Russia is renewing its interest in Libya as Africa faces a turning point

Moscow’s strategy on the continent hasn’t gone unnoticed in Washington, either

Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister recently visited the Libyan city of Benghazi. AFP
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Russia appears to be renewing its support to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control eastern Libya, as the military leader looks to take over the entire country.

Field Marshal Haftar, who backs the Tobruk administration that rivals the government in Tripoli, was in Moscow in the week gone by, where he held meetings over several days. This followed a visit by Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov to Benghazi some weeks earlier.

Meanwhile, the US is said to be taking an interest in Libya, as its co-operation with Field Marshal Haftar grows. According to a report by The Intercept, a meeting took place between the commander of the US Africa Command, Gen Michael Langley, and Field Marshal Haftar in the preceding week.

However, the convergent American and Russian interests in the military leader are not at the same level, as the Biden administration is preoccupied with other priorities in the Mena region. By contrast, Russia sees, after the coup in Niger, an opportunity to restore its political relevance in Africa as discontent with the West grows on the continent.

Yet the top Russian priority remains strengthening relations with China against the West. Preparations are under way for a summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing from October 26-29.

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The convergent American and Russian interests are not at the same level

China does not recognise the territories annexed by Russia in Ukraine as Russian, and wants both countries to demonstrate flexibility by withdrawing their conditions for entering into talks to end the conflict. What China wants is a "clean slate" on which it can play the role of a technical mediator rather than a political mediator. But Russia is not ready to withdraw its conditions, and neither is Ukraine.

This will leave a mark on the Beijing summit for the leadership in Moscow, which seeks to explore fully the prospects of a Sino-Russian partnership. China, on the other hand, believes that prolonging the Ukraine conflict will be harmful to Russia and intensify American efforts to build alliances, not only against Moscow but also against Beijing, through the US-Japan-South Korea triad and increased communication and co-ordination between Nato and Japan.

The Niger coup has left western powers and some African countries deeply concerned, but it may have rejuvenated Russian interest in Libya. If so, this is noteworthy.

The meetings with Field Marshal Haftar signal Russia's decision to reassert its influence in Africa and thereby send a message to the West that isolating it is merely a fantasy. The resource-rich continent could also serve as a means for Russia to escape from Nato's clutches in the Ukraine conflict, both economically and politically.

The web of international entanglements in Libya may have convinced Moscow that other powers, including Turkey, as well as key Arab and European powers, would not intervene against its support for Field Marshal Haftar. Indeed, Europe supports anything that prevents a major migration wave from the Libyan coast to the continent.

The Russians appear to believe that the US will not seek major influence in Libya at this point, particularly given American public sensitivities due to US failures there, as well as a perceived lack of trust in Libyan authorities. Therefore, the Kremlin believes that the Biden administration will not strongly oppose Russia supporting Field Marshal Haftar's takeover bid.

This could explain, at least partly, the reported meeting between US military leaders and Field Marshal Haftar - perhaps also to remind him to not put all his eggs in the Russian basket. While the Biden administration may overlook Russian investments in Libya, it will seek to keep a check on Moscow's agendas in Africa as a whole.

The horizons opened up by the coup in Niger have also motivated other powers beyond Russia to attempt to fill the void left by France and the West in parts of Africa, including key players in the Mena region. Economic reasons would certainly be a driving force for engagement, given the investment opportunities in some of the resource-rich countries, but geopolitical considerations are equally important.

Africa is going through an extremely important phase and is at a historical turning point. There is much more interest in the continent, with each of the players from around the world seeking to take advantage of the favourable opportunities available.

It is to be seen if the leaders of these African countries will contribute to shaping a prosperous future for their peoples, or whether they will fall into the spiral of political upheaval and military coups that have riddled the continent's decades-long post-colonial history.

Published: October 01, 2023, 2:00 PM