Echoes of Abstention: Russian Policy in Libya and Implications for Regional Stability

May 21, 2019

By Sakari Ishetiar


Russia’s abstention from UNSCR 1973, which allowed a no-fly zone in Libya and ultimately led to the collapse of the Qadhafi regime, has resounded across both Russian foreign policy and the security environment of the Near East. Competing theories claim the abstention was either a carefully-planned strategy or a tactical miscalculation, but the result—Russian rejection of regime decapitation and Western distaste for further intervention—is easily observed. In addition to tangible military and political benefits, the chaotic and unsustainable Libyan status quo bolsters Russia’s political capital by discrediting that of the West. Although Russia is unlikely to intervene kinetically in Libya, it can passively destabilize the country at almost no cost, stymying Western efforts to end the crisis. Only by recognizing and accommodating Russia’s interests in Libya can the West negotiate a lasting settlement for Libya and secure vital U.S. interests in the region.  

Executive Summary

Russia’s abstention from a 2011 United Nations Security Council vote penalizing Libya for major human rights violations has reverberated throughout the Near East. Running contrary to years of policies intended to hamper Western democracy-building exercises in the Middle East, the UNSCR 1973 abstention marked a short-lived exercise in increased foreign policy cooperation with the West, at the expense of a local sovereign leader. Though Russia had condoned punishment of the renegade Libyan regime, the Russian government still opposed the use of foreign military forces in Libya and feared mission creep beyond the UN mandate. Whether Russia’s abstention was a carefully planned strategy or a painful tactical miscalculation, the invasion’s outcome validated Russia’s worst fears, reinforcing deep-seated distrust in foreign interventions. In their response to the Libyan intervention, the Russian government has engaged in greater regional adventurism and more aggressive foreign policy worldwide.

Even while condemning the unlawful removal of a sovereign leader and witnessing Libya’s spiral into chaos, Russian officials simultaneously plumbed the crisis for advantages. An opportunity lay in the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine (R2P), which had encouraged Western leaders to intervene in Libya. While R2P may have initially alienated the Russian government, even the Russians took note of the deftness with which the doctrine had been used to pursue major international action.

For Russia, maintaining the Libyan status quo is low-risk and high-reward. Unlike European governments, Russia lacks proximity to Libya’s migrant and terror spillover, and encumbered by lethal action in Syria, Russia has less incentive to pursue a controlling stake in Libyan politics than it did in 2012. Instead, since 2015, Russia has pursued broad and tripartite goals in Libya, encompassing economic, military, and political strategy. Although Russia claims its Libyan policy is limited to counter-terrorism, it is simultaneously exploiting policy vulnerabilities left by the West to improve its regional standing.

Western policymakers must recognize that, although Russia is unlikely to take significant military or diplomatic action in Libya, it will nonetheless continue to frustrate internationally backed efforts to negotiate a settlement. For the United States, overcoming Russian opportunism will require uniting disparate European governments under a common Libya policy, recognizing Russia’s non-negotiable strategic objectives, and including Russia in the formal negotiating process. In Libya, the United States must continue to monitor General Haftar, disincentivize disruptive practices, and include Haftar and his allies in formal Libyan negotiations. Only by recognizing and accommodating both Russia’s interests in Libya can the West negotiate a lasting settlement, improve living conditions for the Libyan people, and secure vital U. S. interests of security and stability in the Mediterranean. “Russia… unlike European powers, is a secondary extra-regional actor with no major stakes in Libya.” (Stepanova 2018, 94)


Russian Cooperation with the Qadhafi Regime

Despite multiple changes of government on the Soviet and Russian side, Russo-Libyan relations under dictator Colonel Muammar Qadhafi remained warm. Bilateral relations rested on shared distrust of Western powers, and included multiple investment projects which had not yet reached fruition by the time of the civil war.

Prior to the Libyan revolution, the Russian and Libyan governments cooperated on a limited basis in the economic and military spheres. Libya and the Soviet Union enjoyed fruitful relations due to parallel, anti-Western interests, but Libya’s non-aligned position and the oddities of the Qadhafi regime long frustrated Russian investment attempts. Alongside Libya’s sudden return to the international system in the early 2000s (Takeyh 2001), Russia deepened its strategic pursuits in Libya. In the military sphere, the Russian government courted the Qadhafi regime for access to a port on the Mediterranean, seeking to expand its influence both in Mediterranean waters and on African soil. In the economic sphere, Russia focused on the potential for substantial investment both in budding Libyan infrastructure and in Libyan oil reserves.

Russia-Libya relations experienced little substantial change with the 2008 inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev. North Africa figured little in Medvedev’s early policy platform, which focused on revitalizing investment in the Eurasian space and on pursuing greater multilateral policy cooperation (Sputnik 2008). As of the start of the Libyan civil war in 2011, Russian development plans included the construction of a rail line between Sirte and Benghazi valued at $3.3 billion, oil contracts valued between $4 and $10 billion, and a projected $4 billion in weapons sales (Libyan Express 2017).


Russia and the Libya Intervention

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Image courtesy of Utenriksdept via Creative Commons license CC BY-ND 2.0. 

Among Medvedev’s foreign policy experiments, abstention from UNSCR 1973 had outsized impact across the Near East. That the action marked a serious departure from established Russian foreign policy is evident from the diplomatic debates leading up to the vote.

Qadhafi’s increasingly violent crackdown against revolutionary insurgents forced Medvedev to seriously contemplate punitive measures in tandem with the West. At the beginning of 2011, reports had emerged from multiple credible sources—including Libya’s ambassador to the UN, Mohammed Shalgham—that the Qadhafi government was using air power to threaten revolutionary strongholds (AFP 2011). Coupled with increasing threats of total violence by the government against revolutionaries, reports of anti-civilian air force usage spurred Western security council members to propose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent a major humanitarian catastrophe. Russia, fearing a devasting Iraq- or Afghanistan-style ground invasion and externally enforced regime change, came up with multiple proposals in tandem with Arab League representatives to counter Qadhafi while keeping Western boots off Libyan soil.

Russian diplomats initially worked closely with their Western colleagues to craft a Libyan response suitable to all parties but were constrained by the violent intensity of Qadhafi’s crackdown. The draft of UNSCR 1973 (2011), which authorized a no-fly zone over most of Libya, also implemented asset freezes and imposed travel bans. This was intended to provide the revolutionaries with breathing space to recover while preventing further human rights violations by the Qadhafi regime. It was not intended to facilitate regime change. As reports of violence intensified, however, drafts of UNSCR 1973 were debated hotly among UN delegates until the resolution was ultimately pushed through.1 The no-fly zone appeared to precipitously form the legal basis for a large-scale foreign coalition against Colonel Qadhafi. However, responding to unseen pressures from the Russian government, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin abstained from the ensuing vote on the resolution, which enabled the measure to pass.

Two competing understandings of the Medvedev-Putin dynamic claim to explain Russia’s abstention. The first theory, advanced by Michael McFaul, Obama policy adviser and future US ambassador to Russia, cast the Medvedev-Putin executive as a sign of the Russian establishment’s desire to move past the politics of the 2000s into a new era of cooperation. The McFaul camp may have been wary of Medvedev’s foreign policy intentions but preferred to highlight the potential gains from increased policy cooperation with Russia.2 Proponents of a reset in US-Russian relations posit that the Russian abstention was a genuine olive branch from President Medvedev signaling increased willingness to engage in Western-style multilateral diplomacy, while Churkin’s protest was a ploy. After all, the Medvedev executive had just signed the New START Treaty with the US government several months earlier to reduce nuclear stockpiles.

A street in Tripoli, the capital of Libya
A street in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Image courtesy of kalexander2010 under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.

A contrasting theory, championed by hawks like Speaker of the House John Boehner, viewed Medvedev as little more than an extension of Putin’s power and his continued quest to restore past Soviet international influence (Spetalnick 2011). Skeptics characterized the abstention as a low-cost sacrifice by a Russian government that was more desirous of exploiting hopefulness in the West than of its need for substantive focus on the Middle East (Kaczmarski 2011). The tactical benefits of abstention included recognition of Russian government legitimacy and, specifically, of Russia’s positive participation in the multilateral system, which would give Russia additional room to navigate in regions it viewed as more strategically significant, such as Eastern Europe. Tentative acceptance of the R2P narrative surrounding the Libya intervention would also increase Russia’s human rights credentials, which had been a frequent target of criticism and source of domestic unrest. In either scenario, considering the Russian history of Security Council obstruction and vocal complaints about Western overreach, the decision was an unexpected policy victory for NATO, which quickly set the intervention underway.

The outcome of the Libyan intervention came as an apparent betrayal of Russia’s generosity and validated Ambassador Churkin’s worst fears. Qadhafi’s brutal and public murder in October 2011 left a deep mark on the Russian foreign policy establishment—what had begun as a joint mission to secure the Libyan state and protect its people had turned into an exercise in regime change and destabilization. Russian feelings of betrayal were amplified by privately-circulated reports that French and British special forces had taken part in key battles in the first of Libya’s civil wars, leading to Qadhafi’s deposal.3 From the perspective of the Russian government, it was the West and NATO, not poorly organized revolutionary groups that had decapitated the Libyan state—a conspiracy which ignores the a supportive Arab League vote and the involvement of 14 Arab coalition members.4 This conspiracy would have major damaging effects on Libyan perceptions of the West. However, the impact of this so-called betrayal was immediately manifest in Russian foreign policy, as Prime Minister Putin gave a scathing public condemnation of Medvedev’s Libya policy (Suchkov 2018). Whether the Putin-Medvedev disagreement was genuine or staged, it paved the way for Putin’s 2012 electoral bid, where Medvedev agreed to step aside for the former president. With the departure of Medvedev, any hope for increased Russian-Western cooperation quickly dissipated.


The Impact of Abstention

Within weeks of the UN vote, the Russian policy sphere recognized that coalition-backed Libyan powers would succeed in removing Qadhafi and crafted a damage-control strategy designed to minimize Russian strategic losses. In the immediate aftermath of Qadhafi and Medvedev, Russian policy on Libya focused less on achieving direct gains and more on punishing the West for fumbling the intervention. But, in the longer term, Russian officials saw an opportunity for foreign policy expansion out of the rubble of the policies that had legitimized the Libyan intervention.

Qadhafi’s removal eliminated the collegial and often inscrutable Russo-Libyan relationship, and as a result, frustrated Russia’s military and economic plans in Libya. The National Transitional Council of Libya that replaced Qadhafi had to re-examine any military deals settled between Qadhafi and the Russians. On the economic front, the asset freezes of UNSCR 2009 (2011) locked Russia out of billions of rubles of Qadhafi-era infrastructure and investment projects. Some projects had already been destroyed in the civil war (Libyan Express 2018). Russia scrambled to prevent further catastrophic damage to the Libyan state and its apparatus. In reconsidering its cooperation on the Libya project, Russia also lost its seat at the negotiating table. “Russia was not invited to the first two meetings—in Doha and Rome—of the Contact Group on Libya, created in London in March 2011 and composed of representatives of 40 states, the UN, the Arab League, and the African Union. Moscow declined invitations for the following meetings in Abu Dhabi and Istanbul” (Stepanova 2018, 92). In the period ranging from Qadhafi’s fall in late 2011 to the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), also known as the Skhirat Agreement, in late 2015, Russia struggled to find an opening for serious policy exercises in Libya. Instead, Russia looked closer to home for opportunities to apply the lessons learned in Libya.

One of the immediate lessons drawn from Libya by the Russian government was the utility of R2P in international intervention. Designed to protect civilians from systematic oppression by governing regimes, the three pillars of R2P posit that the international community must intervene to protect civilians even against the will of a country’s leader.5 In the United States, key Obama-era officials like Susan Rice and Samantha Power subscribed to this and invoked R2P to recommend the 2011 Libyan Intervention.6 Russian officials strongly resisted the doctrine’s integration into customary international law at first, fearing it would justify increasingly aggressive violations of sovereignty.7 In the wake of the Libyan intervention, Russia recognized the doctrine’s normative power and twisted it into a potent new weapon for use in former Soviet countries with ethnic Russian minorities.

The second lesson from Qadhafi’s fall was the eminent danger posed by the West’s ensuing interest in endorsing regime change, even in the more democratic context of the 21st century. In Libya, NATO forces appeared to have brought about the overthrow of a regime which had not only ceased threatening the West, but had, in fact, begun to cooperate actively with Western governments in key areas such as nuclear disarmament (Takeyh 2001). In the Russian government’s view, this constituted a violation of international norms, exceeding even the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Coupled with the instrumentalization of R2P, this new policy of proactive regime decapitation posed a staggering threat to key Russian allies with poor democratic records. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would decry in the coming years that “Libya was subject to massive bombing with the only aim of eliminating an uncooperative leader” (Russia Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2017), a threat that Russia could not allow to go unchecked in such strategic areas as Ukraine and Syria.

The echoes of UNSCR 1973 extended far beyond the borders of Libya, forcing a re-evaluation of Russian strategic partnerships in the Middle East and beyond.

The echoes of UNSCR 1973 extended far beyond the borders of Libya, forcing a re-evaluation of Russian strategic partnerships in the Middle East and beyond. With the inception of the no-fly zone in 2011, Russia’s efforts to save the Qadhafi regime became futile, threatening to take with them the strategic financial and military investments from the former relationship. In the immediate aftermath of the intervention, Russia could have been expected to deploy military action in Libya simply to protect its assets. Instead, the leadership waited, focusing on shoring up allies in Ukraine and Syria. For Libyans, this meant the virtual elimination of all post-Qadhafi loyalists.8 While these policy endeavors might have occurred outside the context of Qadhafi’s fall, the language with which they were conducted call back to Libya. After the failure of the 2015 LPA, Russia visibly re-emerged in Libya, newly bolstered by the capture of warm water ports and economic centers in Ukraine and Syria. Russia was ready to play a new game in post-Qadhafi Libya.


After R2P: A New Russo-Libyan Relationship

Spurred by the Libyan intervention, Russia abandoned Libyan allies in favor of protecting other friendly regimes from the catastrophic implications of UNSCR 1973. In doing so, Russia learned that the West’s appetite for R2P-inspired action had crumbled even as the language of the doctrine remained available for Russian use. Lack of consequences for militant action abroad and the continued instability of Libya have bolstered Russia’s international impunity, even as the international community grudgingly accepts a new Russian role in peacemaking in the Near East.

Russia had struggled to carve out a stake in the Libyan transition process prior to 2015, but post-LPA, it had a vantage point from which it could pursue its military, economic, and political interests. These interests include acquisition of additional Mediterranean ports, recovery and growth of funds sunk into Qadhafi-era investments, and elimination of the threat of coordinated Western action without Moscow’s permission—a threat that dwindles further with each Russian mention of the West’s failed Libya project. Under current geopolitical conditions, Russia has minimal need to see Libya rebuilt, and holds no loyalty to any Libyan faction beyond those that serve its interests. Where key European states including France and Italy must engage in constant defense of their pressing and often competing Libyan interests, Russia is free to pursue a purely opportunistic strategy (Meddeb 2018). Critically, continued unrest in Libya facilitates illegal migration to and political instability in Europe, harming Europe’s unity around anti-Russia measures and increasing popular fears of Islamic terrorism.9

Having re-entered Libya under the pretense of stopping the spread of terrorism, Russia formed a natural alliance with Libyan National Army (LNA) commander General Khalifa Haftar. Russia’s stated interest in Libya after 2014 was to prevent the spread of ISIL and other affiliated terror groups. This was aligned with Haftar’s campaign of ostensibly eliminating radical Islam in east Libya, along with the secularization goals of Haftar’s sponsor and Russia’s military ally, Egypt (Meddeb 2018). The personalities of both Haftar and Egypt’s president further incentivize Russian collaboration, as support for Haftar and Sisi contributes to the durability of strongman regimes in the Middle East, which mirror Russia’s own governing structure.

Although most Russian activity in Libya has taken the form of difficult-to-observe special forces movement and shadowy diplomatic maneuvers, the country has directly supported the axis between the House of Representatives (HoR) and Haftar with major monetary policy intervention. Soon after the HoR’s arrival as a government-in-exile in Tobruk in 2016, Russia began printing unofficial Libyan dinars for the Eastern faction to ensure daily government functioning. Russia claims the illicit printing began as a band-aid measure to ensure the HoR could function (Assad 2018). The alternative cash flow has driven a major wedge into Western efforts to prevent the bifurcation of Libyan institutions in the immediate wake of the Second Libyan Civil War by enabling an “independent” Eastern Central Bank of Libya and killing the financial incentive for the HoR to return to Tripoli. One senior Obama administration official involved in negotiations described Russia’s “unexpected” step to print currency for the East as the nail in the coffin which “rendered the Libyan Political Agreement [of 2015] totally inoperable.”10 Russia continues to print Libyan dinars for the Eastern Central Bank today.

Russia’s sponsorship of Haftar and the Tobruk-based government has been rewarded with favorable deals and with recognition as a major negotiator.

Russia’s sponsorship of Haftar and the Tobruk-based government has been rewarded with favorable deals and with recognition as a major negotiator. General Haftar has offered the resumption of major Qadhafi-era investment deals with Russia and signaled openness to providing Russia with key port facilities in the East. Haftar and Sisi have also granted Russia a staging ground to project force and protect its Libyan interests, including during the 2018 ISIL takeover of key facilities in Libya’s oil crescent, when Russia provided special forces units to assist Haftar with facility recovery. Tobruk parliament head Aguilah Saleh in 2017 responded to reports of Russian special forces in Libya affirmatively, claiming he had requested the forces as part of ongoing counterterrorism efforts (Luhn 2017). Similarly, Haftar has made repeated unsuccessful requests to the Russian government for assistance in lifting the arms embargo. (O’Connor 2018). Reports have also emerged that Haftar’s 2018 shutdown of the Tobruk port due to “administrative violations” might be a pretext to turn over the port for Russian military usage, accomplishing yet another Russian goal (Assad 2018). Likewise, “Egypt’s long-time support of Haftar aides Russia’s initiative in Libya… Egypt provides a trustworthy, nearby location from which Russia can run its base operations while Egypt benefits from Russian support and weapons” (Neale 2018).


Russian Strategy in Libya: Policy Predictions

The Russian government of 2019 has less to lose in Libya than its younger self or its Western counterparts, who are actively threatened by instability in Libya. The Libyan status quo suits Russia quite nicely, allowing Russia to exploit economic and security opportunities while increasing its political capital in the Near East. Critically, Russia’s interests in Libya are unlikely to spur armed defense of Libyan colleagues. Rather, Russia is expected to continuing playing all sides while positioning itself as a superior caretaker of international negotiations, compared to the United States and its partners.

Despite what it promises Haftar and Egypt behind closed doors, Russia is less concerned with Islamists than with projecting the image of a controlling stake in the Libyan mediation. Haftar’s requests to lift the UN’s arms embargo continue to be denied as Russia jockeys to maintain a superior negotiating position with all parties. With its Libyan policy “largely driven by opportunism,” Russia has seized upon discrepancies in the EU-UN-UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) mediation axis to make overtures to all four major post-2015 Libyan stakeholders, GNA, GNC, HOR, and LNA, comprising both Track I and Track II efforts to “bring the parties together” (Stepanova 2018, 95). Russian interlocutors have hosted unofficial meetings with both Serraj (Hille 2017) and Haftar from Tripoli to Moscow to aboard the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, where Russian diplomats invited General Haftar on a state visit (Soldatkin 2017). Commensurate with Russia’s broader outreach effort, the government has enacted a curious division of labor for its mediations. The Russian Ministry of Defense appears to be the primary interlocutor with Haftar and the LNA, the Foreign Ministry primarily works with the Tripoli-based and UN-recognized government, and a special working group of Duma (parliament) members known as the Contact Group for Intra-Libyan Settlement, led by senior parliamentarian Lev Dengov, confers with additional Libyan actors (Meddeb 2018).

What began as a Libyan strategy of opportunistic support for General Haftar has evolved into a multi-pronged approach which may ultimately sideline the general. Increasing international recognition of Russia as a key Syrian negotiator has dramatically increased Russia’s diplomatic and political clout in Libya. Furthermore, newly acquired warm water ports in Sevastopol, Crimea, and Tartus, Syria have reduced Russia’s need to court Haftar’s favor on the thorny issue of Tobruk. Instead, Russia has taken a dominant role, dragging Haftar back to the table in Cairo talks meant to create a roadmap to a new political agreement and receiving international credit as Haftar’s guarantor (Watanabe 2017). Currently, Russia’s statements on a potential Libyan settlement “lean less toward the strongman-style politics which would empower Haftar, and more towards power-sharing and decentralization” (Stepanova 2018, 99). This is likely not the agreement Haftar, like Assad before him, gambled on.

After all, the greatest asset Libya offers Russia is that Libya is not Russia’s problem to fix; where Russia’s Libyan trauma is state decapitation, the West’s Libyan ghost is the total failure of the intervention and of R2P, which echoes in foreign policy half a decade later. Meddeb summarizes this problem succinctly: “Western countries have created spaces for Russia to return to Libya thanks to their failure to stabilize the country after the conflict in 2011, …their focus on migration and terrorism, …[and] their deepening rivalries” (Meddeb 2018). As long as Libya remains unstable, Russia retains the power to poke holes in the West’s Middle East strategy, and gains by making itself indispensable in future mediation.

Accordingly, the current level of instability in Libya contributes to Russian policy objectives on both active (tactical) and passive (strategic) levels. Russia can be expected to maintain and increase arms sales to Haftar wherever possible (Meddeb 2018). It can be expected to maintain a diplomatic presence with both the Haftar and Serraj governments (Suchkov 2019), as well as Track II communications with other Libyan stakeholders. It is predicted to intervene further if its financial interests are threatened or if radical extremists become pervasive again in the Libyan space. Critically, Russia will closely watch the upcoming constitutional referendum and is likely to pressure Eastern factions to resist if the referendum excludes Russian-faction favorites Khalifa Haftar or Saif al-Islam Qadhafi (Meyer 2018) from running for the presidency unless assurances are made that the Western factions will respect Russia’s financial and military gains in post-2011 Libya. In the meantime, Russia will seek increased economic partnership with any stable governments present in Libya, hoping to recover some of the massive investments signed prior to the fall of the Qadhafi regime (Libyan Express 2017). It cannot be expected to take any action to prevent migrant smuggling from Libya to Europe, which not only does not pose harm, but instead tacitly benefits Russia by destabilizing and dividing Europe. Finally, Russia can be expected to continue chiding the West for its egregious failure to prevent the virtual collapse of the Libyan state, jockeying with France and Italy for the primary mediating position while simultaneously delegitimizing existing international efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis.

Russia’s response to General Haftar’s spring 2019 march on Tripoli has all but confirmed the country’s interest in maintaining the Libyan status quo. In opening days of April, Haftar left his stronghold in the East and marched on Tripoli, launching a deadly siege and placing an arrest warrant on UN-backed Libyan Prime Minister Serraj. Haftar’s push comes on the heels of reported meetings with Egyptian and Saudi officials, who are said to have energetically encouraged the general (Al Jazeera 2019). Despite the fresh chaos in Libya’s very capital, Russian diplomats have stayed largely within the UN lines, making no bold declarations of support and in fact backing strongly-worded statements of condemnation from the UN Security Council (BBC 2019)—a marked demonstration of the country’s commitment to keeping favor with multiple sides in the conflict. Indeed, Russia’s recalcitrance comes in stark contrast to the American position, where President Trump appears to have personally encouraged Haftar to continue his push against the UN-backed government, showing the President’s marked departure from the Libyan stance of his predecessors (Bloomberg 2019).


U.S. Interest in Libya

Libya holds vital interest to the United States by way of oil, destabilizing migration, and terrorist activity, none of which are readily legible compared to hotter conflicts in the region, but all of which are areas where Russia actively challenges U.S. influence. Preventing Russian encroachment and securing Libya in these domains is entirely consistent with President Trump’s national security policy.

U.S. policy in Libya must respond to a Russian government which seeks to maintain the existing Libyan status quo and preserve its interests. While there are multiple countries where Russia poses a kinetic threat to U.S. allies, Libya is not among them; the splinter effects of the Libyan failed state provide Russia with passive gains by harming Europe and eroding U.S. partnerships in North Africa. U.S. policy must focus on weeding out destabilizing Russian influence and supporting international efforts to repair the Libyan state. While Russia is working to mitigate the damage from its abstention in Libya, the United States must fight to prevent the chaotic conditions that first precipitated UNSCR 1973.

As it continues to flounder, the UN-recognized Libyan government in Tripoli state has received a steadily decreasing amount of attention and resources from the U.S. government, which ignores Libya in favor of tactical firefighting elsewhere. Libya’s strategic significance to the United States is not readily apparent; there is no single government with which to ally, no major U.S. military installations, no enemy staging ground projecting power to threaten the United States, and no lasting conditions for investment in Libya’s non-trivial resources. Behind the curtain of visible interests and vaguely defined security, however, Libya does hold vital interest to the United States which is not addressed in current resourcing. A recent analysis presented to the U.S. State Department identified three areas of direct significance: counterterrorism, as a Libyan staging ground could allow terrorists to topple major U.S. allies Tunisia and Egypt; migration, as Libyan lawlessness is enabling migrant flows from sub-Saharan Africa which are destabilizing Europe; and oil, as Libyan oil reserves are important, though not critical, to world prices and supply (Durrett et al 2019, 10). While a full treatment of these interests is repetitive and outside of the scope of this paper, each deserves greater U.S. resourcing in consideration of the larger regional security environment.

Yet Libya’s strategic significance to the United States far exceeds these regional considerations when Russia’s destabilizing actions are fully addressed. Libya holds secondary interest to the United States as a battlefield for strategic competition with Russia, one which the United States is currently losing. The Trump administration has recognized the resurgent significance of great power competition, listing competition with Russia and China as a primary national security concern in the President’s National Security Strategy for 2018 (Department of Defense 2017). By outlining competition with Russia as a broad threat worldwide, administration officials have recognized that the export of Russia’s authoritarian and revisionist model to fragile states in many regions threatens to undo multiple years of American democracy-building and stabilization exercises (Department of Defense 2017). Under the great power model, Russian inroads into Libya come at the price of reduced American influence in a region that is already badly under-resourced and intractable to resolution.

Even short of making a noticeable policy intervention, Russia’s inroads in Libya are increasing its political capital and threatening U.S. leverage in the Middle East.

Even short of making a noticeable policy intervention, Russia’s inroads in Libya are increasing its political capital and threatening U.S. leverage in the Middle East. Although Russia is unlikely to make a kinetic surge in Libya, it may seek to weaken any Libyan political solution that does not preserve its tripartite interests, not unlike when it previously flooded the East with illicit currency and shipwrecked the LPA. As Russia increasingly interjects itself into the mediation process, it will split communications channels and diplomatic efforts, entertaining hopes from an unsustainable number of political factions in Libya without creating the preconditions for those parties to work together. Even as Russia makes overtures to all four major Libyan political stakeholders, it will continue supporting general Haftar via direct arms sales and military intervention, weakening his faction’s receptivity to Western mediation. In the economic domain, Russia will continue exploiting ties to the East to snap up increasing oil interests away from Western partners in an attempt to recover its lost investments. Finally, and most critically, Russia will continue to reference Libya as an example of its superior capacity to lead in the Middle East vs. the West, weakening the United States’ convening power in future regional disputes and undermining U.S. international credibility. Russia has little need to take dramatic action in Libya when its daily actions already create such a black eye for the West on a passive level.

The United States must understand that Russia’s scheming in Libya does indeed harm American vital interests in counterterrorism, migration, and oil wealth by minimizing the conditions of our participation in resolving those problems.

The oil interests are the most straightforward. While Western powers have largely made overtures to the Tripoli-based internationally recognized government, Libyan oil is concentrated in the Russian-influenced East and ungoverned South (Durrett et al 2019). Russia’s increasing capture of the East-based Haftar factions will ultimately place Libyan oil dangerously outside of U.S. reach.

Migration is similarly easy to analyze. Lack of rule of law in Libya enables lucrative smuggling operations, which operate in enforcement blind spots to ferry migrants from sub-Saharan African north to Europe. While Russia continues to obstruct negotiations that could lead to Libya’s reunification, embittered Libyan authorities will remain unable to collaborate well enough to eliminate such gaps in law enforcement coverage (or remain vulnerable to bribery by better-organized operations). Europe will continue to suffer the political and economic ramifications of illegal migrations.

On counterterrorism it is harder to draw causality, as Russian-sponsored factions have in fact taken more sustained action against jihadist militants than the internationally recognized government, which is less secular in nature. Notably, Haftar’s frequent jihadi purges have only left Libyan and foreign extremists all the more fervent in their hatred of the secular authorities in Eastern Libya. While Haftar has been deft in capturing militant leaders, he has failed to address the roots of extremism in Libya—a problem far beyond the hands of one local warlord. U.S. forces in neighboring locales are left with a strategy of “mowing the lawn,” according to one senior UN diplomat, where terrorists are eliminated with ruthless efficiency only to pop up again somewhere else.11 Unless Libya can be re-forged as a stable and unified state—an impossibility under Russian machinations—it will continue to act as a magnet for lawlessness and extremism. Indeed, with the collapse of the Islamic State in Syria, Libya could well become the next fortress of extremism.

But even more critically, the United States must recognize that Russia’s real objective in Libya is to muffle the echoes of its own complicity in the Libyan problem not only by offloading responsibility but by saddling the West with the burden of restoration. A disunified Libyan state serves Russian interests by maintaining a cudgel with which to bash Western attempts to act abroad, for better or for worse. An empowered Russian narrative harms U.S. interests by placing cumbersome restrictions on U.S. response time and proportionality when attempting to mediate rising conflicts and spillover effects even in those countries where the United States is already entangled. Seen from the lens of grand strategy, as President Trump’s Defense Department recommends, Russia’s Libyan opportunism is a far greater corrosive threat to the United States than many small troubles in which the U.S. is currently embroiled.

President Trump’s reluctance to engage directly with Libya disregards the administration’s own policy for strategic management of fragile states, whose framework clearly points to involvement in Libya. In a speech at CSIS (2019), Kiron Skinner, director of the Office of Policy Planning in the Trump State Department, outlined the following five criteria to guide “strategic—as opposed to indiscriminate—engagement”:

“One, they represent safe havens for terrorists,
Two, their instability threatens U.S. economic prosperity,
Three, the out-migration of their citizens… strains the resources of key partners
Four, the spread of global pandemics and diseases must be contained, and/or,
Five, geopolitical competitors like… Russia are exploiting institutional weaknesses… at [our] expense”

With the exception of the fourth category, Skinner’s criteria map directly onto the Libyan threats outlined above, and yet the Trump administration remains reluctant to tackle a country percieved as “Obama’s problem” (Kuperman 2016). Skinner goes on to say that the “form our assisstance should take” differs with each country. The administration’s current calculation seems to imply the best U.S. assistance to Libya is in allowing Haftar and his allies to seize control of the capital, in defiance of UN policy.


U.S. Policy Recommendations

Russia’s policy is designed to preserve the status quo in Libya, but what is best for Russia may not create the best outcomes for the United States. Ironically, Russia has taken a hands-off position regarding Haftar’s attempted coup. President Trump should emulate Russia’s restraint and return to measured policy in Libya, outmaneuver Russian strategy, and secure its vital interests.

U.S. policy efforts in Libya must focus on facilitating positive and multilateral cooperation to achieve a lasting political settlement, as the Obama Administration once did when crafting the LPA, while recognizing and mitigating Russia’s destabilizing actions to prevent that settlement.

U.S. policy efforts in Libya must focus on facilitating positive and multilateral cooperation to achieve a lasting political settlement, as the Obama Administration once did when crafting the LPA, while recognizing and mitigating Russia’s destabilizing actions to prevent that settlement. The greatest harm of General Haftar’s perception of Russian support is the eastern faction’s resistance to Western demands for integration—an effect which carries whether Russia’s support is literal or overstated. Under present conditions, Haftar is likely to reject the results of any democratic referendum in Libya that does bar him from the Presidency or otherwise fails to meet his political demands, and his rejection could easily lead to sectarian violence (Durrett et al 2019, 28). To alleviate east Libyan forces as potential spoilers, the United States should seek tighter weapon and travel restrictions, especially on Haftar-aligned forces, while simultaneously working to actively incorporate the Haftar faction into settlement proposals. To draw a wedge between Haftar and his perceived Russian support, the United States should lean on its partnership with Egypt, whose primary interest in the east is counterterrorism, and who can thus offer a balancing influence against Russian fantasies.

To create a lasting solution to the Libya problem, however, the United States will need to draw Russia back into the UNSCR 1973 coalition against which it has cried out for so long. Russia’s dissemination of the false narrative that the West did the regime change is a lasting thorn in the side of U.S. mediation efforts, and one that the United States cannot overcome so long as its greatest regional partners (France and Italy in Europe, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East) continue to hold significant and disruptive disagreements over the future of the Libyan state. The United States must focus on first unifying opposed European voices under the goal of eliminating the corrosive influence of illegal migration. With a unified voice, the Western nations must then focus on including Russia in the formal mediation processes to eliminate Russian back channeling; this will involve both inclusion in the formal UNSMIL process, and minute problem solving in shared fora such as the OSCE. But, without an allied front in support of a single Libyan strategy, Russia will continue to play all sides to its advantage, and U.S. policy levers on Libya and in the rest of the Middle East will continue to erode.

The ways in which the United States can best unify opposing European powers, censor difficult Libyan actors, and disrupt Russian influence are a matter for ongoing discussion and likely outside of this framework, but the imperative of doing so is already pressing. This paper has focused on the sources and probabilities of Russian disruption in Libya, arguing that the that the Russian government felt betrayed in its lone attempt to work with the West. Ironically, crafting a Libyan solution that includes Russia may do as much good for Russo-American relations as for Libya itself, removing one of the most visceral symbols of distrust in the relationship. But as long as the U.S. government continues to downplay the strategic dangers of a Libyan failed state, Russia will continue in the aggressive foreign policy path laid out in its recoil from UNSCR 1973, and the echoes of abstention will continue to ring.


About the Author

Sakari Ishetiar is a 2019 graduate of the Princeton MPA program who studies U.S. policy competition with Russia, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. He would like to thank the Wilson School for the opportunity to interview major Libyan government stakeholders, and JPIA for their revisions. Sakari is available on Twitter (@ishetiar) and by email at [email protected].


1Despite an apparent 3 days of intense negotiations, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin complained that the resolution bore little resemblance to Russia’s proposal and failed to preclude the use of ground forces in Libya. See (Sputnik World, 2011)

2Whether Ambassador McFaul also considered Medvedev a ‘reformer’ who would bring Russia in line with international norms, and therefore whether he was somehow “duped” by the Russian president, is best left for McFaul’s own explanation. The relationship is discussed in anecdotes in McFaul’s book From Cold War to Hot Peace, 2019.

3This information is based on interviews with a cabinet-level official in the first post-Qadhafi Libyan government, conducted in Cairo, Egypt and Tunis, Tunisia between October 1 and November 30, 2018 under Chatham House rules.

4Russians seem to have picked up on a Libyan conspiracy narrative that NATO had “done” the regime change. While NATO played a major role, it comprised only 26 of the 48 countries involved in the intervention. Furthermore, the conspiracy ignores the role of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates who galvanized “their media empires to bring attention to Libya… and passed an Arab League resolution to help push the United States and the United Nations into supporting a[n] intervention” (Lynch 2018). See also (RT 2017)

5R2P dates at least back to the 1971 conflict between Pakistan and Bangladesh, then a federal territory known as East Pakistan, when American diplomats found themselves helpless in the face of mass civilian atrocities (Quainton – Interview 2015). Support for a doctrine of civilian right-to-life grew following additional violations by sovereign governments against their populaces in post-Communist countries (Holbrooke 1998) and in Rwanda (Dallaire 2004), with R2P entering customary international law in 2005.

6This information is based on interviews with ambassador-level individuals formerly associated with the Obama State Department conducted in United States in October 2018 under Chatham House rules.

7Both Russia and Western governments felt deep impact from the Bosnian civil war of the 1990s. The West lamented large-scale civilian casualties in such killing grounds as Srebrenica, while the Russian government abhorred its sudden inability to exert influence in a former vassal region.

8Or at least their disappearance in the period 2012-2017. As Libya remains unstable, voices calling for the return of the Qadhafi family have become legible, as will be treated later in this work.

9This information is based on interviews with an ambassador-level individual in the European External Action Service in the United States in September 2018 under Chatham House rules.

10This information is based on interviews with ambassador-level individuals formerly associated with the Obama State Department conducted in United States in October 2018 under Chatham House rules.

11This information is based on interviews with a senior-level UN official who is directly responsible for UN sanctions policy conducted in the United States in September 2018 under Chatham House rules.


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