Russia and the Middle East: Diplomacy and Security

Russia-Libya Cooperation and Counter-Terrorism

June 2, 2016

On April 27, 2016, General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, declared that Libya barely existed as a state and was a breeding ground for jihadist networks, like the Islamic State. To justify his grim assessment, Gerasimov accused the United States of using democracy promotion as a pretext to destabilize the Middle East. He highlighted the 2003 Iraq War and 2011 NATO intervention in Libya as actions that contributed greatly to the current refugee crisis.


Gerasimov’s statement fuelled Western media speculation that Russia was using instability in Libya as a pretext for a Syria-style anti-ISIS military intervention. While the Kremlin has stated its opposition to the provision of military assistance to the Libyan government without UN approval, economic and defense cooperation between Moscow and Tripoli has strengthened in recent months.


A closer relationship between Moscow and the Libyan government is of great value to Russia’s security. With the Libyan government’s assistance, Russia can build a multilateral alliance network against ISIS in Libya that bolsters its status as an alternative counter-terrorism leader to the United States. It can also create a durable economic partnership with Tripoli that will bolster Russian leverage in the Middle East.

Russia-Libya Cooperation and Counter-Terrorism

While Russia and the West have been united around the desire to combat Islamic extremism in recent years, Russia’s recognition of Libya as a potential locus for terrorism significantly predated Western assessments. Moscow abstained from the UN Resolution 1973, which allowed for a military intervention to protect Libyan civilians. But in April 2011, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concern about the destabilizing nature of NATO support for Libyan rebel movements seeking to overthrow Gaddafi.


Lavrov’s concern that NATO actions in Libya would foment civil wars across the Middle East followed revelations in March 2011 that Al-Qaeda militants had infiltrated the Libyan opposition’s ranks. The Russian state media equated NATO’s support for Libyan rebel movements with the indirect sponsorship of terrorism.


The rise of Daesh after Gaddafi’s fall further strengthened the credibility of this argument. Russia has used state failure in Libya as proof that that a Sunni revolutionary government taking power in Syria would have profoundly destabilizing consequences.


As Lavrov believes that NATO’s unilateralism unnecessarily increased Libyan casualties, Russia has sought to build a multilateral consensus around the need to combat ISIS in Syria. One key step in this process is the convergence of sovereignty norms and counter-terrorism ambitions between Russia and Libya.


In a May 2015 appearance on Russia Today, Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni lashed out against Western unilateralism. Thinni argued that the Western arms embargo imposed in 2011 is incompatible with international recognition of his government. According to Thinni, Libya needs foreign armaments to preserve its sovereignty and fight terrorism within its borders. Thinni’s anti-Western rhetoric and trip to Russia played a vital role in thawing Libya’s relationship with Moscow. But Russia was still unwilling to match these diplomatic overtures with extensive arms shipments, which demonstrates that the improvement of bilateral relations is an incremental process.


Russia has combined its closer ties to the Libyan government, with the engagement of the Arab League. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi agreed in a recent telephone conversation that Libya was one of three crucial fronts in the war against Islamic extremism. The others fronts named were Syria and Yemen.  


Russia and the United Arab Emirates have also recognized the need to prevent ISIS’s spread outside of the Sirt region. According to Washington-based defense analyst Theodore Karasik, Abu Dhabi and Moscow have created a mini-alliance against ISIS and Daesh in Libya, through military cooperation with Libyan National Army General Khalifah Haftar.


Moscow’s counter-terrorism cooperation with European countries has also grown. But coordination thus far has been more rhetorical than substantive. Late 2015 diplomatic discussions between Russia and Italy revealed that Italian policymakers were concerned about the implications of a possible disintegration of Libya for Southern Europe’s security.


Even though Russia has clashed with France over its willingness to intervene militarily in Libya without UN approval, Paris and Moscow have expressed joint support for an anti-Daesh campaign in Libya. This has bolstered the credibility of the counter-terrorism dimension of Russia’s Syria campaign amongst some world leaders. This credibility is vital in ensuring that counter-terrorism missions bolster Russia’s international status.

How Russia Can Economically Engage Libya to Forge a Durable Alliance

While relations between Russia and the Libyan transitional government were initially strained, the legacy of Soviet arms sales to Libya, and Putin’s diplomatic overtures towards Gaddafi in 2008 are powerful precedents for a revived Moscow-Tripoli alliance. In recent months, there have been tangible signs of growing economic cooperation between Russia and Libya.


On May 19, Libyan Petroleum Minister Mashallah Zwai announced that Libyan oil producers would expand their linkages with Russian businesses. Russian technology could be vital for Libya’s attempts to return to its pre-2011 production levels and to overcome its current budget deficit.


Deeper Russian investment could bolster the Libyan economy and give the government the leverage to combat sources of internal instability. Clashes between federalists and local militias have caused criminal elements to gain increased control over Libyan oil supplies. Technology sharing is a vital step in encouraging Libya’s oil producers to cooperate with the national government on economic development.  


The creation of a borderline failed state in Libya presents some challenges for Russian cooperation. The unrecognized eastern Libyan government recently printed 4 billion dinars in 20 and 50 denominations from Russia. This move exacerbated Libya’s acute liquidity crisis and undermined the Libyan central bank’s ability to keep inflation in check. Therefore, Russia should prioritize state-to-state rather than state-to-business in the short-term, as businesses frequently have agendas that are destabilizing for the government in Tripoli


Russia’s closer economic ties with Libya could partially counteract the damage to Moscow’s leverage resulting from the ongoing Syrian civil war, and bolster Russia’s international status as a multilateral counter-terrorism leader. While the Moscow-Tripoli partnership has garnered little attention in the international press, it could ultimately be pivotal in determining the success of Moscow’s anti-ISIS campaign and the geopolitical power balance in the Middle East in the years to come.


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