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Russia indicates it might take anti-IS action in Libya

Russia — worried about the Islamic State — indicates that if the UN approves a naval blockade against Islamist militants in Libya, the Russian navy could participate.
A man fishes in front of the Russian Navy Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier moored off the coast of the town of Limassol, in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus on February 27, 2014. AFP PHOTO / YIANNIS KOURTOGLOU        (Photo credit should read Yiannis Kourtoglou/AFP/Getty Images)

Could Russia participate in a naval blockade to prevent arms shipments to anti-government fighters in Libya? Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told Russia’s official news agency Tass, “I would not rule this out.” About a week later, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that Egypt “would welcome contributions of any country that has abilities to provide such contributions,” adding that “Russia plays an important role in this issue since it has a naval fleet in the Mediterranean.”

For the moment, it's premature to ask about Russia’s potential participation in a blockade — the idea assumes a UN Security Council decision to permit arms shipments to Libya’s government despite an existing international arms embargo. The blockade would prevent arms shipments to Islamic State (IS) and other militants in Libya while allowing deliveries to the internationally recognized government in the country’s east. On March 9, the Security Council put off approving the Libyan government’s request for weapons after Spain and several other nations (including the United States) asked for more information about the plan.

While he stopped short of mentioning Russia’s possible role in a blockade, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made clear that Moscow may support Security Council action — proposed by Egypt — “to increase the efforts to combat the terrorist threat coming from Libya.” However, he said Russia wants any international moves approved by the United Nations. Abandoning diplomatic subtlety, Lavrov argued that the United States and its coalition against IS should seek the same approval with respect to Syria (as well as seeking consent from Damascus for strikes into its territory).

Lavrov’s position reflects the fact that the civil war in Libya has become a growing problem for Russia, most notably in the foothold it provides to militants aligned with IS. Moscow has long seen Sunni extremist groups like IS as among the greatest threats to stability in the Middle East and, after two wars in Chechnya and continuing domestic terror attacks, to Russia’s own security.

Yet, it is not strictly a security matter. In early March, at a UN event, Lavrov denounced the killing of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by IS terrorists, saying that his government “sees all the signs of genocide” in the murders and in IS attacks on Christians in Syria and Iraq. Two weeks earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin and members of Russia’s Security Council discussed the attack on the Egyptians in a formal meeting and issued a statement that “strongly condemned the barbaric murder.” Although relations between Russia’s Orthodox Church and the Egyptian Coptic Church are complex theologically, they have become increasingly warm politically since the end of the Cold War, as Eastern Christian sects have pursued reconciliation.

Russia’s military and political support for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine likely complicates any UN Security Council negotiations (or other talks outside the UN) over Russian participation in an international naval blockade, in that Washington and many other Western capitals may be loath to welcome Russian military vessels into a multilateral effort at this time. Still, some of Europe’s Mediterranean countries are pressing for an unspecified Russian role in stabilizing Libya. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi went so far as to meet Putin in Moscow, saying at a joint press conference with the Russian leader that “Russia’s role can be decisive” and that “without Russia it is much more complicated to find a point of equilibrium.” This could put some pressure on the Security Council’s European permanent members, Britain and France, and on Spain, currently a nonpermanent member. (Lithuania is also a nonpermanent member, but its government would presumably oppose a Russian role vigorously in view of its broader perspective on Russia.)

Because Moscow’s current diplomatic position (and its general practice in similar cases) requires a Security Council resolution as a precondition for its direct involvement in Libya, the UN process will be central to any Russian role. Yet even if the Security Council does act, and the United States and other NATO members were prepared to cooperate with Moscow, coordinating any Russian navy operations would be quite difficult — the NATO-Russia relationship has collapsed over the Ukraine crisis, taking important communication channels with it. More narrowly, neither NATO nor Russian naval vessels could realistically submit themselves to the other side’s operational supervision (much less command) at this point. With that in mind, Churkin may have been correct to point to Moscow’s past involvement in a multilateral counter-piracy task force in the Arabian Sea as a precedent, but sidestepped new political realities that would make a similar project much more challenging today.

Nevertheless, if the Security Council is able to reach an agreement and calls upon UN member states to support a blockade, no one could tell Moscow not to send its ships — especially if Egypt and other regional states actively sought Russian participation. If the United States and NATO were unwilling to work directly with Russia’s military, managing the various international forces could fall to a regional organization or (perhaps more likely) to an individual government in the Middle East, much as Baghdad has apparently coordinated US and Iranian military activity in Iraq in the absence of direct communication between Washington and Tehran. Libya’s shaky government seems unlikely to have the capacity for this, but others might.

Indeed, Egypt could be an interesting candidate for such a role — it has one of the largest navies among the Middle East’s Mediterranean nations and has workable relationships with both the United States (notwithstanding recent frustration) and Russia (steadily improving, as Vitaly Naumkin writes). And Cairo has already demonstrated its own determination to fight IS forces in Libya by launching airstrikes last month. Watch this space.

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