Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on June 24 about Russia’s military activity in the Eastern Mediterranean and why it is a priority for Russia as it seeks further expansion.
According to Borshchevskaya, Russia’s military intervention in Syria has been a “springboard” for Russia’s further expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially its deepening involvement in the Libyan conflict. Both are components of a strategy enabling Russia to access the Eastern Mediterranean and check NATO’s southern flank.
Libya is an attractive venue for Russia’s “long game” to outmaneuver the U.S. and Western allies for several reasons. Libya’s deep-water ports are considered superior to the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria. Controlling Libya would enable Moscow to “us[e] the refugee issue to pressure Europeans,” as the country is the top embarkation point in Africa for illegal migrants infiltrating Europe (most Syrian migrants, in contrast, embark from Turkey). While Syria’s energy reserves are “fairly miniscule,” those of eastern Libya are “enormous.”
Although Russia is steadily augmenting its military presence in eastern Libya in support of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, unlike in Syria it is not yet engaged in a full-throttle effort to help its clients unify the country. It is content to build up its presence gradually and maintain “a frozen conflict-type scenario” in Libya, which enables Russia to position itself as a “peacemaker” or “manager” of the conflict. “Fomenting instability” in Libya gives Moscow more leverage against the U.S. and Turkey than seeking to control it.
Russia has been building relations with Egypt as seen in its recent increased military sales there. “Russia understands the geostrategic importance of this country,” said Borshchevskaya, noting that there is “a historical relationship with Egypt that goes back to the Soviet Union.” The current Egyptian regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi “leans … more to the Russian side” than its predecessors. Farther west lies Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, where Russia “has been working through a number of channels to increase influence … at the expense of the United States.”
Borshchevskaya’s offered two policy recommendations for the U.S. to boost its position and thwart Russian influence in Libya. First, unlike in Syria, “in Libya, the existing, internationally recognized government did not invite Russia” to intervene, making its presence more subject to diplomatic counter-measures. Second, Russia’s reliance on private military contractors (PMCs) is a vulnerability. Borshchevskaya cited an incident in Syria when Russian PMCs were attacked by the Americans in a justified act of self-defense, which led to a de-escalation by the Russians, who “went to great lengths to at first deny that this happened and then minimized the impact” of the clash. “I can foresee a potentially similar situation in Libya.”
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.