When EU leaders began wrestling with how to confront Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine, there seemed little connection between events in Crimea and Donbas, the raging conflict in Syria and the outset of a second civil war in Libya….
A striking new geopolitical landscape has come clearly into focus: a crescent of Russian influence, arching from Donetsk in the east to Tripoli in the west.
Having cemented Russia’s role as the dominant belligerent against a pro-Western Ukraine …President Vladimir Putin has turned his attention to Libya.
For Europe, this raises the worrying prospect that Russia could gain control over the flow of migrants across the central Mediterranean, giving Putin leverage to destabilize Europe by unleashing a flood of refugees like the exodus from Syria that caused a crisis in Europe in 2015.
“It would have a tap to open when it needs something from us,” warned one Central European diplomat.
The Kremlin has showcased its affection for Khalifa Haftar, a military commander who controls much of eastern Libya.
Describing the strategic importance of North Africa and other countries on Europe’s periphery, the Russian political analyst Leonid Fituni wrote: “The worst case scenario for a united Europe would be the formation of a permanent ‘crescent of instability’ controlled by its competitors and lying along the entire length of the arc stretching from the Atlas Mountains to the Bia?owie?a Forest.”
When Fituni wrote this in 2012, describing a power vacuum along the Mediterranean rim, he could not have envisioned that Russia would be the competitor moving to fill that vacuum.
Khalifa Haftar controls most oil installations — and is in conflict with the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli. He made two prominent visits to Moscow last year and in January was treated to a tour of the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, which docked off Libya’s coast on its way home from Syria. From the ship, he had a video call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Acknowledging the “elevated buzz” that these contacts caused, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexey Zaytsev said Moscow “considers him one of the political heavyweights who have a real impact on the political alignment in today’s Libya.”
“In addition, Haftar has done — and continues to do — a lot to combat the terrorists of the Islamic State,” Zaytsev said. “Thanks to him, the country has resumed petroleum exports and has begun to receive the resources needed to address pressing socio-economic problems.”
Zaytsev and other Russian officials insist Haftar is just part of a broader effort to stabilize Libya after what they see as the chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring, which Putin blames primarily on the United States. While some EU officials fear its influence, Russia says it is helping to restore order at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed a desire to retreat from the world stage.
“Moscow stands ready to support the Libyan people on the path to peace and stability,” Vladimir A. Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, said in a statement to POLITICO. “Undoubtedly, it is only up to the Libyans themselves to determine the personalities to run the country. This should not and cannot be envisaged or imposed by external actors.”
Many EU leaders mistrust Putin’s motives, fearing Russia will impede international efforts to strengthen the fragile government in Tripoli by encouraging continued fighting or even installing a pro-Russian government. Libya is the main launching point for migrants crossing the central Mediterranean to Europe. …
Migrants, who were rescued by Libyan forces, rest at the Tripoli commercial port | AFP via Getty Images
A draft declaration prepared by EU officials in Malta summit urged quick action, saying “efforts to stabilize Libya are more important than ever.” The Kremlin’s role in Libya will be discussed by EU foreign ministers in Brussels ….
The European Commission has announced plans to allocate €200 million to help the Libyan coast guard intercept migrants at sea and return them to Libya. But some EU diplomats fear an unintended outcome: Because migrant smugglers are active mainly in western Libya, closer to Tripoli, the coast guard effort could push smugglers eastward to territory controlled by Haftar.
The Russian Foreign Ministry insists Moscow’s main goal is “the preservation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Libya, Zaytsev said.
Whatever the motivation, Putin appears to be consolidating and expanding Russian influence along Europe’s periphery.
“We all know the Russians’ dreams have always been to have bases in the Mediterranean,” said George Vella, the foreign minister of Malta.
Whether Putin’s goal is to rewrite the rules in the Middle East, reverse the Arab Spring or stop what the Kremlin has long seen as misguided adventures in U.S.-led democracy-building, he is now a dominant player in the Middle East. In Libya, Putin was infuriated by the death of former leader Muammar Gaddafi at the hands of a rebel mob in October 2011.
Europe has been working with the U.N. and its special envoy, Martin Kobler, to support the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. The EU’s strategy for halting the flow of migrants across the central Mediterranean hinges on having a stable Libyan government as a partner, much as Turkey has helped cut the number of migrants to Greece.
The bodies of migrants who died after their boat capsized, on the beach in Garabulli, east of Tripoli | Mahmud Turkia
Russia, by contrast, appears to be working to end the U.N. embargo on arms sales to Libya and has made clear it wants to provide greater assistance to Haftar and his forces in the east. During his visit to the Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, Haftar was given medical supplies for Libyan fighters. Egypt and Jordan have also expressed support for Haftar and he also has backing from France, which has taken a different line to other EU countries on Libya.
Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said Russia’s strategy is to “push toward escalation” by backing a man who “openly says he’s not interested in a political deal” with Tripoli.
At the same time, U.N. envoy Kobler portrays Moscow’s role and the outreach to Haftar as potentially helpful, even though Haftar won’t talk to the U.N. and recently refused permission for Kobler’s plane to land in the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk.
“That Russia is in the process of achieving day by day a role in determining the balance … in the Middle East and now in the Mediterranean — it’s a role that must be acknowledged” — Leonardo Tricarico, Intelligence Culture and Strategic Analysis Foundation president
“I have no problem whatsoever that other member states use their contact with General Haftar in order to promote this process,” the veteran German diplomat told POLITICO, playing down speculation that Haftar wants to escalate the conflict. “I have never heard Haftar speaking of civil war — on the contrary, he wants to avoid civil war.”
Kobler stressed the positive developments in Libya, such as an increase in oil production to 700,000 barrels a day from 200,000, and the new budget that has allowed the government to pay salaries and increase spending on other priorities.
“I am not worried at all,” said the German.
“The Russians supported the Libyan political agreement,” Kobler said, adding that he was “very happy that the Security Council is in unity on the Libya policy.”
Some experts view it as a strategic mistake to ignore Russia’s growing influence in Libya and its relationship with Haftar, seeing echoes of the Obama administration’s efforts to work with Russia on Syria.
“That Russia is in the process of achieving day by day a role in determining the balance … in the Middle East and now in the Mediterranean — it’s a role that must be acknowledged,” said Leonardo Tricarico, a retired Italian general who presides over the Intelligence Culture and Strategic Analysis Foundation, a Rome-based think tank.
With Trump, Putin and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi already set up for what Toaldo at the ECFR described as “possible convergence” — the new U.S. administration has already branded Sisi’s bitter rivals in the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists — Libya could emerge as a first focus of cooperation.
“Both Russia and the Trump administration may see an opportunity to collaborate on one of Trump’s signature foreign policy goals — the fight against terrorism,” wrote Matthew Lester of the Soufan Group, a Washington-based security and intelligence consulting firm, in a report. “Should broader U.S.-Russia reconciliation — a declared pillar of Trump’s foreign policy — manifest itself in Libya, Haftar’s Libyan National Army currently presents the most likely force with which the two countries could ally.”