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What’s Russia looking for In Libya?

Moscow’s unfolding strategy towards Libya could have a lot more to do with Cairo than observers realise.

The Western press’ anti-Russian hysteria has spread to North Africa, with feverish reports circulating among the Mainstream Media warning about a speculative Russian special forces deployment to Egypt.  According to the prevailing narrative that’s being pushed, Russia is considering some form of clandestine or overt low-intensity military involvement in neighbouring Libya, though this has been officially denied by Moscow. Rumours spread late last year about a possible Russian base in Sidi Barrani, which housed a Soviet-era facility during the Cold War and is also the scene of the latest chatter, but these were also refuted at the time, too.

There’s no telling exactly why the West is promulgating these same debunked reports again, but one of the reasons might have to do with Moscow’s latest diplomatic engagement with the East Libyan forces of General Khalifa Haftar. He was flown out of the country by helicopter to meet with Russian military officials aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in early January, and it’s presumed that the two sides spoke about how Russia could aid the general in his anti-terrorist crusade in the country. Accordingly, gossip spread like wildfire soon thereafter, and the West began nervously watching Libya for signs of what some of its representatives were convinced might have been an imminent “Russian invasion”.

That scenario obviously hasn’t been forthcoming, but it’s still realistically feasible to countenance that Russia’s assistance to Haftar might one day move beyond potential arms shipments and medical treatment for wounded soldiers and into the realm of intelligence, advisory, and possibly even special forces assistance, with none other than Sidi Barrani being the most likely location for housing Russia’s operational headquarters.

To be clear, there’s no indication that this is in the works at all, though it’s curious to note that the self-proclaimed East Libyan-based House of Representatives recently extended an invitation to the members of the defence and foreign affairs committees of the Russian Duma to visit their territory.

Russian Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov also just reaffirmed that his country “is of course interested in Libya stabilising in one way or another” because it “wants (an) authority in Libya who could combat terrorism”, though he unequivocally dismissed any prospect for an “excessive intervention”.

Therefore, what’s most likely to happen is that Russia will continue intensifying its military-diplomatic contacts with Haftar but will refrain from any conventional intervention in Libya’s affairs. The most immediate and pressing purpose behind this engagement is to help clear the country of terrorists, but there are also three other supplementary imperatives driving this policy as well, the most important of which is Russia’s desire to solidify Egypt’s multipolar pivot.

Other than the anti-terrorist cooperation that was already described, here’s what Russia might be looking for in Libya:

Energy Influence

Libya hosts the world’s 10th-largest oil reserves and the biggest ones in Africa, though it’s been stuck in underproduction ever since the NATO War on Libya led to the assassination of Gaddafi and turned the bombed-out country into a clan-centric patchwork of rival Islamist factions. The subsequent civil war that erupted shortly afterwards ground most production to a halt, though it’s been steadily recovering in the years since.

Russia doesn’t want to control what it hopes to be Haftar’s post-war oil spoils, but it could understandably want to exercise a degree of influence over them in order to help regulate the global energy market and prevent another price glut such as the one which contributed to weakening the rouble over the past two years.

To this end, it’s foreseeable that Moscow’s crucial anti-terrorist assistance (weapons, diplomatic backing, and possible intelligence, advisory, and special forces) to Haftar during his forces’ liberation and unification campaign could be rewarded in the form of profitable energy contracts for rebuilding and exporting some of Libya’s oil. In that case, Russia wouldn’t just earn monetary profits, but also strategic ones as well, since it would be powerfully positioned to indirectly influence the North African state’s energy policies and affiliated relations, both with its export partners and OPEC. Therefore, it’s reasonable to infer that Russian strategists – being the far-sighted experts that they’ve proven to be over the years – might have their eyes set on Libya’s enormous oil reserves, and they understand that effective anti-terrorist cooperation is the quickest way to achieve this far-sighted objective.

Geostrategic Positioning

Another commonly held — although widely fear mongered – explanation for Russia’s upsurge of anti-terrorist interest in Libya is that Moscow wants to establish a geostrategic foothold in the Southern Mediterranean to expand its existing footprint in the Eastern portion. What this explanation fails to provide, however, is the contextual differences between what Russia has already attained in Syria and what it might be looking for in Libya. Whereas the Tartus naval station is slated to undergo modernisation and expansion in the near future, there aren’t any indications whatsoever that Russia wants something similar in Libya, despite this lying at the heart of Western fears. Instead, it’s much more likely that the extent of Russia’s potentially envisioned military influence in Libya has a lot more to do with weapons sales and the high-level strategic relationships that accompany them than conventional basing rights.

Russia is wise enough to predict that any tangible moves in the direction of opening up a military facility in Libya could be a tripwire for triggering a harsh Western reaction, up to and including another an all-out bombing campaign or even a limited ground invasion aimed at thwarting what NATO might pretend is a “threat” to its interests. This could only result in more pain and destruction for the Libyan people, so Moscow would likely seek to prevent this from happening. On top of that, conventional weaponry and related deployments are becoming increasingly less important in the era of 21st-century (post-) modern warfare, so this possibility wouldn’t be high on Russia’s list of priorities anyhow when considering the costs that it would probably entail. Therefore, what Moscow would need in order to strengthen its geostrategic position in Libya is a soft military presence that sidesteps NATO’s tripwires and avoids the heavy costs associated with much more conventional deployments.

The most effective solution which meets these conditions while also promoting Russia’s influence is the future dispatch of trainers, advisors, and military maintenance mechanics after (or maybe even before?) Libya’s War on Terror is over. This would give Russia a much more robust and flexible presence in Libya than any conventional basing rights ever could, meaning that Moscow could invariably achieve much higher geostrategic dividends through a lower-level and more indirect form of commitment than if it opted to pursue a high-level and direct one through trying to open up official naval, air, or land facilities there. In a nutshell, Russia wants to do ‘more with less’, and it might be betting on Haftar to liberate Libya from terrorists and reunify the country so that it can call upon its close relations with him afterwards in order to restore Moscow’s Soviet-era relationship with Tripoli.

Strengthening Egypt’s Pivot

The last, but most important, supplementary reason behind why Russia is so interested in lending anti-terrorist support to Haftar’s Libyan forces is because this helps Moscow to reinforce Cairo’s multipolar pivot. President Sisi has recently embarked on taking his country in the direction of multipolarity, strengthening Egypt’s historic relations with Russia and even expressing principled support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Not only that, but he’s also working real closely with China and is supposedly in talks with Iran to normalise relations with Tehran, all of which have earned him the severe consternation of his Saudi patrons. Egypt has been progressively transitioning from the unipolar to the multipolar bloc, though smartly without doing so in the sort of radical fashion which would otherwise prompt a Hybrid War or other disruptive destabilisation (though that’s not to say that one isn’t in the cards, however).

At this very sensitive time, Egypt needs to be made aware of just how much its pivot means to Russia, and there’s no better way for Moscow to express this than to covertly join forces with Cairo in combating terrorism in neighbouring Libya. Cairo has long been suspected of backing Haftar and the House of Representatives Tobruk government in Eastern Libya, so it comes as a highly symbolic move that Russia is now in the process of supporting him as well, albeit with much more international attention than Egypt is receiving. Under these circumstances, Russia doesn’t need to deploy special forces and drones to Sidi Barrani in order to prove its allied anti-terrorist commitment to Egypt, although that theoretical eventuality could one day come in handy and be a force multiplier in decisively giving Haftar the game-changing support that he might need in liberating and reunifying his country.   

The trust-building anti-terrorist coordination between Russia and Egypt in Libya is undeclared at this time but can logically be inferred through the overlap of common interests that Moscow and Cairo have in aiding Haftar to varying degrees, the end effect of which will hopefully be to give him the boost that he needs in restoring security to this NATO-destroyed North African failed state. By helping to stabilise Libya in its own way, Russia is proving to Egypt that the latter made the right choice in its developing multipolar pivot and that there are immediate benefits for it such as the drastically improved prospects that Haftar will succeed in wiping out the terrorists next door. Conclusively, although Russia’s latest anti-terrorist moves in Libya (not the fake news that was propagated) obviously have some energy-military motivations, they’re actually predicated more on the much grander intention of cementing Egypt’s multipolar pivot and geostrategically reshaping the larger Middle EastNorth Africa region.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

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