Moscow's eye on Libya
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Russia's return to the North African country, supported by an attentive policy of openness towards General Haftar and favored by European and U.S. uncertainties, falls within a more comprehensive strategy towards developing the Kremlin's energy interests, among other things, in the eastern Mediterranean

Russia has firmly re-entered the Libyan oil sector, and has done so through its national company, Rosneft, which is increasingly becoming the Kremlin’s ''energy arm'' in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern quadrant. A region in which the geo-strategic vacuum generated by the uncertainty regarding Trump’s U.S. priorities and by the EU’s difficulties in developing a coherent and shared approach, seems to throw the doors open to Moscow’s action, which could pull off yet another successful foreign (and energy) policy at the borders of Europe.

Energy cooperation in the Mediterranean

Moscow’s presence in Libya represents a return, as the Kremlin was previously present in the country in 2011 – before the fall of the Gheddafi regime – through the companies Gazpromneft and Tatneft. During the civil conflict, activities were substantially blocked, while they waited for the situation on the ground to become safe for the practical and sustainable resumption of operations. Currently, the role of Russia’s main interlocutor for Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC) is mainly entrusted to Rosneft which, in recent months has gained great visibility and operational capacity in the Middle Eastern area, due to the launch of E&P activities in Iraq, but especially due to the acquisition of a 30% stake in the Zohr has field, in Egyptian waters. The February agreement between Rosneft and NOC does not go into details on the bilateral collaboration, but merely provides for the creation of a working group between its companies to explore partnership opportunities, specifically in the E&P sector. Despite the vagueness of its formula, the timing of the agreement is particularly significant, since it coincides with a substantial recovery in Libyan production (which, at the end of 2016, amounted to 700,000 barrels per day), and with a more generalized effort by the local institutions to relaunch the national oil sector for foreign investors.

Haftar and the energy-security mix

The relaunching of crude oil production and export activities, of which Moscow is well aware, cannot rule out an effective stabilization on the ground (i.e. the fight against terrorism). It is in this light that the Kremlin has launched a progressive approach towards Khalifa Haftar – Cyrenaica’s strong man and leader of the armed forces that support Tobruk’s government – established by Haftar’s visit to Moscow in December 2016, and culminating in talks regarding the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov passing along the Libyan coasts in January. The support and coverage of Haftar’s troops, directly called upon by the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitrij Pesko, are a key element for any Russian initiative in the Libyan energy industry. The general’s men, in fact, have in the past demonstrated their ability to protect oil facilities and to control export terminals, and are currently key players in containing and repelling the initiatives of the Islamist militias within the Oil Crescent, the portion of Cyrenaica’s territory where most resources and critical infrastructure are located. However, in the event that the local forces are unable to ensure the protection of Russia’s energy interests, Moscow’s role on the ground could become much more active. While the presence of special Russian forces in the Bengasi area has been speculated for weeks, it cannot be ruled out that the honeymoon between Haftar and Putin might sanction a Russian military base on the Libyan coasts.

Strategic uncertainty and implications for Europe

What does this succession of events mean for the strategic balance in the region, and for European security? The fact is that Russia is facing an almost perfect astral alignment in the Mediterranean basin: from Turkey to Libya, passing through Syria and Egypt (and also including ‘western’ Cyprus, Greece and Israel), the series of strong alliances forged by Moscow ensures the Kremlin exceptional strategic protection in the region. By holding the banner of the fight against terrorism – which is currently particularly expendable in the face of its historic rival’s presence in the Mediterranean, Donald Trump’s United States - Putin in fact returns to the scene in one of the key countries in the region’s balance (and security in Europe). It is also attempting to recover what Gheddafi’s fall had partly taken from Russia: investments in the energy industry, military cooperation and, especially, influence over the internal dynamics (in collaboration with the new ‘new ally’, al-Sisi). Europe, divided and still disorientated by the advent of Trump, remains in wait of the development of the situation. While it is true that Moscow’s initiative could promote at least a partial stabilization of the country - with positive effects (especially on migrants and energy production) also for European security - Syria’s experience shows that, in the long run, the modus operandi and Russian interests can exacerbate the divisions and maximalist positions between the various warring factions. A risk that European states, being at the mercy of events, cannot afford to take.