Russia’s geopolitical PR campaign finds a perfect opening in North Africa

Waving the Libyan national flag in Tripoli. EPA/Stringer

Not since the end of the Cold War has Russia carried so much weight. Deeply involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, doggedly safeguarding Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime in Syria, and alleged to have meddled in the US presidential elections, the Kremlin is a force for all the world to reckon with. And now it has a new playing field, one of the various areas where the West has failed to shepherd a state from dictatorship to democracy: Libya.

While it has started to take an explicit interest in negotiations between the country’s two warring government’s, Russia’s moves in Libya have been mainly symbolic. In 2016, its only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetzov, stopped there on its way back from Syria. In January 2017, eastern Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar was given a tour of the carrier in the Mediterranean, with talk of Russian support for his regime (which doesn’t enjoy UN backing); come the summer, Moscow tested its new Kalibr and X-35 missiles off the Libyan coast.

On the face of it, this looks like a clear attempt to exploit strategic gaps left by the US and the EU. The West has been unwilling and unable to push forward a solution that would bring together Libya’s rival factions, a failure very much in line with an old Russian narrative that deplores Western intervention in sovereign countries’ affairs.

As Russia sees it, the main lesson of Libya’s descent into chaos since 2011 is that that the West greatly overestimated its grasp of the complexities of North African politics. There’s an obvious parallel with Ukraine, where Moscow’s primary goal since the 2014 “Maidan revolution” has been to show that where the West tries to impose liberalism upon sovereign countries, it is doomed to fail.

The Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

But for all that Russia is using Libya to thumb its nose at the West, it has a different audience in mind, too. While highlighting the mistakes of Western intervention clearly flatters its own image, Moscow is more immediately interested in importing ever more arms into North Africa and the Middle East; whereas the Soviet Union once enjoyed a commanding market share, Russia’s revenues from weapons sales in the region have run low since the 2011 Arab Awakening.

Still, this is very much a political PR project. As far as Russia’s image is concerned Libya is a gamble, but the risks are low and the potential returns very high. If the Kremlin can play a decisive role in some sort of settlement, that would certainly improve its international profile – and further shore up Vladimir Putin’s popularity with the Russian electorate.

Trouble at home

With the 2018 presidential elections fast approaching, voters’ enthusiasm for Putin seems to be on the wane. For all the political capital he’s earned via the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, he faces a major liability: ordinary Russians see little to no improvement in their day-to-day lives. Their main concerns are now the poor state of the economy and state corruption, the latter of which has lately sparked conspicuously large protests.

Making some headway towards a solution in Libya will further deflect public opinion from domestic concerns, and fuel the narrative of an assertive, strong and global Russia. Helpfully, the Libyan arena is much less complicated than the Syrian one; while finding a solution to the stalemate will hardly be easy, it will involve far fewer powerful actors with directly competing interests.

Protesting against Putin’s government and state corruption in Moscow. EPA/Yuri Kochetkov

As things stand, Russia doesn’t seem motivated to play as big a role in Libya as it does in Syria, and the Kremlin’s appetite for further large-scale military operations is far from ravenous. But the Syrian missions have helpfully deflected attention from the situation in Ukraine, where Russia is looking to further extend its influence in Crimea and the Donbas region. If Russia can play a central role in a Libyan resolution, it might deliver further concessions from the West, including badly needed sanctions relief.

Russia is a deeply opportunistic geopolitical player. It will eagerly exploit any gap or flaw in the strategies of its “perceived opponents”. Very often its foreign ventures are designed to test the waters and see how other states react, rather than going all-in on one specific goal. This partly explains its Libyan manoeuvres: it’s trying to get a feel of how far it can go in North Africa without meeting serious resistance from other Arab states or the West.

The most unpredictable variable here is President Trump’s baffling foreign policy style, marked by sudden about-turns and open contradictions of his own diplomats. Tentative ventures in places such as Libya can help Russia get a better grasp of the new parameters of the US’s behaviour abroad, to the extent they can be identified. If it encounters only weak opposition, Russia will probably feel emboldened to act elsewhere – ideally to Putin’s political benefit.

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