06.12.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

How the US is Locking Horns with Russia in Libya


In a rather gate-crashing mode, the US is positioning itself in Libya in a way that will become yet another Syria as far as the end-game of this war-torn, NATO-destroyed and ‘humanitarianly-intervened’ country is concerned. For some time now, the Russians have been increasing their presence in Libya, supporting Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar. While Haftar himself has historically been close to the CIA, the US claim that Russian presence in Libya is having an “incredibly destabilising” impact on the country only shows how Russian presence will fundamentally work to the disadvantage of the multitude of Western interests, particularly those of the US, France and Italy. Russian presence in Libya and its support for LNA, which is currently in control of almost 80 per cent of Libya including major oil fields, has accordingly already started to turn anti-Russian elements in the West to start projecting Russian presence as a “destabilising” and threatening to the Western interests.

David Schenker, the State Department’s assistant secretary for near eastern affairs said recently in Washington, “The United States is committed to a secure and prosperous future for the people of Libya.  For this to become a reality, we need real commitments from external actors…  In particular, Russia’s military interference threatens Libya’s peace, security, and stability.”

While this is very much the official position of the US, the main stream western media has also joined the ‘frontline’ to spread Russophobia. A recently published Bloomberg story called upon the US to take steps to stop “Russian adventurism” in Libya. For the Washington Post, arrival of Russian military personnel is adding “deadlier firepower” to Libya’s “civil war”, a war that would, in the first place would not have started if the NATO had not intervened and purposefully overthrown the Gaddafi regime.

While political pundits in the West continue to emphasise ways of “exposing and isolating Russia in its attempts to tilt the balance of power in Libya”, let’s not forget here that the Libyans owe their crisis to the Western policy of regime change. In fact, a 2016 report of British Parliament’s foreign affair committee had concluded that Libya was a complete Western disaster. It was a disaster purposefully cooked up, just like Iraq, to force a stable regime out of power and spread chaos and bring in a desired pro-West regime. Since the West has completely failed to either stabilise Libya thereafter or install a favoured regime, Russia’s increasing support for Haftar and LNA means that the chances of the success of Western objective of a favoured regime would become even weaker; hence, the Western opposition to Russian support for LNA.

In the presence of a Russian supported regime in Libya, the US long-term objective of turning Libya into the headquarter of its Africa command will become seriously jeopardised. This is apart from the “oil interests” that France and Italy have been vigorously pursuing in Libya.

On the other hand, there is no gainsaying that Russian interests in Libya aren’t merely restricted to Libya only. In fact, Libya might become a stepping-stone for Russian geo-political expansion in Africa, a continent that is already increasingly becoming a centre of intense geo-political rivalry between the US and China. A Russian presence in the heart of Africa would, in this context, certainly work against Western interests, limiting their ability to dominate and increasing those of the African states to diversify their relations and counter Western hegemonic designs.

Already, Russia has become the largest supplier of weapons to the African countries. accounting for 35 percent of arms exports to the region, followed by China (17 percent), United States (9.6 percent), and France (6.9 percent). Accordingly, when the most recent Russia-Africa summit took place, discussions around increasing security cooperation between Russia and Africa were the most dominant. On the sidelines of this summit, Russia’s Putin had as many as thirteen bilateral meetings with the African leaders. Deals worth US$12.5 billion were signed in the form of Memoranda of Understanding (MOU). While not all of these deals may materialise, the summit did showcase Russia’s horizontal (in terms of the number of countries willing to expand relations with Russia) and vertical (in terms of areas of cooperation with these countries) expansion in Russia.

Russian bid to expand in Africa relates closely to Libya, a country that can very much become Russia’s physical gateway to the African continent and a source of physical presence in the Mediterranean sea. A pro-Moscow government in Libya might not be too hesitant to allow Russian Navy reasonable presence on eastern Libyan ports of Sirte and Benghazi on the Mediterranean.

While Russia’s re-entry in Libya would certainly depend on where Haftar himself stands between ‘the West’ and ‘the East’, there is little gainsaying that Russia will be greatly relying on the Gaddafi-era relations of both countries. As it stands, Russia had investments worth billions of dollars in Libya during the Gaddafi era, and it is seeking to build on that foundation.—something that is itching the West greatly, making them project Russian presence in terms of a “destabilising element” and forgetting completely how the NATO intervention itself had first and foremost sown seeds of a turmoil that Libya is in today.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.