Between War and Peace: Understanding Russia’s Endgame in Libya

Written by | Monday, September 4th, 2017

The European Union should become more engaged in Libya to ensure that increased Russian influence does not destabilize the region on Europe’s southern flank. Libya is getting increasingly important for Russia’s growing ambitions in the MENA but by judging the Kremlin’s actions until today it seems the Russian strategy in the region is not yet crystal clear. European moves and decisions, in particular those by France, Italy and the UK, could tip the scales in either direction.

Despite Russia’s vague positioning, Russia is naturally drawn towards backing General Haftar who stands against the Western-supported Prime Minister Serraj and is considered by many in Moscow as “the strongman in eastern Libya”. Moreover, General Haftar opposes Islamist movements, which makes him an appealing option for countering terror while Moscow’s support for him also boosts Russia’s relationship with Egypt at the same time.

However, Vladimir Putin, who also seeks to be seen at home and abroad as something more than just a military player, is therefore trying to polish his diplomatic skills. Having burnished his military credentials in Syria, playing the role of a peacemaker in Libya could be enticing for President Putin, particularly with presidential elections coming up in March 2018. Moreover, a Russian-led diplomatic success could allow Mr. Putin to position himself as fixing what the West has broken.

Given these Russian ambitions, there is a room to play for actors such as the EU’s core countries, but to avoid escalation, these ambitions of Kremlin’s provide some leverage. Russian leaders expect to be part of the international talks on Libya such as when they were involved in the talks on Syria or the Middle Eastern process. However, while the United Nations does not have much choice but to sit at the negotiating table with the Russians, the EU should not give these talks for free – Russia’s inclusion in these conversations should be conditional on the Kremlin’s support for de-escalation in Libya.

At the end of the day, Vladimir Putin’s indecisiveness and ambiguity on Libya are good reasons to double check on his true intentions. Europe should leverage its diplomacy and make sure that more Russian involvement in the region does not mean less stability.

‘Russia in Libya: War or Peace?’ – Commentary by Mattia Toaldo – European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

(The Commentary can be downloaded here:


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