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America cannot stand by while Russia plays games in Libya

America cannot stand by while Russia plays games in Libya
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Russia has announced it wants peace in Libya, according to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.  He told reporters that Russia is working with Turkey on an immediate ceasefire agreement. Russia’s commitment to the process is questionable, however. Lavrov’s announcement followed the weekend postponement of ministerial-level talks on the ceasefire. 

Russia has had heavy military involvement in Libya’s civil war. The United Nations reported in May that 800 to 1,200 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group are fighting in Libya. The private security company, also sighted on the battlefields of Ukraine and Syria, is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch and close friend of Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe foreign policy canyon between Americans over China Russia ready to freeze nuclear warheads in exchange for New START extension Safeguarding US elections by sanctioning Russian sovereign debt MORE.  

Despite Russian denials that the group is an arm of the state, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Russia was managing the conflict in Libya at the “highest level.” To prove his point, he showed the media a photograph of Wagner’s leader in discussions with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff. The Wagner Group “is not a classic private contractor; it is … an unofficial arm of the Defense Ministry,” said Ruslan Leviev, whose Conflict Intelligence Team studied the clandestine Russian deployment in Syria.

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In addition to ground troops, Russia has sent air support to the Libyan rebels. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) reported the May arrival of at least 14 Russian jets at al-Jufra airfield. These planes include both MIG-29 fighters and SU-24 bombers. Despite Russian denials that the planes were theirs — the planes stopped en route in Syria to have their Russian markings erased — AFRICOM said it followed the planes on radar from their departure in Russia and took photos of the planes on their journey.

“For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict,” said Gen. Stephen Townsend, AFRICOM commander. “Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth-generation jet fighters to Libya — every step of the way. Neither the [Libyan National Army] nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support ― support they are getting from Russia.”

There is a history behind Russia’s tactic of military involvement in civil wars while also playing peacemaker. Russian troops fought Moldova in the late 1980s while starting a peace process. In the 1990s, Russian troops backed an Armenian invasion of Azerbaijan and then called for a ceasefire. In the 2000s, Russia backed the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia while chairing peace talks. Following Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its covert backing of secessionists in eastern Ukraine, Russia called for peace. Most recently, with Russian troops overtly intervening in Syria, the Kremlin agreed to a ceasefire. To quote Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Russia acts as both arsonist and firefighter.

None of these ceasefires has resulted in peace. At best, the conflicts are “frozen”; at worst, there is still active fighting despite Russia’s supposed peace overtures. The end result has been the institutionalization of a Russian military presence throughout the region. The Russian army continues its manning of barracks in the Moldovan secessionist region of Transnistria, has several military bases in Armenia, has turned Crimea into an armed camp, and has integrated Abkhazian and South Ossetian forces into the Russian army. Syria has granted Russia an extension on its naval base at Tartus, including extraterritoriality.  

An extended Russian military presence in Libya places southern Europe within striking distance of the Kremlin’s arm. Not content to threaten European countries with energy cutoffs (2006 and 2009, over pricing disputes with Ukraine), Russia now can threaten NATO’s southern flank militarily. The United States and its NATO allies must be alarmed at these developments. An unenforced United Nations embargo on arms shipments is not sufficient to roll back Russia’s ever-expanding zone of influence.

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has stated the alliance is prepared to provide support to the Libyan government, but only NATO member Turkey has increased its support to the internationally-recognized Government of National Unity. Turkey’s muscular response has led Libya’s rebel general, Khalifa Haftar, to abandon the western half of the country. In return, the government signed an agreement with Ankara giving Turkey drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

The United States is committed to a Europe that is “free and undivided.” Yet, in an age of disengagement, America has stood by while Russia increased its influence in countries from Afghanistan to Libya. The American people are weary of unending wars with ambiguous goals, but the U.S. should at least engage diplomatically and economically to achieve the aims outlined in its National Security Strategy. Anything less will lead to the continued diminishment of American influence, a loss of allies, and trade partners looking for other markets. Time is a luxury Washington no longer can afford.

James J. Coyle, Ph.D., served in a number of positions in the U.S. government, including as director of Middle East Studies, U.S. Army War College. He is the author of “Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts.”