Russia in Libya: In Search for a Compromise?

The Russian involvement in Libya is largely unclear to most observers, believes Valdai Club expert Abdul Rahman Alageli. However, Russia could play a positive role in the political and military settlement of the Libyan conflict due to its credibility with many actors.

Russia’s policy towards Libya is cautious. On the one hand, it supports Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who leads a massive military force in the east of the country, and on the other, it distances itself from any conflicts with the international community and the United Nations (inclined to support Haftar’s opponent, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj), and seeks to achieve a compromise. 

“Russian involvement in Libya is largely unclear to most observers", Alageli, associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House; security adviser in the Office of the Prime Minister of Libya in 2012-14, told "Current information suggests a combination of tangible military support to LNA forces in the East of Libya, while at the same time engagement in talks with actors from all over Libya”, Alageli said. But, according to him, Russia could play a certain role in the settlement of the conflict and also draw international prestige for itself. “The credibility Russia has with many of the actors in Libya and the region means that it can definitely play a positive role in a political and military solution and further support the UN-led efforts either directly or through a parallel process”, he believes.

However, we cannot do without compromise there. “It’s important to note that it is unrealistic for all involved parties to dominate or control the whole territory of Libya. The inability to maintain that balance between survival and dominance in Libya will contribute to perpetual warfare.”

The expert drew particular attention to the relation between political and military aspects and economical and social issues, stressing that without taking them seriously the conflict resolution would be more difficult. “It’s also important to note that the political and military actors that are ‘naturally’ empowered and require minimum international or national support to survive and be recognized as power brokers are those that have the closest and most direct link to social structures on the ground, e.g. families, clans, tribes, towns, communities etc.”

Many armed groups in Libya are actually extensions of these social structures, he said. They feel entitled to the oil wealth – in the situation of a lack of fair distribution and management. “When this is taken into account it is clear that a societal agreement or social contract along with the necessary resource governance mechanisms is needed and currently missing from the debate”, Abdul Rahman Alageli said.

As for the international presence on the ground, currently it is for the most part highly pragmatic, he added. “It focuses on the strategic priorities of those particular nations, be it illegal migration, counter terrorism and anti-IS operations, border security and threat containment. Since 2014, it is mainly external military and security institutions that have been able to sustain a presence on the ground and therefore the pragmatic priorities mentioned above have been followed. Contrary to that, the Foreign Ministries and Embassies present outside of the country for security reasons have maintained their support for the LPA process, this issue is as much a reflection of the confusion and complexity inside the country as it is outside.” 

“This potential contradiction between military/security institutions and foreign ministries is one of the many reasons that the ability of the international community to effectively mediate a lasting solution between the warring actors has mostly stagnated, but there is a potential for a solution if the relationships formed between Libyan armed actors and foreign military and security apparatus support a political solution,” Alageli concluded.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.