Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 199

Russia has moved in recent weeks to boost its trade ties with Libya, and appears especially intent on finalizing a package of potentially lucrative defense contracts. Russian trade and defense officials clearly hope to capitalize on the close relations which existed between Tripoli and Moscow during the Soviet period. In 1992 the UN imposed a ban on all transactions with Libya involving military sales and commercial air transportation. The sanctions were suspended in April of this year when Libya surrendered two suspects wanted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland.

Russian efforts to resuscitate its former ties with Libya began earlier this month when a high-level Russian defense delegation traveled to Tripoli for talks with top government and military officials there, including Libyan leader Mohammar Gaddafi. The Russian group was headed by Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who oversees the Russian defense industrial sector. He handed a message to the Libyan leader from Russian President Boris Yeltsin expressing Moscow’s desire “to resume relations with Libya and to open new horizons for bilateral cooperation.”

Reports of the Russian delegation’s visit suggested that Libya was particularly interested in Russian military aircraft. Military sources on the Russian side were quoted as saying that Moscow is prepared to deliver MiG-31 aircraft to Libya and to help Tripoli modernize some ninety MiG-25 combat planes currently in service. They also said that Libya was interested in acquiring the Russian S-300 air defense systems. On October 13, a Russian government spokesman suggested that Moscow could ultimately export military hardware to Libya worth up to US$500 million annually. On October 18, Russian sources reported that a representative from a major Russian warship design company will travel to Libya for talks with Libyan officials (Itar-Tass, October 13, 15; AP, October 18).

Arms contracts, however, are reportedly just one item on the agenda during a week-long series of trade talks taking place in Moscow this week between Russian and Libyan government officials. Without providing many details, reports yesterday indicated that the negotiations–taking place under the auspices of a Russian-Libyan intergovernmental trade and economic cooperation commission– involve projects worth some US$1 billion. The commission is chaired on the Russian side by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu and on the Libyan by Energy Secretary Abdullah Salim al-Badri. Aside from military hardware, the Libyan side is reported to be keen on potential energy projects. A Libyan deputy foreign minister was quoted as saying that Tripoli would like to involve Russia in developing Libya’s oil and gas industries. The two sides will apparently also discuss atomic energy projects (Russian agencies, October 26).

Moscow’s desire to reassert its presence in the Libyan arms market was attested to by Klebanov’s statement to journalists that Russia must remain Libya’s chief partner in military and technical cooperation (Russian agencies, October 22). At least one Russian newspaper has suggested, however, that Russian arms officials may have a battle on their hands. It claimed that French and Ukrainian arms dealers, among others, had actually begun negotiations with Libyan officials even prior to the formal suspension of sanctions. But the “cumbersome” nature of Russia’s arms export bureaucracy cost Russia valuable time, the newspaper claimed. It also suggested that it remains unclear whether Libya will seek to orient itself once again toward Moscow, or whether broader foreign policy considerations will drive it to look elsewhere for international partners and military suppliers (Vremya MN, October 13).