Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 90

Moscow’s moves to rebuild ties with former Soviet client states, including some the United States considers “rogue” nations, continued over the weekend during Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s visit to Libya. During his two days of talks in Tripoli, Ivanov reiterated Russia’s intention to reestablish wide-ranging relations and regular contacts with the Libyan government. The Russian diplomat, who was making the first visit by a Russian foreign minister to Libya, also pointedly made it clear that likely U.S. objections to improved Russian-Libyan ties would in no way hinder or block Moscow and Tripoli. “If our position doesn’t please all parties, it is their problem,” Ivanov told a press conference at the conclusion of his visit. Press reports indicated that Ivanov, who met during his stay with Libyan leader Muammar Kadafhi and Foreign Minister Mohamed Abderrahmane Chalgam, had passed on a personal message to Kadafhi from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Among other things, it invited the Libyan leader to visit Russia. “We give paramount importance to your visit to Moscow in order to boost the relations between our countries in all fields of cooperation,” the Libyan news agency Jana quoted Putin as saying. Chalgam was later quoted as saying that definite dates for Kadafhi’s visit were expected to be announced soon. Chalgam himself paid a visit to Moscow last summer.

Ivanov’s visit to Tripoli appeared aimed at boosting Russian-Libyan relations both politically and economically. In the latter realm, officials from the two countries laid out a broad agenda which would see Russian companies play a major role in the development of Libya’s oil and gas sectors. Indeed, Chalgam suggested that Russia might get a major stake in what he said were Libyan plans to invest some US$20 billion in the country’s oil industry over the next several decades. Russia is now involved in the construction of a gas pipeline in Libya, and is also helping to upgrade a thermal plant and build electric power lines. Current trade turnover between the two countries is an anemic US$155 million per year.

Politically, Tripoli won new assurances of Russia’s support for the “full and final lifting” of international sanctions against Libya, and Ivanov indicated that Moscow intended to push for the lifting of sanctions during UN Security Council discussions. Russian policy in this area could turn into one more point of friction between Moscow and Washington. Although the sanctions were suspended when Libya handed over suspects in the 1988 terrorist bombing of a Pan Am flight, the United States and Britain continue to insist that a full lifting of sanctions can occur only when Libya accepts responsibility for the bombing and pays compensation. The issue is particularly important now because some European Union countries are, like Russia, moving in defiance of the United States to normalize relations with Tripoli. U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, are set soon to consider whether to renew the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which was enacted in 1996 to punish Tripoli and Tehran for supporting terrorism and which expires in August. Key U.S. allies object to ILSA, and Moscow undoubtedly relishes the thought of staking out a position that groups Russia with these countries in what has the potential to turn into yet another divisive diplomatic battle with Washington.

Washington is also likely to be angered by another area of Russian-Libyan cooperation: potential Russian arms dealings with Tripoli. Military-technical cooperation was clearly on Ivanov’s discussion agenda during his visit, a point which was confirmed when the two sides announced that they had agreed to create a pair of teams–one Libyan and one Russian–which would be tasked with “preparing a working plan defining short and long-term political, economic, and military cooperation.” According to the Russian military news agency AVN, the two sides did not agree to any new arms sales during Ivanov’s visit. But they did reportedly reach agreement on plans for Russia to modernize Libya’s military hardware, the vast majority of which is Soviet made. AVN quoted a Russian Defense Ministry source as saying that a contract would soon be signed under which Libyan-Russian military cooperation would be resumed. The contract reportedly also resolves differences between the two countries over debts accrued by Libya for weapons purchased from Moscow during the Soviet era (Reuters, May 6, 8; AFP, May 7-8; Russian agencies, Washington Post, May 8).