Those who are waiting for the first signs of cooperation between United States President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin should keep an eye on Libya. The scene of an open rivalry between the European Union (EU) and Russia could suddenly turn on Trump, who could turn to Putin.
Libya is important for three reasons. It’s the starting point of the so-called Central Mediterranean route by which tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants reach the EU. It’s also a major oil producer that can affect global prices. Lastly, the chaos in Libya makes it, in the US State department’s terminology, “a terrorist safe-haven”. That’s why presidents Obama and Trump have sought to limit the entry of Libyan citizens and those who have visited the country.
At an informal summit on Malta on Friday, the leaders of EU states affirmed their support for the United Nations-backed government, run from Tripoli by Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa Al Serraj. They also backed a deal that Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni signed on Thursday with Al Serraj. Italy is taking the lead in funding the construction of refugee camps in Libya, and the EU as a whole recently earmarked an additional 200 million euros (Dh792.39 million) for its efforts to keep potential migrants in Libya, Tunisia and Niger.
But refugees are not Putin’s priority in Libya. He’s far more interested in restoring Russian influence there and establishing a military presence if he can.
Under former leader Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was a Russian ally, a playground for Russian energy companies, and a buyer of Russian weapons. When he fell in 2011, the Russian state railroad monopoly lost a lucrative contract to build a rail line along the Mediterranean coast, one of many voided Russian investments. Putin watched the Arab Spring with dismay — not just because it dispatched kleptocrats, but also because those secular authoritarian rulers were often replaced with Islamists. To Putin, these strongmen were a bulwark against extremism. He drew a clear red line at Syrians’ western-backed attempt to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, forged a cordial relationship with Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi and restored ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His alliance with Iran fits that line of behaviour because Shiite Iranians are hostile to Sunnis — whom Putin considers especially dangerous since they emerged as a force in separatist Chechnya in the 1990s.
In Libya, Putin’s axis of influence cannot include Al Serraj since he holds onto power with support from some Islamist groups and Putin’s western adversaries. Khalifa Haftar, a powerful military commander who controls eastern Libya and resists the Al Serraj government, fits the bill much better.
Haftar chased Islamist fighters out of Benghazi and the surrounding area and took over Libya’s key oil terminals from pro-government forces last September, boosting the country’s output. The Kremlin has been cultivating a relationship with Haftar, inviting him for a visit to Moscow last November and then hosting him on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov last month, where he held a teleconference with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Russia is obliged to follow the UN arms embargo against any Libyan forces except the Al Serraj government, so it cannot provide official military aid to Haftar. There have been unconfirmed reports, however, that the Kremlin has struck an unofficial deal to supply Haftar via Algeria, a long-time arms client of Moscow.
That’s potentially scary for the EU. If a Putin ally takes over Libya, any deal on their primary issue — refugees — could be threatened. If Haftar allows Russian military bases in Libya, Putin’s strength in Middle East politics will continue to grow as well.
This sets the scene for a potential clash between the EU on one side and Putin and Trump on the other. There are major reasons for Trump to support Haftar over Al Serraj. Haftar had spent 20 years in the US, living not far from the Central Intelligence Agency’s Langley headquarters and working to undermine Gaddafi, his one-time friend and ally. Trump is also highly sceptical of the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s actions in Libya as the Gaddafi regime disintegrated, and, like Putin, he doesn’t believe in imposing democracy on Middle Eastern nations where Islamist groups enjoy popular support.
Haftar and his supporters celebrated Trump’s victory last November, seeing the new US president as a potential ally against extremists.
Moscow likely wouldn’t mind testing the opportunities for cooperation with Trump in Libya. On Thursday, the state propaganda agency RIA Novosti published a column by Avigdor Eskin, an Israeli political consultant close to the Russian nationalist Right, asserting that the Trump administration — namely National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — had a plan on Libya that might involve Russian cooperation via Haftar. The supposed plan involves building new “micro-cities” rather than refugee camps in Libya, with factories and oil facilities to put them to work.
Although that sounds like wishful thinking, the Kremlin is highly likely to approach the Trump administration with offers of pacifying Libya and thus weakening Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). The US wouldn’t even need to do anything except turn a blind eye to Russian support of Haftar. As in Syria, Putin’s unique selling proposition is that he is not squeamish when it comes to dealing with strongmen and that, unlike any western leader, he is unconstrained by the need to seek political support at home: He knows by now how to create it through a powerful propaganda machine.
If Trump’s isolationist team is willing to cut its risks and outsource at least part of its promised fight against terrorism to Russia, an understanding on Libya is a possible first step down that road.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.