Russian warships will dock in Tripoli, Libya, on their way to Venezuela, a spokesman for the Russian navy said Oct. 1. The visit reveals the emergence of renewed competition between Moscow and the West for Libya's loyalty.
Russian warships en route to Venezuela for naval exercises are scheduled to make a port call at the Libyan capital of Tripoli after they enter the Mediterranean Sea on Oct. 5, Interfax news agency reported Oct. 1, citing Russian Navy spokesman Igor Dygalo. It is unclear whether the warships, led by the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy (099), will also call at the Syrian port city of Tartus.
Though not absolutely necessary, a 15,000-nautical-mile trek from Russia to Venezuela almost certainly will include stops along the way to refuel conventionally powered escorts and auxiliaries and allow rest for the
vessels' crews. Russia's choice of Libya for one such stop is most interesting given the current geopolitical climate.
Russia's relationship with Libya is rooted in the days of the Cold War. Back then, Libya was the primary Soviet client state in the Middle East. The Soviet navy had air stations and port access in Libya, and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had acquired about $10 billion worth of weapons from the Soviets. With Soviet arms supplies flowing into Libya, Gadhafi had everything he needed to export terrorism across the globe, undermining U.S. power everywhere from Colombia to the Philippines.
But once Soviet funds dried up after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the Libyans were forced to change their tune. After 9/11, Tripoli had an opportunity to mend ties with the West, and by 2003 it had completely
surrendered its nuclear weapons program. When Libya in 2007 released five Bulgarian nurses whom it had charged with intentionally infecting several hundred children with HIV, the energy-rich desert state got on course to become the new darling of the Europeans in North Africa -- especially at a time when Europe was desperately searching for energy alternatives to Russia.
The Russians have kept their eye on Tripoli, however. And now that Russia is resurging against the West, the Kremlin has wasted no time in trying to restore its ties with the Libyans. Russian President Vladimir Putin made a high-profile visit to Libya in April, during which he signed a flurry of commercial, energy and defense deals. Those deals included an agreement to build a much-needed railroad between the Libyan cities of Sirte and Benghazi, and a massive arms sales package that reportedly would include modern Su-35 "Flanker" and MIG-29SMT "Fulcrum" fighter jets, S-300 strategic air defense systems, Tor-M1 point-defense surface-to-air missiles, submarines, warships, military helicopters, and spare parts and maintenance for Libya's existing Soviet-made equipment. It remains to be seen how many of these deals will reach fruition, however, and it should be noted that the Russians face heavy competition from the French in defense deals for Libya.
On the energy front, Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom is in the process of establishing a foothold in Libya with the help of the Italians.
Gazprom and Italian energy firm Eni have been in deep negotiations over the past two years to swap Eni's assets in Libya for Russian assets along the Arctic coast. Within two weeks, Gazprom is expected to sign a deal with Eni to acquire the Italian company's stake in Libya's Elephant oil field. But Gazprom is really after Eni's stakes in the Greenstream natural gas pipeline, which runs from Libyan fields to Sicily and would give Russia another potential energy lever to use against the Europeans.
With Libyan-Russian deals in full swing, Moscow is sending warning signals to the West that Russia still has a big footprint in the Middle East.
Despite its strategic need to stay on the West's good side for its own economic development, Libya has not shied away from at least entertaining these Russian offers.
As Russia's naval activity increases, its ships will expand their port calls around the world. As for Libya, agreeing to host Russian warships is Tripoli's way of telling the West it still has options on the table. This
places Tripoli in a prime bargaining position between Russia and the West. The Europeans and the Americans need Libya for energy resources and cooperation in counterterrorism. The last thing they want is the Russians
sweet-talking Tripoli into deals that would allow Moscow to needle the West from its old Soviet stronghold in North Africa. At least to Washington, Russian warships docking off the Libyan coast hints at just that outcome.
While the Russians are certainly trying to win Libya's favor, the West probably still has the upper hand. The Americans and the Europeans already have put billions of dollars into Libyan development, with more contracts on the way. With this tug-of-war over Tripoli intensifying, it will now be up to the Russians to either match what the West can contribute or keep sailing.