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Russia's strategy in the Mediterranean may boost US support for Turkey

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) meets with Khalifa Haftar eastern Libya-based military commander at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Reception House in Moscow, Russia on 13 January 2020. [Russian Foreign Ministry / Handout - Anadolu Agency]
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) meets with Khalifa Haftar eastern Libya-based military commander at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Reception House in Moscow, Russia on 13 January 2020. [Russian Foreign Ministry / Handout - Anadolu Agency]

The US has upped the stakes in response to the growing Russian influence in Libya, having sought to maintain a balance between the parties to the conflict and avoid siding with one at the expense of the other. For a full year Washington was content with demanding an end to the assault on the capital Tripoli by forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and pushing for a political agreement under the auspices of the UN.

On 27 May, though, the US Africa Command revealed that Russia had transferred 14 warplanes to Libya, after camouflaging them in Syria. Moscow's move was made to support the Wagner Company mercenaries fighting alongside Haftar's forces.

America's initial response was to make direct contact with the Tunisian Ministry of Defence to discuss the possible deployment of US troops near the Libyan border. This would counterbalance the growing Russian influence in North Africa on Europe's doorstep.

The US is ringing the alarm bells about Moscow's influence in Libya, where the strategic Al-Jafra Base in the centre of the country hosts Russian warplanes, and where long-range missile systems may be deployed. This is in addition to Russian efforts to get the concession for its navy to use the ports of Tobruk and Derna on Libya's east coast. If that happens, Russia will be in a strong position in the eastern Mediterranean, given that it already has a naval base in Tartus, Syria.

READ: Russia recruiting more Syria fighters for Libya war, report says

Syria and Libya are the two focal points of Russia's strategy to blockade Western Europe and have more influence on Turkey's policies, thus chipping away gradually at the NATO alliance. It appears, though, that Washington has interpreted Moscow's moves well and worked to provide political support for Turkey's presence in Libya. The US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, welcomed what he described as the positive Turkish role in ending the influence of the Wagner (Russian) and Janjaweed (Sudanese) mercenaries during a press conference on 4 June. These mercenaries have been involved in military operations in Tripoli since October last year.

EU countries are used to having eastern European states as a buffer between them and Russia. Having imposed the fait accompli of its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Moscow has increased its military presence in Syria and now Libya. This is a new threat for Western Europe to deal with.

European countries including France, Germany and Italy have built a reliance on low-cost Libyan oil so as not to place all of their eggs in the Russian oil basket. Statistics from 2016 show that Europe imported around 70 per cent of its total oil needs from Russia. Now, however, Moscow looks reluctant to give up its hold on the oil supply to Europe. Russian influence in Libya's oil-exporting ports, and the concessions and investments that will follow in the energy sector, will allow Moscow to continue controlling the energy flowing to Europe. Furthermore, Russia's access to Libyan oil reserves will help Moscow to continue with its plan to increase oil exports to China to 30 million tonnes per annum, while maintaining control of the European oil market and securing its own needs.

The Libyan coast is a major gateway for migrants to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in the hope of seeking asylum there. Once established in Libya, Russia will be able to influence Europe's security, which is likely to lead to European countries seeking understandings with Moscow. In turn, this could lead to a weakening of the European Union, with countries like Italy, Greece and France trying to increase their coordination and cooperation with Moscow out of a desire to preserve their national and energy security. There is also a need for Europe to strengthen its position against Turkey over the demarcation of maritime borders in the Mediterranean Sea and the struggle for natural resources, especially by Greece and France.

Russia's actions in Idlib have to be viewed in the context of the efforts to have influence across Europe and push EU states to boost their links with Moscow. Turkey must be aware of this because it has increased its military presence in the Syrian province since February to ensure that it keeps the Idlib card; the province means a lot to Ankara and Turkish national security.

READ: International backing for Egypt plan for Libya ceasefire

Since the direct Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Moscow has managed to impose itself as a major player in the conflict. Ankara opened communication channels with the Kremlin after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian aircraft near Turkey's border with Syria in November 2015.

With Russia strengthening its presence in Syria, Turkey is convinced that there is no alternative to coordination between the two countries to guarantee its security interests in its southern neighbour. This coordination resulted in the Astana peace process, then relations evolved into a deal to purchase a Russian S400 air defence system. The latter exacerbated the differences between Ankara and Washington.

It is quite possible that Russia will try to spread its influence in Syria across regions which directly affect Turkish national security; military bases could be established in the Kessab region, for example, and some mountainous areas overlooking the Turkish border. This is an effort by Moscow to increase its influence over Turkey's foreign policies, and thus push Ankara to move closer to Russia and away from NATO.

Russia's strategy could limit US influence in Europe and Turkey, which perhaps explains the change in Washington's tone in Libya, and the effort to deploy troops in Tunisia. However, it may also push the US into giving more support to Turkey in order to prevent Moscow from controlling the rules and the game.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 7 June 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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