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What game is Russia playing in Libya?

Russia appears headed toward greater involvement in Libya, a development that could have catastrophic consequences for Libya and the region.
General Khalifa Haftar (C), commander in the Libyan National Army (LNA), leaves after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia, November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov - RTSTRVG

The Russian military hosted Khalifa Hifter, the general loyal to the eastern Libyan government, onboard the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov on Jan. 11. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, Hifter was given a tour of the aircraft carrier before holding a videoconference with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to discuss ways in which Russia can help with counterterrorism. Later, Hifter reportedly signed a memorandum of understanding to supply the Libyan National Army (LNA) with first-aid kits and essential medical supplies.

The Russian carrier was on its way from Syrian waters to its homeport in Russia when it stopped off the Libyan coast in Moscow's latest move signaling its support for the LNA and its commander and the broader Libyan coalition largely opposed to the internationally recognized, UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). Agilah Saleh, president of the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the coalition's political and nominal leader, visited Moscow Dec. 13 and met with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other officials. Saleh and Lavrov discussed the Libyan Political Dialogue process, implementation of the LPA, the Libyan economy, security and counterterrorism.

Russia is trying to politically dominate the Libya file on the international stage like it did with Syria. Despite Moscow's obvious support of the LNA and the eastern Libya-based authorities, Russia has tried to reach out to other Libyan factions and actors, including the GNA as well as Misratan leaders. There are reports that Moscow has extended invitations to GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and Abdulrahman Swehli, president of the consultative State Council, to visit Moscow to discuss the Libyan peace process. Last June, Misratan Ahmed Maiteq, deputy president of the GNA’s presidential council, visited Moscow accompanied by the GNA Defense Minister-designate Mahdi al-Bargathi and Foreign Minister-designate Taher Syiala. In December, the Russian ambassador to Libya, Ivan Molotkov, met with the GNA Defense Minister-designate Bargathi to discuss military cooperation, including the maintenance and upgrading of Russian military hardware in Libya.

Russia has not played a dominant role in Libya since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi. Rather, other powers, including the United States and Europe, and regional actors, including Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have been heavily involved in Libya’s post-Gadhafi transition. Russia has, however, remained focused and engaged in Libya and is now involved there as part of its geopolitical game and expansion of its influence in the Middle East. This is also in part due to Russian companies’ commercial interests.

It is estimated that prior to the 2011 uprising in Libya, Russian oil and gas companies and weapons manufacturers had signed contracts worth between $4 billion and $10 billion. Russia’s engagement in post-Gadhafi Libya took a new and active direction in May 2016, when 4 billion Libyan dinars were printed in Russia for the eastern-based government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani. It is likely that Russia will print more dinars for the eastern government in light of the ongoing cash crisis in the country. On the military front, Hifter has visited Moscow twice in the past seven months, meeting with the Russian foreign and defense ministers as well as Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev to seek support for LNA forces.

Russia has two distinctly different but possible options for engagement on the crisis in Libya. The first option is a soft approach, which involves diplomatic and political engagement with all the key Libyan stakeholders. This is an option because efforts so far by the United Nations, European countries and the United States have failed to produce a workable solution for the Libyan crisis. Russia has tried to reach out to all the Libyan parties, but without much progress until now.

There have been local reports of a Russian delegation visiting the city of Misrata at the time Hifter was hosted onboard the Admiral Kuznetsov. For some reason, however, the visit was not publicized and did not receive much attention from the media. Nonetheless, this approach could prove difficult for Moscow given the links and cooperation between some of Libya’s key stakeholders, such as the GNA, forces from Misrata and Western countries, including Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States. For such an approach to succeed, Russia would need to engage with the Western states actively involved and with influence and leverage over some of Libya’s key players. Such cooperation, however, is hard to imagine given the current standoff between Russia and the West in Syria and Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia.

The second option is an aggressive approach whereby Russia could choose to back Hifter and authorities in eastern Libya and help tip the balance of power in favor of the LNA to capture Tripoli and control most of Libya's territory and energy sources. The Admiral Kuznetsov’s visit to the Libyan coast and hosting of Hifter onboard — which did not go unnoticed by Libyans or international media outlets — is a hint that Moscow is edging toward this option. This would mean greater involvement by Russia and require a significant amount of resources, which Moscow might not have given its heavy involvement in Syria and its suffering economy.

Moscow’s calculations might be different, however, in that its adventure in Libya could pay off by securing oil and gas, weapons and construction contracts if it came to be ruled by an ally. Furthermore, given Russia's ambitions for influence and expansion in the Middle East, Libya could become a geopolitical bargaining chip for Moscow against Europe. In such a scenario, Russia would start by providing technical assistance and expertise as well as training for LNA personnel and the eventual provision of new weapons once the UN weapons embargo on Libya is no longer effective or provide LNA with weapons through third parties. According to LNA spokesperson Ahmed al-Mesmari, “Libya signed [arms] contracts with Russia worth 4.2 billion US dollars in 2009.” Mesmari added, “These contracts will be activated once the UN arms embargo is no longer effective.” 

Russia will likely become heavily involved in Libya in 2017 with extremely negative repercussions given the animosity between Russia and the West. Although Moscow’s ultimate moves remain vague, its intentions toward the West are obvious. Even if Russia cannot directly influence or control the direction of events in Libya, it can at least ensure prolonged instability with catastrophic consequences for Libya and the region. 

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