The beginning of December was marked by Vladimir Putin taking a tour in the Middle East during which he held a meeting with the leaders of Turkey, Syria and Egypt. At the same time, Vladimir Putin’s tour at the end of 2017 had both a regional and an internal Russian dimension. First, it should be noted that the Middle East tour was at the beginning of Putin’s pre-election campaign, and it was important to start “at full tilt”. Therefore, in the very first days after the nomination, it was crucial for the Russian president to declare the withdrawal of troops from Syria on the Russian base “Khmeimim” (which became a symbol of the Russian military presence in Syria), showing that he had defeated the terrorists with a powerful blow, giving up little blood and on a foreign territory. On the same day, he went to Cairo, where the reports from the theater of operations should be replaced by an idyllic picture of the “return to peaceful life”, again with the direct participation of Russia. Putin’s visit to Cairo was intended to demonstrate the stability of Moscow’s presence on the world stage to the Russian audience; in contrast to Syria, Egypt was shown as already at peace.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that signing of the agreement on the construction of the nuclear power plant in E Dabaa that was agreed in September 2017 during the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in China during the BRICS summit was delayed until the unofficial start of Russian elections. The signing of the contract for the construction of nuclear power plants in El Dabaa was represented by the official media as an analogue of the 1958 treaty between the USSR and Egypt on the construction of the High Dam. This underlined the scale of this epoch-making event for Egypt and Russia’s key place in the most important infrastructure projects in the country of the pyramids.
However, President Putin’s visit to Cairo had also an important regional dimension. As a result of the meeting with President al-Sisi, an agreement to provide Egyptian airspace and military infrastructure for use by Russian armed forces was also signed. At the same time, one should understand that this is rather a compromise solution. The Russian side, after a military coup in Egypt in 2013, has repeatedly suggested that the Egyptian leadership create its military base in the Mediterranean Sea near Alexandria or Port Said. However, the military authorities now in power in Cairo took this idea very skeptically, pointing to the non-alignment of Egypt. This, in turn, logically fits into the relatively neutral foreign policy line that President al-Sisi is trying to maintain in an attempt to keep good relations with all his foreign partners.
Moreover, the Egyptians rejected Moscow’s proposal to lease Russia’s military base in Egypt, emphasizing Cairo’s reluctance to create any military base for a foreign state on its territory. This looks very logical, given Egypt’s full military dependence on the United States and, most importantly, the reluctance of the Egyptian generals to abandon Washington as their main military partner. Despite the military contracts signed between Russia and Egypt, the Egyptian army is largely equipped with Western weapons. In addition, one must bear in mind that not all agreements between the two countries can be developed from MoU to real contracts. On the contrary, the history of Russian-Egyptian relations testifies that a considerable proportion of the agreements will remain at the level of declarations.
On the other hand, in the context of the very limited participation of the United States in the resolution of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, which has become a distinctive feature of President Donald Trump’s rule, has increased the role of Middle East actors themselves resolving crisis phenomena. As applied to Egypt, this means Cairo now has more independence in resolving the vital Libyan conflict, opening up opportunities for military interaction with Moscow.
The agreement signed between Russia and Egypt preceded an important date in the settlement of the Libyan conflict–Dec. 17. On that day, the Libyan Political Agreements concluded between the House of Representatives and the new General National Congress expired. The fate of these agreements is still in question, and the interest of Khalifa Haftar in their prolongation is being gradually reduced to zero. In turn, a new round of the conflict in Libya can occur with the direct participation of Russia as well. Of course, one should not expect Russian military operations in Libya to take place on the Syrian pattern, but the use of Egyptian military bases for training and arming forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar by Russia looks more than realistic. Especially if we take into account the arms embargo imposed by the U.N. Security Council on Libya. What is it for?
The Libyan conflict is of important political and economic significance for Moscow. First, for the Russians, who are forced to constantly prove their status as a “great power”, it is important to show that despite the withdrawal of troops from Syria, it retains its presence in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. Secondly, the Libyan conflict opens one more platform for negotiations with the European Union for Moscow. In turn, there is another chance to make progress in the normalization of Russian-European relations, not at the expense of settling the conflict in the East of Ukraine, but as a result of a compromise on other issues that are important for the EU. Simply put, this means to attempting to link the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions not with the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, but with the achievement of new agreements on issues of less importance for Moscow.
However, without an economic background, Moscow’s actions in the Libyan direction would look unnecessarily costly. The civil war in Libya that started in 2011, resulted in tangible losses that Russia incurred, in view of the failure of the Libyan authorities to fulfill their obligations under treaties signed with Muammar Gaddafi. So, in 2008 Moscow and Tripoli had agreements on the supply of Russian equipment and weapons, the amount of which, according to Russian military experts, ranged from $4 to 6 billion. In Libya, Russian oil and transport campaigns were also to be launched.
In January 2010, a package agreement was concluded with Tripoli for $1.8 billion, but it never came into force. In the long term, Moscow and Tripoli planned to additionally coordinate and sign contracts for the supply of Russian air and military transport equipment for the amount of about $2.4 billion. During Vladmir Putin’s visit to Libya in 2008, a contract was signed for €2.2 billion for the construction of a 500-kilometer stretch of railroad between Sirte-Benghazi by Russian Railways.
In 2005, Tatneft won an auction for the exploration and development of a block of 2.3 thousand square kilometers in the territory of Ghadames. In the spring of 2007, Gazprom received a 49 percent stake in Wintershall, which produces about 5 million tons of oil annually in Libya. In the same year, Gazprom and the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) signed an agreement on the division of production for the right to explore and develop hydrocarbons within the N19 block on the shelf of the Mediterranean Sea belonging to Libya.
In this regard, the Russian leadership has taken action to maintain its positions in the country by updating all the agreements reached earlier. In the start of 2017, Aguila Saleh Issa, speaker of Libyan House of Representatives, had already promised that he was ready to act as guarantor of the fulfillment of all Russian-Libyan military contracts. Nowadays, Russian Railways, as well as a number of Russian energy campaigns, for example Tatneft, are beginning to negotiate with Libyan parties for the resumption of old projects and the implementation of new ones in Libya.
Despite all of the above, the Russian strategy in Libya will differ markedly from the Syrian case. First of all, in the direction of less determinism and abstention from direct military operations on Libyan territory. In turn, Egypt will act as an “interested” mediator through which Russian military assistance to Haftar will be carried out, while Moscow’s external interest in maintaining a dialogue with all parties in the conflict remains.