Russia has a serious stake in Libya’s uncertain future

Sergei Lavrov (right) with the UN-backed Libyan prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj. EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

Still wracked by conflict six years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is split between two rival governments. In the west is Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli, and in the east a regional government under the control of General Khalifa Haftar, based in Tobruk. Sarraj enjoys the backing of the UN, while Haftar is supported by the Libyan National Army, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Russia, too, is generally regarded as an unconditional Haftar ally – but it’s not quite that simple.

General Haftar has been described as Putin’s man in Libya, and his visits to Russia, where he met Putin’s foreign and defence ministers, have bolstered that impression. But rather than simply backing one side, Russia appears to be facilitating talks between both political factions, or at least to be supporting others in their efforts to do so. The Kremlin even hosted Sarraj on an official visit to Moscow in March 2017.

But the reasons for Russia’s involvement in Libya have less to do with the dialogue between Libya’s governments than with Russia’s very distinctive geopolitical motives.

Libya’s political map is marked by large areas beyond government control – some are under the sway of local armed groups, while others are partially filled by violent radical Islamist groups. The so-called Islamic State (IS) maintains cells in the coastal town of Sabratha, and controls swaths of territory south-east of Tripoli.

This means that by engaging the political leadership in the coastal cities, the Kremlin can claim to be fighting IS and its affiliates (which have attacked Russian targets before). Here, Moscow is presenting itself as part of a broader international effort to fight terrorism.

Then there are the commercial interests of Russian oil and gas companies and weapons manufacturers. Russia has cited losses of US$4 billion in Libyan arms contracts since Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, and it is keen to start making money in the country again. The Russian oil company Rosneft signed a crude oil purchasing agreement with Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) in February 2017. And the fact that Haftar controls the bulk of Libya’s oil resources raises the possibility of lucrative contracts with a future national government – provided Haftar wields substantial influence.

The UN Security Council votes to put sanctions on Libya, February 2011. EPA/Peter Foley

Russia has been a vocal critic of UN efforts in Libya, its complaints mainly relate to questions of power-sharing and military command structures. Moscow criticised the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement of December 2015 and voiced its dissatisfaction with Martin Kobler, the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, for favouring the Tripoli government, ignoring Haftar, and thereby stalling the reconciliation process.

But perhaps above all, Russia’s approach to Libya has to be seen as a direct reaction to the mechanisms of Gaddafi’s ouster in 2011.

A dangerous precedent

At the centre of things is United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which was passed in March 2011 to authorise a no-fly zone over Libya. In the Security Council, the Russian government abstained, passing up the opportunity to unilaterally veto it.

The Kremlin has come to regret this. As it read the resolution, the mandate was written exclusively for the purposes of civilian protection, but was used by Western powers as a pretext to help remove Gaddafi from power. As the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, sourly observed: “By distorting the mandate obtained from the UN Security Council to secure a no-fly zone, NATO simply interfered in the war under the flag of protecting the civilian population.”

In Russia’s view, the resolution and its aftermath set a nefarious precedent for externally enforced regime change via the back door. Russia vowed that the same thing would not happen again in Syria, and duly vetoed eight draft Security Council resolutions condemning Assad’s Syrian government.

Still, Russia’s desire to stamp its imprint on Libya’s future rather than bowing to foreign policy decisions made elsewhere doesn’t mean it’s preparing a military intervention. For all the US media’s alarm at an alleged Russian build-up in western Egypt, close to the Libyan border, Russia knows its military interventions are only useful insofar as they can be translated into political leverage.

In Syria, for example, the strengthening of Assad’s control over previously rebel-held areas, aided by Russian air sorties, “created the conditions for the start of a peace process”, as Putin noted as he ordered a retreat of Russian forces in March 2016. This peace process, to be sure, was meant to be led by Russia, as the ongoing peace talks in Kazakhstan have shown.

It seems highly unlikely that Russia will offer comparable military support for either faction in Libya, as Moscow’s diplomatic initiatives towards both Libyan governments have made clear. Any deliveries of Russian arms to either side are prohibited by a UN weapons embargo, as Russia’s ambassador to Libya has himself stressed.

If Libya’s two governments reach some kind of settlement thanks to Russia’s involvement, the Kremlin’s lost billions in contracts might return. But perhaps more importantly, Russia’s role in Libya and Syria since 2011 has made it a key actor in international security at large. So just as Libya’s political future hinges to no small extent on Russian foreign policy, Moscow has a great deal invested in that future as well.