Russia ‘plays games for fun’ in Libya

Libyans take part in celebrations marking the sixth anniversary of the Libyan revolution. Tripoli, 17 February. [EPA]

Taking advantage of the weakness and divisions of the EU, and the lack of interest of the US, Russia “plays games for fun” in Libya, expending little effort, but potentially obtaining important dividends, analysts said at an event in Brussels on Wednesday (26 April).

The discussion, attended by handpicked officials, researchers and journalists, was hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The featured speakers included Pavel K. Baev, an Oslo-based senior fellow from the Centre on the United States and Europe, and Tarek Megerisi, an independent analyst specialising in Arab and Libyan politics.

The oil-producing North African state fell into turmoil during the 2011 uprising which ended Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year-long rule and has been riven by factional strife since.

The European Union lacks a reliable partner in chaotic Libya, the launchpad for almost all migrant crossings through the central Mediterranean.

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After blocking the main migrant route from the Middle East, the EU will this week seek ways to check a feared spring surge from Libya and North Africa across the Mediterranean.

Recent reports allege the deployment of Russian special forces in Libya. Moscow has dismissed them.

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Moscow appears to have deployed special forces to an airbase in western Egypt near the border with Libya in recent days, US, Egyptian and diplomatic sources say, a move that would add to US concerns about Moscow’s deepening role in Libya.

The struggle for control of the Tamanhent air base 30 KM (19 miles) northeast of Sabha risks escalating into the first major confrontation between forces officially linked to the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

Haftar is aligned with an eastern parliament and government that have spurned the GNA since it arrived in the capital Tripoli, in the far west of the country, a year ago.

His forces have been extending their reach along Libya’s central Mediterranean coastline and into the desert regions of Jufra and Sabha, and say they also intend to take control of Tripoli.

After an LNA strike against Tamanhent recently, the GNA warned of the risk of civil war and said it is mobilising forces to repel the attack. Tamanhent is controlled by a force from Misrata, a powerful western city that has backed the GNA.

Baev said he didn’t have firsthand information about the recent talks of EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini in Moscow but said that according to the Libyan account, his counterpart Sergei Lavrov “denied the obvious” about the Russian presence and interests.

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The European Union’s top diplomat said yesterday (24 April) that the bloc wanted better ties with Russia but could not pretend Moscow did not annex Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and that EU sanctions would stay in place.

Libya has a particular meaning for Vladimir Putin, he said, stating that he had visited the country in 2008, had “good chemistry” with the country’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi, and was “shocked” by his violent death in October 2011.

Libya is important for Russia for a number of reasons, he said. One is that it allowed Putin to pose as a champion against the imported revolutions of the West, which in the case of Libya, destroyed the country. Another is that Russia wanted to score another point in the Middle East after Syria. Additionally, Libya used to be an important market for Soviet and Russian weaponry and could become one again. Last but not least, the Libyan situation shows that the EU is unable to have a coherent foreign policy.

“For Russia, Libya is a very good place to play with internal divisions in the EU,” Baev said. Moreover, Libya is a playground in which Russia didn’t need to invest much resources, at a time when the recent Mediterranean voyage of the Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, revealed the shortages of the Russian military.

Tarek Megerisi said he didn’t think the Russians wanted to replicate their Syrian operation in Libya. He said that the Russians wanted to “strike a grand bargain” with the West in Syria, militarily, and diplomatically, in Libya. The GNA is a brainchild of the West, while Haftar is supported by Russia.

As to the EU, its response to the Libyan situation has been piecemeal, Megerisi said.

“Each member state has pursued its interest individually,” he stated, explaining that the Italians, who have a large stake in the migration issue, have been actively supporting GNA, while the French have helped Haftar, and the British have had a dual role, officially backing GNA but without having much input.

Regarding NATO, Baev said that Russia would love to see the alliance involved in Libya.

“Let it be stuck there. It’s just great,” he said.