Providing military aid to Libya to help fight ISIS extremists could mark the start of Moscow’s new strategy to prevent a spillover of radical Islam to the Caucasus. It might also be part of a broader plan to expand Moscow’s naval presence in the Mediterranean.

A Libyan military soldier stands guard at the entrance of a town, 110 kilometers (68 miles) from Sirte, Libya. Photo: AP

Almost four years after Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, Libya is mired in another civil war. The internationally recognized government temporarily based in Tobruq in eastern Libya is fighting against the mostly Islamist New General National Congress based in the capital Tripoli and the affiliated groups of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). The war has been largely ignored in the world media but the country grabbed headlines again when ISIS posted a gruesome video online in which they purportedly executed 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.

Following Egypt’s recent airstrikes against Islamic State’s positions in Libya, the debate about international support to the Libyan government was taken to the UN. Several world powers, including Libya itself, rejected foreign military intervention in the county, and the option currently under discussion is lifting the arms embargo that was imposed against the Gaddafi regime in 2011. Jordan recently circulated a draft resolution at the Security Council proposing to lift the embargo, among other urgent measures.

Commenting on the events in Libya and the prospects of the UN resolution, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said that Moscow would seriously consider such a document as well as the possibility of arming the Libyan government against the Islamic State.

"We are ready to discuss possible ways out of this situation, including through a simplified system of arms supplies to the Libyan government,” he was quoted as saying by the TASS news agency.

Asked whether Russia would consider participating in the anti-ISIS campaign in Libya, Churkin said that “from the political point of view” he would not rule this out, but the decision would need to be made by the President. The statement by the Russian diplomat about a possible concerted effort against the Islamic State in Libya signals a major shift in Moscow’s strategy. Previously concerned about the spillover of ISIS extremism to the Caucasus but uninvolved in anti-ISIS campaigns in Iraq and Syria, now Russia finds itself in an unusual position where its participation may be crucial to solving the crisis.

How Russia could arm Libya

Speaking at the UN Security Council meeting on Feb. 18, the Libyan Foreign Minister said that his country is vulnerable to extremism and insisted that the authorities are seeking urgent support. If the UN Security Council votes to lift the arms embargo against Libya, it will pave the way for direct supply of military equipment to Libya in which Russia could play a key role.

Before the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya and Russia had signed numerous arms contracts worth between $4 billion and $10 billion. After the 2011 revolution, the new government embarked on reviewing these deals but due to UN Security Council Resolution 1973, adopted on March 17, 2011, that imposed an arms embargo, none of the contracts were implemented.

Previously unreported details of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Egypt on Feb. 9-10 suggest that the Libyan Army’s Chief of Staff arrived in Cairo the same day and met with the Russian delegation and Egyptian authorities. According to some unconfirmed reports Russia and Libya then signed an arms transfer agreement, which may be enacted once the embargo is over.

Russia is likely to become Libya’s major military equipment provider because under a 2008 deal Moscow cancelled Tripoli’s $4.5 billion debt in exchange for contracts for Russian defense companies that the Libyan government is yet to deliver on.

Libya’s intention to purchase Russian-produced military equipment is quite obvious. The National Army is almost entirely trained on weapons that the Soviet Union supplied to Tripoli throughout the 1980s – thus it has necessary expertise to immediately begin using these arms. The special advisor of the Libyan parliament’s president who visited Moscow on Feb. 5 said that his government would like to purchase Russia’s newest military equipment and have Russian specialists train Libyan military personnel.

Between 2008 and 2010 Moscow and the Gaddafi government discussed several arms deals whose details were not fully disclosed. According to them, Libya would purchase a number of SU-35 and SU-30MK fighter jets, as well as KA-52, KA-28, MI-17 and MI-35M helicopters. Gaddafi also agreed to buy S-300PMU2 air defense systems, T-90 tanks, TOR-M1 missile systems as well as a big number of firearms. It remains unclear which of these weapon systems made it to the new contract, if any, but not all of them would be effective in the fight against extremists.

The lifting of the arms embargo may be considered a dangerous step at this point, because it may allow the unrecognized New General National Congress that rules in the western Libya to get access to military equipment as well. The UNSC resolution 2174 (2014) allows, however, the sale of armaments to internationally recognized authorities, which is the government in Tobruq, with the approval of the UNSC Sanctions Committee. Russia could request such an authorization at the Security Council without having the embargo lifted altogether.

How Libya fits into Russia’s naval strategy for the Mediterranean

Speaking to journalists at the UN, Russian Ambassador Churkin said that Moscow could take part in an operation off the coast of Libya to prevent the delivery of weapons to the radicals by sea. "If Russia could take part in the operation off Somalias coast, why cant it take part in an operation in the Mediterranean?” he argued.

In 2008 Russian warships joined international efforts to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia. As per the UN resolution 1838 (2008) allowing states to deploy naval vessels in high seas near Somalia to fight piracy, Russia sent three of its warships to patrol the waters off the coast of the Horn of Africa and escort civilian vessels.        

The Russian navy has been particularly active in the Mediterranean in the past few years. Moscow claims that it is close to having permanent naval presence there looking to extend its influence in the Middle East. A task force made up of warships from the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets conducts regular exercises in the Mediterranean attempting to reach the same potential the Soviet 5th Naval Squadron permanently based in the region once had.

The government in Tobruq is specifically concerned about the spread of terrorism to rebel-held port cities in western Libya and the illegal arms distribution all along the coast. The Russian warships’ mission would be to secure a naval blockade of Libyan territorial waters and prevent the spread of weapons to extremists.

In 2008 Moscow and Tripoli were to set up a Russian naval base in Benghazi, but the plans did not come to fruition. Now that Russia’s naval facility in Syria’s Tartus is unlikely to be upgraded to a fully operational naval base in the near future, Moscow is on the lookout for another location in the Mediterranean.

Restoring relations with Libya in that sense is a win-win for both sides: The Libyan government would get much-needed military equipment to fight off rebel and ISIS attacks while Russia would expand the client portfolio for its defense companies as well as possibly establish a long-term naval presence in Libyan port cities, giving its navy broader access to the Mediterranean.