Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a brief visit to Libya on April 16-17. It was the first visit by a Russian president to Libya, which only emerged from isolation after eleven years of UN sanctions in 2003.
It was part of a regional trip including a stay at Italian Prime Minister-elect Silvio Berlusconi's villa in Sardinia, with Russia's economic interests -- an important part of Moscow's diplomacy -- at its centre.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's mid-April visit to Libya had three primary goals:
· The first was to demonstrate that Russia was again a major player in Middle Eastern affairs, as the Soviet Union had been before it collapsed in 1991.
· The second was to obtain joint ventures for Russian oil and natural gas companies, at a time when Russia itself is having increasing trouble meeting both its domestic needs and export commitments.
· The last was to negotiate contracts for Russian high-tech companies and seize the opportunity to rebuild Libya's sanctions-damaged infrastructure.
The immediate results were few. The Russian side appears to have persuaded Libya to accept its figure for the debt owed for Soviet-era arms supplies -- 4.5 billion dollars (Libya had put it at 1.6 billion). The debt, which might otherwise have to be written off, may now provide work for Russian companies, on the lines of the agreement with Algeria. However, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who was among the team accompanying Putin, said the arrears would only fall as Libyan payments reached Russian bank accounts. The only firm commitment to emerge during the visit was a railway-building contract. Expectations before the trip of big arms deals have yet to be realised.
Showing the flag. Putin's visit to Libya is the latest of a series of visits to the Middle East which the Russian leader has undertaken since he began re-energising the Russian position in the region in 2005. In 2007 alone, he visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Iran. Taking advantage of the weakened US position in the Middle East due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process, Putin has adopted an anti-US stance in the region. He has tried to demonstrate that Russia, if not yet an alternative to the United States in the Middle East, is a power whose interests must be taken into consideration, and which could prove a good friend to both the Arabs and Iran.
The visit to Libya fits into this pattern. Putin made sure to continue his anti-US posturing by visiting the so-called 'Memorial to barbaric imperialistic aggression' -- the site where US planes bombed Libya in 1986 after Libyan agents had undertaken a terrorist attack against a discotheque frequented by US forces in Germany -- and signing the memorial book.
In addition, Libya has a special importance in Russian strategy because it currently sits on the UN Security Council. Since the Security Council is one of the institutions that Russia has sought to use to limit unilateral US actions around the world, close coordination with Libya, as epitomised by the Putin visit and a probable return visit by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi to Moscow, makes good diplomatic sense. To further cement their diplomatic cooperation, Russia and Libya signed a declaration of friendship and cooperation during the visit.
Oil and gas interests. In recent years, Russia has met increasing difficulty in producing sufficient natural gas and oil to meet its growing domestic needs as well as its export commitments. Its efforts to secure cheap Turkmen gas to augment its own dwindling supplies met with failure after the death of President Saparmurat Niyazov ('Turkmenbashi'), as his successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov demanded -- and got -- an end to the low prices at which Turkmenistan was selling its gas to Russia. Russia has expressed interest in creating an international natural gas cartel (the informal Gas Exporting Countries' Forum next meets in June in Moscow), but problems with Algeria and Qatar have created difficulties for Russian policymakers. Russia ran into another problem when the Shia-dominated government of Iraq, angry at Moscow for supporting Saddam Hussein, recently again refused to restore the Russian concession -- annulled in 2002 -- to the potentially highly lucrative West Qurna oil field. Consequently, as it debates the advisability of inviting foreign oil companies to develop its Arctic and off-shore oil and natural gas fields, the availability of relatively easily accessible Libyan oil and gas deposits looks increasingly attractive.
On the first day of the Putin visit, Russian energy giant Gazprom signed a memorandum of cooperation with Libya's National Oil Company for a joint venture covering -- according to Gazprom head Aleksei Miller -- all aspects of the gas and oil sector, from geological prospecting to extraction, transport and sale. Gazprom acquired seven operating licences in Libya in 2006-07, and is considering asset swaps with its Italian strategic partner Eni, including its interests in Libya