After Syria, Putin's next move could be Libya
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President Trump has consistently suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be a strong ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But while most eyes are on Syria in this regard, Libya is another place to watch closely in the coming weeks.

Putin increasingly supports Libya's Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who controls Libya's oil-rich east but wants more. Haftar pursues an anti-Islamist agenda and looks to Putin to help secure his leadership in Libya at the expense of the U.N.-backed civilian government in Libya.

This is where Trump and Putin could make a deal.

Putin has been expanding Russia's influence in Libya, a Kremlin ally during the Cold War, for quite some time. Putin has attempted to revive ties since he first became president in 2000, but relations noticeably improved in April 2008 when Putin visisted Tripoli.

According to Russian press reports at the time, Moammar Gadhafi, at that time leader of Libya, expressed special admiration for Putin's efforts to restore Russia as a great power. Soon afterward, Moscow wrote off most of Libya's $4.6 billion debt in exchange for approximately $5 billion to $10 billion worth of contracts for railway, oil and gas projects; arms sales; and more. Gadhafi also gave the Russian fleet access to the port in Benghazi.

In 2011, then, Moscow strongly opposed the NATO-led Libya campaign and under then-President Dmitry Medvedev abstained from U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized an intervention to protect civilians. Putin, who was prime minister at the time, compared the resolution to a "medieval crusade."

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The NATO campaign led to Russia losing over $4 billion in arms contracts alone, and a lot more in other agreements. But the precedent of what the Kremlin perceived to be a U.N.-approved "color" revolution that could turn Libya pro-Western is what scared the Kremlin the most.

 

Putin believes that the West, chiefly the U.S., is behind all protests against authoritarian regimes, and that Washington's talk of democracy is just pretext for regime change. In this view, if the U.S. ousted Gadhafi, Russian leadership could be next unless Moscow took a more proactive approach.

Though officially Moscow says it supports the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, and therefore implicitly the goal of Libyan unity, in practice, Putin clearly favors Haftar in Tobruk. Haftar, notably, served under Gadhafi.

Moscow provides the Tobruk government with military advice and diplomatic support at the U.N. In May 2016 Moscow printed nearly 4 billion Libyan dinars (approximately $2.8 billion) for Libya's Central Bank and transferred it to branch loyal to Haftar. Some also believe that Moscow continues to supply Tobruk with weapons via Algeria, despite the U.N. arms embargo.

In the context of growing tensions with Tripoli, Haftar made two trips to Moscow in the second half of 2016, and in January of this year, he toured the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetov as it returned to Russia from Syrian waters. While aboard the Kuznetsov, Haftar held a video call with Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, and reportedly talked about fighting terrorism in the Middle East.

Algeria and Egypt, meanwhile, support Putin's efforts in Libya. Algeria has long been in the pro-Kremlin camp. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for his part, believes Haftar will prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from gaining a foothold in Libya and in general sees eye-to-eye with Putin when it comes to anti-terrorist measures.

In reality, Putin's support for Haftar is about restoring Russian influence in the country and gaining greater foothold into the region. One way he can do that is to cast himself as a peacemaker — on his terms, not unlike what he's doing in Syria. He could then get credit for a Haftar-GNA deal, thus making the West look foolish for opposing Haftar, while presenting Russia as essential in major world decisions.

Taken as a whole, Putin's military moves from Ukraine to Syria are about creating and extending virtual buffer zones along Russia's periphery through anti-access denial bubbles. Officially, Moscow denies any talk with Haftar about creating military bases in Libya, but it's easy to see how such a base, or at least another form of Russian military presence, would be consitent with Moscow's actions in recent years.

Regardless, Putin's goal is to increase Russia's influence and reduce that of the West. In reality, Putin has neither the resources nor the desire to bring long-term stability to Libya, and Haftar is the wrong man for the job.

If anything, Vladimir Putin's support for Haftar would only bring more fighting in the long-run, but perhaps not before he creates a short-term fix that he could claim as another quick and easy victory with which he could distract the domestic audiencewhile securing a critical role in a strategically important country on the Mediterranean. His moves in Libya are important to watch in the coming weeks.

Anna Borshchevskaya is the Ira Weiner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


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