Why Russia and the United States Should Cooperate in Libya

It is imperative for Russia and the United States to work together to stabilize the situation in Libya and rebuild the country’s infrastructure and state institutions, for the sake of strengthening local, regional, and global security.

Nine years after NATO intervention caused the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, Libya’s main state institutions remain utterly decimated. The country has been ravaged by a brutal civil war for the past nine years. External actors have sought to exploit Libya’s weakness and further their own geopolitical and security interests. The country has become a breeding ground for jihadist radicals, with al-Qaeda the Islamic State, and many more all operating on Libya’s territory during the past decade. The initial cause that sparked Libya’s transition to becoming a failed state was of course yet another poorly thought out NATO intervention, which destroyed the country’s institutions and infrastructure with no plan to ensure Libya’s safe transition to democracy.

Unfortunately, it is the Libyan people who will be forced to pay the price for NATO’s strategic misjudgments. However, analyzing the past is currently of limited value, especially considering the fact that Libya’s current instability is a security threat to both Russian and American interests, and so there are areas where the two great powers can cooperate for the safety of the wider global community.

One of the most obvious points of mutual interest for Russia and the US is countering the threat of an increasingly assertive Turkey. Through his actions in the Syrian and Libyan wars, President Erdogan has made it clear that he is seeking to regain Ottoman glory and has been projecting Turkish military power more and more aggressively to that end. Such power projection has an extremely destabilizing effect on a region that is already one of the most volatile in the world. Although the world has managed to avoid any significant interstate conflicts in the region in the 21st century, it will not take much for one of the currently ongoing civil wars to escalate and spill over into neighboring states, especially given the involvement of aggressive external actors such as Turkey.

Turkey has deployed Syrian mercenaries (many of whom fought for extremist groups such as Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria) to help the GNA’s forces. This has shifted the balance in favor of the GNA, but simultaneously made the conflict even more complex, and the more complex a conflict is, the less likely it will be solved in an effective manner due to the sheer number of parties and interests involved. Thus, it would be in the interests of both Russia and the US to at least temporarily coordinate their policies in such a way that would both help resolve the crisis and also lessen Turkish influence over Libya.

For example, the US and Russia could both engage in initiatives to reconstruct Libya’s destroyed infrastructure, because if they do not do so, then Turkey will, and as a consequence, it will gain another ally in the region when the crisis is ultimately resolved.

Another self-evident motivation for the US and Russia to cooperate in Syria is the battle against terrorism. Both the US and Russia have suffered greatly from terrorism in the past and both countries know how difficult it is to confront the stateless and faceless enemy. Because of this, the two states also appreciate the utmost significance of not allowing hotbeds of radicalization to ferment. This is easier on a domestic level where radical preachers and radicalized individuals are found with relative ease using the resources of domestic intelligence agencies.

Unfortunately, the task becomes much harder when radicalization is occurring in a warzone. In 2021, an entire generation of Libyans, whose formative years were characterized by violence and destruction, is maturing and coming of age. Many of these young men will turn to radical ideology since it does such an effective job of providing explanations for the horrors that they face in life. These men will put the blame for the state of their country at the feet of external actors such as the USA and Russia, and they will believe that they are righteous warriors engaged in an existential clash of civilizations.

This process is happening in Libya right now. The same happened in Syria when the Islamic State exploited the chaos in Syria to launch attacks in Europe. In order to prevent such a scenario from occurring in Libya, Russia and the US must use all of their combined diplomatic, economic, and possibly even military power to stabilize the situation in Libya and rebuild its infrastructure. Otherwise, if this is not done, the consequences are sure to be felt. Maybe not immediately, but a few years down the line the world is sure to start seeing attacks carried out by individuals who were radicalized as a result of the Syrian civil war.

Finally, another consideration that needs to be taken into account when thinking about Libya, is that it is one of the most important locations for migrants and refugees from the region to cross over into Europe. When considered in tandem with the aforementioned concerns about terrorism, it becomes evident that a stable Libya is necessary in order to ensure that border crossings can be managed properly.

In the current chaos, Libya’s sea border is impossible to police effectively, and all manner of unsavory characters can make their way into the EU (including radicalized individuals). This is a major security threat to the EU and to the entire global system as Libya’s porous border could be providing a gateway for terrorists to enter the region. Thus, it is imperative for Russia and the US to work together to stabilize the situation in Libya and rebuild the country’s infrastructure and state institutions, for the sake of strengthening local, regional, and global security.

Igor Aunapu is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC). His areas of expertise include the Middle East, international security, and Russia-U.S. relations.