Russia and Turkey – allies and enemies at the same time – used the US’s “absence” from the Middle East to increase their influence in the region. America’s expected “return” to the global arena under Joe Biden means that Washington will face a new reality on the ground where Moscow and Ankara are strengthening their positions. Nowhere is this most glaringly obvious than in Libya, where a new interim government was appointed at the end of a UN-sponsored meeting in February. And no issue drives the Moscow-Ankara axis of defiance against Washington as much as energy.
Energy is one of the most important segments in relations between Russia and Turkey, between whom trade reached $26.3 billion in 2019. Russia’s state-owned nuclear-energy giant, Rosatom, is building a nuclear plant in Turkey’s Mersin province. The Akkuyu plant, when completed in 2024, will provide about 10 percent of Turkey’s electricity. Of course, Turkey will still be highly dependent on fossil fuel, and for that it will, again, remain highly dependent on Russia, principally for natural gas through the TurkStream pipeline.
This, however, does not mean Ankara has put all its eggs in one basket. Turkey already is trying to diversify its gas supplies.
Enter, Libya. Turkey’s activities in Libya, including a maritime border deal, could eventually allow Ankara to extract natural gas directly from the Mediterranean, instead of buying it from Russia. (Admittedly, this possibility is fraught with many difficulties.) But it is also in Libya that Ankara and Moscow confront each other in geostrategic competition – and the UN’s Libyan Political Dialogue Forum that ended last week won’t change anything.
Over the past few years, Turkey has secured a long-term military-political presence in Libya, whose oil reserves are believed to be the largest in Africa and the ninth-largest in the world. But to secure the oil, and potentially natural-gas supplies, Turkey must establish control over the energy-rich Sirte province of the country.
Those plans now look troubled, at least for now. Ankara’s attempts to use proxies to advance through the town of Sirte to the oil fields of Cyrenaica last year were unsuccessful. Now, with an interim government agreed, further military action is unlikely for the moment.
This leaves the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Khalifa Haftar in control over large parts of the oil industry and port facilities on the coast. Turkey recently accused Haftar, who launched an oil blockade and closed oil wells in the war-torn country for months, of selling oil through illegal corporations. Doing so allowed Haftar to raise more funds and to maintain support from foreign players.
While Turkey still has partial control over oil fields in western Tripolitania, it considers this only a consolation prize. The province of Sirte is key to its calculations. That’s why Ankara will keep strengthening its position in the eastern region and to look for ways to establish at least partial control over assets there. To this end, it has the support of Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the designated prime minister from the west of the country that is under the control of the Turkey-sponsored Government of National Accord, who called Turkey his country’s “friend and ally.”
On the other side of the country, Mohamed Al-Manfi, the head of the new three-man presidential council, was reassured that Moscow, a sponsor of the LNA, would press on and strengthen Russian-Libyan cooperation.
The result is that, an east-west interim government notwithstanding, the Russia-Turkey geopolitical binary continues in Libya. Both will be heavily involved in the ongoing peace and political processes, as well as preparations for December elections – which are already viewed by some with much skepticism. But apart from a statement issued at the end of the UN meeting – a joint statement at that, with Britain, France, Germany and Italy – the US remains largely absent.
It has been said that Moscow managed to gain a foothold in the region because Barack Obama allowed it. As for Turkey, a lack of consistent policy direction from the Trump administration opened up opportunities that Ankara gladly exploited. Indeed, analysts have mulled over how Turkey might park its soon-to-be-commissioned aircraft carrier offshore Libya as a gamechanger – such is the level of strategic boldness being contemplated in the absence of a robust American commitment.
Already entrenched in the region for years, Russia and Turkey (but also Iran and China) are expected to keep spreading their influence despite the US’s “return.” (Note to the Biden team: issuing an earlier statement from the UN calling on Russia, Turkey and the UAE to leave Libya alone doesn’t quite carry the same force than if it were issued from the White House or State Department. Unless, of course, the administration didn’t really mean much by it.) For the moment, the unlucky recipient of such great foreign attention is Libya. Watch it closely for how the game might progress.
Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”