EU leaders are keen to stem the flow of African migrants through Libya and fight terrorism
Russia has been talking to a key figure in eastern Libya, Gen. Khalifa Haftar
EU leaders are turning to Russia as they seek to stabilize Libya, stem the flow of migrants departing its shores for Europe and combat Islamist terrorism.
But what is Russia’s stake in the volatile North African nation?
One Libyan figure may prove to be central to any negotiations: Gen. Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have been fighting Islamists and control a chunk of the country’s east. He’s already been talking to Russia.
Here’s what you need to know:
What is the current state of play in Libya?
Put simply, Libya is in a mess. Five years after the fall of strongman leader Moammar Gadhafi, three governments vie for power, multiple tribes compete for influence and a slice of the country’s dwindling oil wealth, and ISIS has gained a foothold in some areas.
Keen to promote stability, the United Nations hastened in a Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) early last year. But it has failed to gain real popular support or legitimacy, said US-based Libya analyst Ronald Bruce St John.
It continues to compete with the Islamist-dominated General National Congress in Tripoli, also known as the Government of National Salvation, and with the previous internationally recognized government, the Council of Deputies, which has set up camp in the east of Libya and backs Haftar.
Haftar, who heads the so-called Libyan National Army, has been working to drive out Islamist forces, with some success, said St John. His forces now control much of the east, including Benghazi and most of the major oil producing and exporting areas – crucial to Libya’s economy, said St John.
Libya is one of seven Muslim-majority countries listed in US President Donald Trump’s travel ban as a security threat.
What is Russia’s interest in Libya?
In the last six to nine months, Russia has been trying to take advantage of the chaos and instability in Libya to establish itself as a regional player, said St John. After gaining a “major foothold” in Syria, where it has backed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, influence in Libya could allow it to expand its reach into North Africa, he said.
Anna Walker, associate director for Europe at the business risk consultancy Control Risks, said Russia was seeking to exert its influence in the region to help reinforce its position as a power on the world stage.
In Syria, Russia has been able to act as a power broker, bringing the warring sides together for talks where others have failed, Walker said – and it may seek the same role in Libya. “Certainly by engaging with different political actors in Libya, it’s looking to reassert its presence there, not necessarily militarily but as another power player in the region,” she said.
Nikolay Kozhanov, an academy associate with UK-based think tank Chatham House, said Moscow is trying to orientate its foreign policy toward non-Western nations.
Russia is also “disappointed” by the results of Western involvement in the Middle East, he said, which it largely blames for the fall of pro-Moscow regimes in Iraq and Libya, and associated political and economic losses.
What are the economic drivers for Russia?
The Arab Spring and subsequent instability in the region has been a blow to Russia’s economy, Kozhanov said. Russia had huge investments in Libya before the Arab Spring – from military infrastructure to railroad construction to energy.
The Soviet Union was also a major supplier of weapons to Libya’s former strongman leader Moammar Gadhafi following his rise to power in 1969, said St John. Russia would like to tap back into that market, he said.
In addition, Libya has oil and gas reserves that could offer future development opportunities, said Walker.
Who is Gen. Haftar and why does he matter?
Haftar – who defected from Gadhafi’s military to live in exile in the United States before returning to Libya in 2011 – will have to be brought on board if a stable Libyan government with popular support is to be formed, said St John.
The general opposes the rule of the UN-backed Tripoli government and has indicated he might try to extend his power base to the Libyan capital, said St John.
Haftar traveled to Moscow last year and met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He also met with a high-level Russian delegation on board a Russian warship off eastern Libya last month.
Kozhanov said he doubted Russia had a “clear master plan” in Libya – but links with Haftar could be useful in a future Libyan government.
What does all this have to do with the migrant crisis?
Libya is a departure point for hundreds of thousands of migrants who have left poverty and repression in African and Middle Eastern nations.
The European Union has struggled to stem the flow of migration from the Libyan coast while the lawlessness there continues – so forming a stable government is a priority from its point of view. There are also concerns ISIS is trying to infiltrate Libyan people-smuggling routes to get its militants to Europe.
Europe’s migrant crisis is not a real factor in Russia’s plans, said Kozhanov. But, he said, “Moscow often offers to cooperate with the West on the anti-terrorist agenda, using it as the way to make the West less interested in confronting Moscow on other topics.” That would include Ukraine, where Russian aggression has led to European sanctions.
US President Donald Trump has also spoken of working with Russia to fight Islamist terrorism.
What overtures has the EU made toward Russia?
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini last week spoke by phone about Ukraine, Syria and Libya with Lavrov. The pair have agreed to meet in the coming weeks, perhaps on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
“Both on Libya and Syria, we decided to find ways to join efforts and cooperate,” said Mogherini of her call with Lavrov, adding that working with the Russians to help Libyans unite their country “can only be a positive thing.”
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano also spoke with Lavrov about Libya, Russian state news agency Tass reported, citing Italian newspaper La Stampa.
Are there pitfalls in working with Russia?
Support within Europe for sanctions against Russia over Ukraine has been weakening, said Walker. Treating Russia as a credible negotiating partner in Libya will make maintaining unity on sanctions harder, she said.
However, she said, “Europe has so many issues it is grappling with at the moment that refusing Russia’s support or actively trying to counter it is probably not in its interests.”
Many European nations – as well as the US – also condemned Russia for its military intervention in Syria, particularly its role in Assad’s siege of Aleppo.
What has Russia said?
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said last week that all sides should look to negotiations, not force, to resolve the situation in Libya.
She stressed that Russia was talking to various political forces in Libya, not just Haftar, and planned to receive Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the GNA, in Moscow this month.
“We would like Libya to get out of the protracted crisis as soon as possible and once again become a prosperous state relying on strong government institutions, capable army and law enforcement forces restoring its status as a major regional player,” she said.
CNN’s Antonia Mortensen and Milena Veselinovic contributed to this report.