Despite the existence of global and regional formats for discussing ways to resolve the Libyan conflict, national reconciliation has not been achieved for eight years. This is largely due to the lack of necessary conditions and the existence of conflict at the local, regional and global levels. Russian influence on Libyan events is often exaggerated. Moreover, the media likes to raise this topic, because it allows the various parties to the conflict to divert attention away from the real problems and lack of agreement between the main players fighting for leadership in the Libyan issue. At the same time, the Russian approach assumes rather a tactical nature of interaction with various players on the Libyan settlement.
Russia's cautious engagement and maintained contacts
Today, the situation in Libya is at an impasse. The Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj is recognized by the international community in accordance with the UN-brokered Skhirat Agreement. However, the Parliament, located in Tobruk in the east of the country, works closely with Kalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army and is independent from the GNA, which has also limited influence over the armed groups, often Islamist-leaning, in the country's more populous west.
Russia, like other UN member states, supports international efforts for a Libyan settlement, including the "road map" proposed by the special representative of the UN Secretary General for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. At the same time, Moscow believes that “the Libyans themselves should decide the fate of their country.”
In 2019, at a meeting with al-Sarraj, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: "We are all closely and with great concern following the events that are developing in your country. I believe that what is happening now is the result of the irresponsible policies of a number of states that acted in violation of international law in Libya and perverted the relevant resolution of the United Nations Security Council at the time."
Russia's interests in Libya and regional dynamics
In general, Russia has had no special interests in Libya that would have been vital to it and/or forced it to take special and active unilateral measures. This explains Moscow's strategy of preserving and maintaining contacts with all intra-Libyan actors in the absence of active intervention and refraining from active mediation. Despite the fact that Russian mediation seems irrelevant at the moment, in any scenario of settlement of the Libyan issue, Russia will have something to offer the new authorities.
Many Russian companies operating on the Libyan market before 2011 have an interest in returning. Previously, they worked in areas such as energy, industrial and transport infrastructure. In 2017, interest was aroused by the signing of an agreement on oil exploration and production by the Russian giant Rosneft and the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC). Details, however, did not follow. In December 2019, Russia's Tatneft oil company resumed its work in Libya as well. The return of Russian companies to Libya is still on the agenda for Libyans of different factions, including the al-Sarraj government. Thus, within the framework of the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019, a number of agreements were signed with the GNA concerning the supply of one million tons of Russian wheat to Tripoli, as well as the implementation of projects in the field of exploration and electrification.
It is not Russian interests but regional dynamics that dictate the development of the situation in Libya. Even though the regional level largely remains determinant, over the last months global players also got involved. For a long time at the regional level, the participation of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the side of Haftar, as well as support from Turkey and Qatar for al-Sarraj's GNA, explained the entire dynamic of the conflict. Moreover, within the framework of Haftar’s latest offensive on Tripoli, regional actors openly engaged in hostilities. However, the game changer in this situation was Turkey, which was ready to spend its own resources to restore the balance of power, sending weapons and troops to Libya on the side of al-Sarraj's GNA.
Internationalization of the Libyan conflict. Is there a need for Russia's mediation?
The internationalization of the conflict takes place in view of the changing realities "on the ground". America’s recent accusations of Russia and reports of Russian mercenaries in Libya were officially perceived by Moscow as fabrications. The head of the Libya contact group, Lev Dengov, said that Russia's official position is immutable: "We've talked about it hundreds of times. If someone is present in Libya, it has nothing to do with the Russian position on Libya and Russia as a state." According to him, Moscow "maintains regular contacts with Sarraj, Haftar and other forces to promote a settlement in Libya through political dialogue." He also said such provocations are formed by those who do not like Russian successes and mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries. Against this background, the anonymous reports of officials in Washington to the Qatari al-Jazeera that the growth of Russian military activity in the eastern part of Libya is in coordination with the Egyptian side has become a cause of concern to American power circles. The Americans have other, more serious reasons to worry - as noted earlier, the discord and lack of unity among NATO member states regarding disputes in the eastern Mediterranean.
In December 2019, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan received in Istanbul the head of Libya’s GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj, and with him signed a Turkish-Libyan agreement on military cooperation and a memorandum of understanding on the demarcation of maritime zones between the two countries. These agreements provoked harsh reactions from Athens and Cairo. In the context of the need and desire of Egypt, Cyprus and Israel to jointly deliver Mediterranean gas to the market, as well as potential EU sanctions against Turkey for conducting geological exploration in Cyprus with the Cyprus conflict still unresolved, the agreements created many political and diplomatic problems in Turkish-European relations. The latter affects the situation within NATO and the EU.
The EU's policy towards Libya is not de facto uniform. Until now, it has been closely linked to the issue of reducing the flow of migrants to European countries. The main example that demonstrates the difference in approaches is the support Paris and Rome have given to different parties. Analysts agree that Italy relies mainly on Sarraj's GNA, which Rome sees as a tool to solve migration problems. At the same time, it is assumed that France supports the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar, considering it effective in the fight against terrorism. Turkey’s blunt support for the GNA may have played a role in the Macron-Erdogan war of words during the NATO summit in December 2019.
The conflicting positions of intra-European and regional actors contributes to destabilizing the situation in Libya itself. Not to mention the absence of any coherent and agreed upon strategy for the restoration of the country's statehood and economic support for both Libya and the countries from which migrants are fleeing. The official Russian position towards the diverging views within the EU was stated at several levels. For example, the Russian ambassador to Italy, Sergey Razov stated: "Our approaches [Russia’s and Italy’s] to the settlement of the situation in Libya largely coincide. We call on all parties to the conflict to cease fire, we support the idea of holding a high-level international meeting with the participation of all interested countries, as well as the convening of a pan-Libyan forum."
Russia certainly has the ability to influence the unfolding events in Libya, having diplomatic weight and even a military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as working and special relations with many regional sponsors of the Libyan conflict. Nevertheless, Moscow has already shown that in such matters it prefers to rely on regional players with real influence on the situation in crisis zones (as was demonstrated in the framework of the Astana format on the Syrian issue). In many respects Moscow is waiting for action to be taken by more powerful forces in the Libyan field, as it believes that the responsibility for the current situation must fall on the member states of NATO, which intervened militarily in Libya in 2011. In the context of the internationalization of the conflict and the absence of preliminary agreements at the regional level, as well as the EU and Turkey’s preservation of their positions, Russia will continue its policy of maintaining contacts with all intra-Libyan actors. This work is considered to be enough to secure Russian interests in the region.