Russia is reported to have deployed its special forces on the Libyan borders — a move that might lead to both confrontation and collaboration with the West.

A Libyan soldier stands guard at the entrance of a town, 110 kilometers from Sirte, Libya. Photo: AP

Russia seems to have deployed a 22-member special forces unit in western Egypt — not far from Libya, said an anonymous diplomatic source from the U.S., as quoted by Reuters, a news agency. This could fuel concerns in the West about the Kremlin’s ambitions to expand its clout in the Middle East and bolster political prestige.

According to the U.S. and some diplomatic officials, such Russian deployment might be part of a campaign in support of Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, who visited Moscow two times in 2016 to meet with the Russian foreign minister and military top brass.

However, Russian and Egyptian officials deny the fact that Moscow sent special forces on the border of Libya, another turbulent country in the Middle East, which has been entangled in a civil war since 2011. But some experts don’t rule out this possibility given the Kremlin’s geopolitical aspirations. For example, Alexei Malashenko, an expert from Carnegie Moscow Center and the research director at the Dialogue of Civilizations Institute, believes that the Russian presence in Libya is “quite possible.”

The Kremlin will support and might have already supported Libyan military leader Haftar and there is no reason to be surprised by this fact, Malashenko said in an interview to Meduza, an independent media outlet, based in Riga. 

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“Russia has made it clear long ago that it is returning to the Middle East and, in fact, it has already returned,” he said. “So, I don’t see something extraordinary [in this] — whether it inspires admiration or terror. This is quite a predictable event.”

Russia might have a direct interest in supporting Haftar, at least because he is fighting against terrorists, and today Moscow is directly or indirectly meddling in the Libyan domestic confrontation (if not in the civil war per se). And this could be risky strategically, according to Malashenko. 

The problem is that the war-torn Lybia brings together diverse political groups and regions and Russia should be mindful of this. However, it tries to straddle between several opposing groups — Haftar and Libya’s Government of National Accord that brings together Islamists supported by Turkey, Sudan and Qatar as well. Nevertheless, Libyan high-profile politicians and top brass pin hopes on Russia and its capability to alleviate the six-year conflict, as indicated by their recent statements.

“Russia maintains good relations with some political forces in Libya and could play a positive role in the future settlement of the Libyan conflict,” said Fayez Sarraj, the prime minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord, during his March visit to Moscow.

In fact, Sarraj assumes that Russia can contribute to resolving the conflict because it communicates with the representatives of Libya’s competing political and military groups. Thus, the Kremlin might play a mediating role in the country’s civil war. However, this won’t be an easy task, according to experts.   

According to Grigory Lukyanov, a professor at Higher School of Economics, the key problem for the Kremlin is what Libyan political groups Russia should choose to negotiate with and what groups are the most legitimate to talk with. The experts highlight that the sophisticated nature of the conflict makes it more unpredictable: The war has been going on for six years, with the conflict transforming and involving more regional and global players.   

There are three key stakeholders in the Libyan conflict. The first one is the Sarraj-led Government of National Accord, which brings together Islamists. The second group is Libya’s House of Representatives, supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Haftar’s military group that controls Libya’s eastern part. The third force is the terrorist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) as well as other undecided militia forces that change their allies sporadically.

Primarily, Russia pins hopes on Haftar, at least because the latter has a Russian background. He studied in the Soviet Union in 1977-1978 and in 1983. No wonder, the Kremlin sees him as a convenient and prospective ally. Yet there are other political reasons for the Kremlin’s pick.

First, Haftar controls a significant part of the Libyan territory, which is bigger than the one controlled by his rival Sarraj. Second, he has the biggest army in the country and, third, he controls its key oil fields and ports to export oil. Finally, Haftar is ready to provide his territory for Russian troops to fight against ISIS. He made this quite clear during his January visit to the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov cruiser, which returned from Syria.

Russia’s interests in Libya are crystal clear. Geopolitically, the Kremlin seeks to strengthen its position in North Africa by increasing its presence in the Mediterranean. Economically, Russia plans to resume oil and infrastructure contracts in Libya, once the civil war in the country comes to an end. In addition, some European countries like Italy might be interested in cooperation with Russia on Libya to alleviate the refugee crisis and maintain security. This is what the Kremlin needs now — in a time of its confrontation with the West.

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At the same time, the anti-terrorism agenda might encourage Moscow to team up with Washington in Libya. According to Alexei Makarkin, the first vice president of the Center for Political Technologies, Russian president Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Donald Trump could support Haftar in the fight against jihadists and Islamic radicals. Moreover, Libya might become a testing ground for U.S.-Russia anti-terrorism cooperation, according to some pundits.

Yet such expectations might be just wishful thinking, because Russia and the West are competing in Libya, as indicated by the statement of British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon. He warns Russia against interfering in Libya. Russia was “testing” the military alliance with a Libyan strongman and, thus, competes with the West-backed Tripoli government, Fallon said.

“We don’t need the bear sticking his paws in,” he said during the 2017 Munich Security Conference.

Thus, Russia’s interference in the complicated conflict might exacerbate the tensions with the West and Libya could become another thorny issue for Russia-West relations — like Syria. Given the fact that Trump has started to backtrack on his initial Russia policy under the pressure of the Washington establishment, the cooperation between two countries might become an unattainable goal in the current political environment.

That’s why, during increasing unpredictability, Moscow is preparing for both confrontation and collaboration with the U.S. Which scenario will come true remains to be seen.