremist groups gives Russia an opportunity to support military leader Khalifa Haftar in the name of defeating extremists. Indeed, ISIS is not as strong in Libya now as it was in Syria in 2015. However, there is no shortage of extremist activity in Libya. of ISIS and other extremist groups gives Russia an opportunity to support military leader Khalifa Haftar in the name of defeating extremists. Indeed, ISIS is not as strong in Libya now as it was in Syria in 2015. However, there is no shortage of extremist activity in Libya.
Russia publicly supported the UN-led political solution that was established in 2011 to help Libya in its governmental transition and post-conflict problems. Moscow also hosted Haftar as well as members of the rival UN-backed government for bilateral meetings to maintain a narrative of neutrality. Nevertheless, Russia has presumed a bias against its ally Haftar within the UN-led process. Although on the surface Russia seems to be supporting the UN solution, it is important to acknowledge the similarities to the Syrian conflict. Putin himself said “there is no other solution than a political one” in Syria. Nevertheless, Moscow intervened militarily and changed the trajectory of that war.
There are stark differences in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts that may account for a deviation of Russia’s intentions in each theater. The weakness of all actors in Libya as well as variations in US foreign policy may change Russia’s plan. In Syria, the battle was complex and highly dynamic with territorial control wrestled back and forth between Assad and the opposition. No clear winner emerged.
In Libya, on the other hand, there exist no actors strong enough to incubate the same degree of oscillation. The situation on the ground in Libya is stalled and the strongest actor, General Haftar, is too weak to control the country alone. On the one hand, given the unwieldy situation, involvement in Libya may be costly for Russia. Russia’s economy is not booming at the moment and supporting Haftar’s army would be a substantial investment. On the other hand, the fact that no actors in Libya present an equal threat to Haftar may in fact augment the appeal to Russia. Additionally, due to its small population, the price of influence in Libya is smaller than in Syria. Finally, if the Syrian conflict winds down in favor of Russia’s ally Bashar al Assad, the Kremlin will have a newly expanded capacity to focus elsewhere. (3)
Russian options in Libya
Despite its support for the Libyan Political Agreement at the U.N. Security Council in December 2015, soon after the arrival of the U. N. -backed government in Tripoli in March 2016, Russia has been actively supporting forces in the Libyan conflict that are working to undermine the new government. It is hard to explain why Moscow would opt for such an incoherent strategy towards Libya, but the author’s discussions with Russian policymakers reveal that the Kremlin likely did not initially prioritize a settlement of the crisis in Libya.
On February 2015, Vladimir Churkin, the head of Russia’s mission to the U.N., told journalists (4) that Moscow was considering backing the official government in Tobruq with weapons and if necessary, imposing a naval blockade of Libya to prevent the delivery of weapons to jihadists by sea. During Haftar’s first visit to Moscow in June 2016, the Russian Ambassador to Libya, Ivan Molotkov, revealed that the parties had discussed a possible delivery of Russian weapons to the government in Tobruk. (5) Arguably the Russian understanding of the Libyan context has become significantly more nuanced since it started actively engaging various Libyan stakeholders in talks. As a result, it would be inaccurate to say that at the moment Moscow sees General Haftar as the only possible partner able to help resolve the crisis. The two merely enjoy a mutually beneficial marriage of convenience. The wannabe Gaddafi benefits from the international diplomatic cover that Moscow provides, which has helped him position himself as a powerful alternative to the Tripoli government in the eyes of European powers. By partnering with Haftar, Russia accomplishes a number of its own goals, from expanding its influence in the Mediterranean and building a close alliance with Egypt over cooperation over Libya, to acquiring another lever against its western counterparts.
While Russia purposefully built a strong relationship with Haftar, the question is how committed Moscow is to this alliance and to what lengths it is prepared to go to ensure the General’s emergence as a new Gaddafi. After all, Haftar resided in the United States for many years due to being at odds with Mummer Gaddafi, and he allegedly worked with American intelligence agencies at that time, (6) which makes him an unlikely partner in Moscow. Having initially made the mistake of giving Haftar a false impression of unequivocal backing, the Russian government has notably avoided discussions about its involvement in the Libyan crisis, resorting to general statements about the need for national reconciliation. In fact, the U. N. –imposed arms embargo serves as a good excuse not to deliver weapons to Haftar, avoiding the risk of getting drawn into another quagmire in the region. Despite publicly supporting the general’s militaristic bravado, which is largely directed at the West, the Kremlin is overseeing Haftar’s transformation from a warlord into a politician, which signifies the evolution of Russia’s view of Libya and its methods of settling conflicts.
In 2016, Moscow established an inter-ministerial “Contact Group for Libya Reconciliation,” comprising diplomats as well as Members of Parliament, including from Chechnya in Russia, who have been tasked with restoring old ties and developing a network of new contacts in Libya. This has resulted in a flurry of meetings between Russian officials and the al-Serraj government as well as representatives of militant groups. This strategy also allows Russia to put more pressure on the unruly Haftar and make its support for him conditional on his participation in transition talks. (7)
The fall of Mummer Gaddafi undeniably delivered a blow to Russia’s interests in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It also demonstrated that the country is an important ally of Moscow in at least three ways: As a partner on matters concerning the regulation of the global energy market, a client for Russia’s defense industry and, linked to that, as a geopolitical actor, just as Mummer Gaddafi was an informal ambassador for Soviet and later Russian interests in the MENA region and the Mediterranean. Arguably, today the Kremlin is looking to restore the role of Libya in its foreign policy equation, although doing so by military means does not serve Russia’s long-term interests.
Russia’s approach to the Libyan crisis has revealed that the country does not see Syria and Libya as similar contexts that call for same responses, despite the fact that both are attributed to the Arab Spring. Libya is undoubtedly of less importance to Russia than Syria, simply due to its geographic remoteness. This also means, however, that Moscow enjoys more flexibility to explore alternative solutions to the Libyan crisis and does not see it as a context in which a military settlement is possible. It seems that by this stage, Russia has come to the conclusion that a consensus settlement to the Libyan crisis would produce a more lasting outcome than recreating a Gaddafi-type regime.
So what can be said in response to the question of what is Russia’s role and policies in Libya as one of the Islamic countries, is that, unlike Syria, where it has a serious presence, long-term presence in Libya is not one of its priorities And Because of Libyan energy, the sale of military weapons to it and the use of Libyan regional geopolitics to balance the West has been a strong presence over the years. What is clear is that Russia on one hand supports the UN political agreement and on the other supports opposition groups such as General Haftar. Indeed, Libya as part of the Muslim world, is unlikely to see the end of the civil war in the short term. Hereafter is unpopular throughout the country and many local factions strongly oppose his rule. Although Libyan oil is an important asset, it is by no means vital to Moscow politically and economically. In fact, any state that comes to control Libya will inevitably seek to sell its oil and natural gas resources in Western (European) markets. Moreover, unlike Syria, which has engaged all of its neighbors and regional powers, such as Israel, Iran and Turkey, there is relatively little opposition in Libya. Russia, under the influence of political motives, chooses scenarios that will help it avoid both direct confrontation with Western powers and achieve its economic goals and regional status.
In the end, low support for US intervention in the Middle East could affect the Libyan conflict in the same way it affected in Syria. Now, the Libyan situation is not a priority for the US government. However, due to the political deadlock in Libya, the situation can change every day. If the United States shows the same unwillingness to make changes in Syria, Russia will have the opportunity to step up its efforts to intervene effectively in Libya. If the United States pursues a policy of disregarding the Libyan crisis, Russia has the opportunity to increase its presence in Libya.
1- Samuel Ramani, “Russia’s Mediation Goals In Libya”, April 18, 2019, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, At: Https://Carnegieendowment.Org/Sada/78940
2- Erin A. Neale “Russia: Is Syria’s Fate Libya’s Future?” FEBRUARY 14, 2018, Atlantic Council, At: File:///C:/Users/Aus/Downloads/Russiaissyriasfatelibyasfuturepdf.Pdf
3- Ipid, 2018
4- Even Legal Arms Supplies To Libya May Lead To Weapons’ Spread Around The Region — Diplomat, TASS, February 2015, Http://Tass.Ru/En/World/778588
5- Russian Ambassador: Commander-In-Chief Of The Libyan Army Discussed Delivery Of Arms In Moscow, RIA, June 28, 2016, Https://Ria.Ru/Defense_Safety/20160628/1453677993.Html
6- Missy Ryan, A former CIA asset has become a U.S. headache in Libya, The Washington Post, August 17, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/a-former-cia-asset-has-become-a-us-headache-in-libya/2016/08/17/a766e392-54c6-11e6-bbf5-957ad17b4385_story.html?utm_term=.0dbaedf05dda
7- Yury Barmin, “Russia In Libya: From Authoritarian Stability To Consensus Settlement”, 3 August 2017, At: Http://Www.Sharqforum.Org/Wp-Content/Uploads/Dlm_Uploads/2017/08/Russia-In-Lybia-01.Pdf