Opinion: Is Vladimir Putin′s luck in Libya running out? | Opinion | DW | 19.01.2020
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Opinion

Opinion: Is Vladimir Putin's luck in Libya running out?

The Russian president's attempt to mediate a cease-fire in Libya ended ignominiously. Now he may be more than happy to use the talks in Berlin to spread international responsibility more widely, writes Konstantin Eggert.

It's fair to say that Moscow feels peeved by German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to invite Mike Pompeo to Sunday's conference on Libya in Berlin. The US secretary of state is bound to steal some of the limelight that Russian President Vladimir Putin had probably intended for himself.

But in the wake of a government reshuffle and overhaul of the constitution, his sights are firmly set on the situation at home. He even decided to cut short a planned visit to Israel later this month from three days to one — despite the importance he attaches to his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Read more: Berlin Libya conference: A first step toward peace?

Why Haftar snubbed Putin

When Putin and Merkel first announced the Libya conference, the Kremlin clearly thought that talks in Moscow on January 14, mediated by Russia and Turkey, would be a walkover and, more importantly, would not distract Putin from his domestic agenda.

However, General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the so-called Libyan People's Army, who enjoys Russia's backing, clearly thought otherwise. He withdrew from the talks without signing the proposed cease-fire agreement and immediately outlined his position to his hosts, adding insult to injury by offending them publicly. This made Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov look weak and clueless, especially compared to Turkey, which supports the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli, headed by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj. Their side signed the proposed agreement.

A map shows the front lines in Libya's civil war

The humiliation for Moscow was exacerbated by the fact that it has allegedly sent several hundred mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private paramilitary company, to fight with and train Haftar's forces.

Haftar's representatives later explained that he did not sign on to the cease-fire because the Sarraj government did not provide a clear disarmament schedule for some of its paramilitaries. It looks like an excuse. The fact is that, in addition to Russia, the general has the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A trusted Moscow source says it was most probably the Egyptians, who persuaded Haftar to withdraw and continue his attempts to defeat the Tripoli government.

Kremlin has its sights on a Libyan base — and oil

Why exactly is the Kremlin spending so much time, energy and its reputation on the Libyan civil war?

Firstly, for Putin, "pacification" of Libya is a form of compensation for then-President Dmitry Medvedev's decision in 2011 not to disrupt the Western operation there, which led to the overthrow and death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and a bitter civil war. The Kremlin now believes that interference in Libya will further enhance Russia's prestige after its successful rescue of Bashar Assad's regime in Syria.

Read moreCould Libya be Russia's new Syria?

Watch video 02:39

A ray of hope in war-torn Libya

Secondly, Putin hopes Russian involvement could eventually bear fruit in the form of an air and navy base (or bases) on the Libyan coast. In addition to being a thorn in the side of the Americans (which is always a priority for the Russian regime), such a construction project would guarantee fat state contracts for a slew of important people in Moscow for several years to come.

Thirdly and finally, Russian state-owned oil and gas enterprises as well as some private companies — closely monitored by the Kremlin — operated in Libya under Gadhafi. They hope to return to the country when the war is over.

Read more: Beyond Libya: Russia's strategy in the Middle East

That's why Moscow has started to engage more proactively with the Sarraj government. It wants to be on good terms with both sides in case there's an inconclusive outcome to the war. It's very plausible that this outreach also angered Haftar, whose primary financing comes from the Saudis and the Emiratis, who in turn decided on a deliberate show of independence from Russian influence.

Against that backdrop, it may not be such a bad idea for Putin to step back from the limelight in Berlin and try to spread responsibility for the resolution of a nine-year-old crisis more widely. Even if it means having the US at the table.

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