Italy in Wait-and-See Mode Over Russia’s Maneuvering in Libya

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 11

Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar (Source: The Libya Observer)

Russia’s increased engagement in the Libyan civil war, in particular the “attention” that the Kremlin is paying to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, one of the conflict’s major actors since the ousting of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, has not gone unnoticed by the Italian government (Repubblica, January 17). Part of the Western-led military coalition that toppled Qaddafi, Italy remains a key stakeholder in the efforts to solve the current political and humanitarian crisis afflicting the North African country. At the same time, Rome has always championed Moscow’s participation in the Libyan peace process, which is complicated by the presence in the country of many armed formations, including terrorist groups affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) or al-Qaeda (see EDM, December 17, 2015). Russia’s apparent support of the Libyan field marshal poses a strategic problem for the Italian government, however: Rome is in fact the main sponsor of the internationally recognized and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), a rival to Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA).

Once close to Qaddafi, Haftar later became an opponent of the late Libyan strongman. He is now the best-positioned player in Libya, controlling the eastern region of Cyrenaica—where the majority of the country’s oil reserves are concentrated. He has allied with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives Parliament, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, which has never accepted the authority of the GNA.

Though supported by the United Nations, the GNA is currently in a bind, pressed by Haftar and other rebel groups—particularly a self-styled, Islamist-leaning cabinet that still has a partial hold on Tripoli and its surroundings.

On January 22, Viktor Ozerov, the chairman of the Russian Upper House Defense Committee, dismissed reports that Moscow would provide defense support to Haftar in return for military bases or docking and landing rights in Cyrenaica (Sputnik News, January 22). According to some reporting, Haftar—who has, in fact, met with Russian leaders in Moscow last year—signed the related deal during a visit to the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier off the Libyan coast on January 11 (Libyan Express, January 16). The Kremlin’s flattop was on its way home from Syria, where it took part in operations to prop up the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s longtime ally in the Middle East. In return, Haftar allegedly obtained a Russian commitment to lifting the UN arms embargo on Libya. But this appears to be a remote possibility at this juncture. Therefore, news reports that Haftar could receive Russian armored vehicles, ammunition and surveillance equipment through a triangulation with Algeria should be taken with a grain of salt (Middle East Eye, January 30).

Like Algeria’s military, Haftar’s forces are almost entirely equipped with Russian-made or Soviet-era weapons, but the Algerian channel cannot be legally used to bypass the UN restrictions on (lethal) arms sales and transfer to the Libyan armed factions. Only the GNA can be provided with weapons and defense-related systems. If Algiers and Moscow really want to arm Haftar’s LNA, they would need to resort to covert supply.

Russia could be interested in a strategic foothold in North Africa, expanding its Mediterranean projection, which already received a boost from the direct intervention in the Syrian crisis. Ahead of Qaddafi’s toppling, the Kremlin had relevant military and energy ties with Libya, so it could be keen to regain ground there. In this drive, it can team up with Egypt, Haftar’s first backer, along with France and the United Arab Emirates.

Moscow’s cozying up to Haftar runs the risk of blowing up Italy’s plans for Libya. The Libyan territory is exploited by traffickers to smuggle African and Middle Eastern migrants into southern Italy. Rome is struggling to stop human trafficking from Libyan shores, amid growing concerns that Islamist militants can mingle with the refugees. To block the flow of migrants to the Italian peninsula, Italy has thrown its weight behind the GNA, a choice that has irked Haftar and his allies, who now accuse Rome of meddling in Libya’s domestic affairs and carrying out a neo-colonial agenda in their country (Corriere della Sera, January 2).

Italy has so far been cautious about Russia’s courting of Haftar. Despite the strained relations between the European Union and the Kremlin after the latter’s annexation of Crimea and armed backing of rebel forces in eastern Ukraine, Italy has always sought good relations with Russia, a strong economic partner of many Italian industries and an important energy supplier for the country. In this sense, the decision by Italy’s state-owned energy producer ENI to sell to Rosneft—Russia’s biggest oil company—a 30 percent stake in the Zohr supergiant gas field off the coast of Egypt is a gift to Moscow, particularly considering its budding Mediterranean ambitions as it reinforces its already close ties with Cairo. Doubts persist about whether ENI and the Italian government coordinated over the sale to Rosneft; indeed, ENI often follows a pure business logic, even when it is at times at odds with the government’s line (La Stampa, December 13, 2016).

The Italian leadership is probably in a wait-and-see mode. It now has to decode Russia’s intentions, namely if Moscow intends to go all in with Haftar or foster a pacification between the Libyan field marshal and the GNA. Rome’s approach to the issue will also be influenced by the Donald Trump administration’s policy toward the Kremlin. In line with the rhetoric of the United States’ new President, Italy believes that Russia could be a valuable asset against IS, al-Qaeda and other Salafist terrorist outfits—although not to the extent of accepting Russian military installations near its southern border.

Many Russian pundits believe that Moscow will not be dragged into the Libyan quagmire, however. In their view, Libya is not as important in strategic terms as Syria, where Moscow rushed to protect its naval facility in the Mediterranean port of Tartus (, January 26). Furthermore, there are too many erratic actors on the ground; none of them currently have enough strength to overcome the others, and Haftar is no exception.
That said, Egypt recently revealed that a meeting in Cairo between Haftar and al-Sarraj is being prepared (Ansa, January 28). Thus, the Egyptian government is working on a compromise among the principal warring parties, and Russia could have a stake in this process. This prospect ultimately plays into Italian hands, provided that Rome manages to maintain a role in the future Libyan events, notably to tackle Europe-bound human trafficking and terrorist threats, as well as secure stable oil and gas supplies.