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Under the radar, Russia’s influence in Libya is growing

Russia’s interests in the Middle East are not confined to specific countries. Moscow seeks to build a strong network of connections with many players in the region, and to have a strong say in regional affairs. Russia has been strengthening its presence in the Middle East to fortify its position as a pivotal international player. Among these countries is Libya, and the involvement of Russia in North Africa has increased since 2015 in reaction to the Syrian and Ukrainian issues.
After the so-called Arab Spring, Russia’s interests in the region, already severely damaged by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the years of oblivion that followed, were further harmed with the fall of Qaddafi. Russia has historically warm ties with Libya, and cooperation has never ceased, even in the most difficult times for Moscow. 
The collapse of the Qaddafi regime took place without the involvement of Russia, which abstained on the issue in the UN Security Council. This had a strong impact on Russia’s stance on Syria, and on further developments in its general approach and policy in the region. The fall of Qaddafi brought years of severe disruption to Libya, and the spread of terrorism, harming and menacing the stability not only of regional neighbors, but also of the European continent. Russia was involved in attempts to restabilize Libya from the beginning, although most of its activities in this area were under the radar of international media because Syria was the focus of the headlines. Now that the Syrian conflict is winding down, global attention will be shifted to Libya. And it seems that Russia already has a strong hand there.
The Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar met the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and defense minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow last week. Russia supports both Haftar and the prime minister of Libya, Fayez Al-Sarraj, whose government is recognized by the UN but who has a fraught relationship with the military leader. The visit to Moscow was aimed at reaching a peace agreement in Libya to end a conflict that has become a source of high risk to many countries in northern Africa and southern Europe. The war has brought waves of migrants from African countries to Europe through Italy.

Undeterred by western disapproval of its activities in Syria and Ukraine, Moscow is moving to protect its interests in North Africa.

Maria Dubovikova

Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army, has now visited Moscow twice, and was hosted on a Russian aircraft carrier off the coast of Libya in January, fueling speculation that Moscow is attempting to expand its influence in Libya even further. Haftar’s troops have seized control of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and a former stronghold of extremist groups. Benghazi is near a number of key oil fields and is a hub for vital oil infrastructure. It is now a center of attention for both Washington and Moscow. Any country that controls North Africa will be in full control of oil and gas supplies to Europe. After his meetings in Moscow, Haftar said: “We expect to continue this struggle until the Libyan National Army takes control of Libya’s entire territory in order to ensure stability and security.” In this regard, Russia views Haftar as a possible ally and potential stabilizing force in Libya, which has turned into a hotbed for scores of militias and religious extremists, including Daesh.
Moscow’s growing relations with Haftar signal its interest in establishing a more solid regional foothold, supported by an increasing naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, including Syria, and off the coast of North Africa. Alarmed by the burden placed on its security forces by the flow of migrants, many of them through Libya, Italy asked for Russian naval assistance to patrol the maritime refugee routes.
The West has tried to exclude Moscow from the international arena because of its role in the Syrian and Ukrainian issues. With its growing involvement in Libya, Russia is conveying to Europe and the US that it is not affected by issues in Syria, Ukraine or anywhere else, and it will act in support of its international strategies.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme