Aydar Rashidovich Aganin is one of Russia’s best Arabists. He has served in Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, and the United States. From 2007 to 2011, he ran Russia Today’s Arabic edition, which is today one of the most influential news outlets in the entire Arab world. He was one of Vladimir Putin’s close advisors on the Middle East in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Policy Planning Department. As of last month, he is the Russian ambassador to Libya.
Putin’s man in Tripoli is there for good reason. At a time when Russia needs all hands on deck as it wages its war in Ukraine, the decision to dispatch one of Russia’s best and brightest regional experts to Libya—a country that the West evidently considers to be a backwater—is telling. While Western diplomats continue to chatter kalam fadi, or empty talk, about “elections” or a “constitutional settlement” or other vague promises, Russia has an opportunity. Aganin’s appointment is a sign that Russia plans to take it, and the West had better watch out.
As the world watches the war in Ukraine, Russia is probing the rest of the world for weak spots. While it is true that Russia is somewhat drawing down its presence in Syria, it has not lost its influence in the Middle East. The influence of Russia over OPEC was made clear just one year ago, when Saudi Arabia refused to increase oil production to support the rest of the global economy. Russia’s influence in Syria has sufficed to stop Israel from helping Ukraine with even defensive systems. Russia’s influence over Iran destroyed the resurrection of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in March. And in Libya, too many Libyan politicians owe their lives and careers to Russian weapons and Russian mercenaries for Moscow to be excluded—not that there is any incentive. Now is the perfect time to call in those debts, and Putin knows it.
Today, Libya occasionally appears in Western news. Nine times out of ten, Libyan oil flows need to be disrupted for the West to recall its existence. When NATO intervened in Libya, it baked half a regime change cake but did not succeed in finishing the job. The batter has long turned sour. The myth of Arab dictators—that, in their absence, only chaos can reign—got a new lease on life when Libya’s brief experiment with democracy failed in the absence of support from a non-committal NATO, which was scarred from the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan and clueless about how to handle a country it had long ignored. After a half-hearted attempt at creating a democracy, Libya had a second civil war. The West could not decide on what approach to take. Following another failed attempt to impose a new dictator, Khalifa Haftar, on Libya, the West pushed pause. It has tried to preserve that status quo ever since. But Russia has no interest in calm.
Putin’s only way out of his Ukrainian Vietnam is to force the West into stopping Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy from trying to achieve a total victory. To do that, he can use the West’s greatest advantage against it: democracy. Just as Russian bombs fall on Ukrainian houses, Russia sought to freeze Europeans in their homes this winter and will try to squeeze their pockets throughout 2023, at the gas pump, at the electricity meter, and wherever else they can. In addition to that, Russia has a Trojan Horse in NATO. Turkey’s half-hearted support for Ukraine has helped Russia prolong its bloody campaign while the West’s economic blockade on Russia has created economic opportunities for the Erdoğan government. Furthermore, Turkey’s reluctance to accept Sweden into NATO has been an obvious favor to Putin. Libya is another low-hanging fruit to do this. Without a government, without a constitution, without rule of law, and full of hired-gun militias, Libya can quickly become a headache. While Libya’s warlords are content with their bribes today, a skilled diplomat, with no competition from his Western counterparts, could change that very quickly.
For a political operative looking to make Europe’s life a little more miserable, Libya is a land of opportunity. In Aganin, Putin has sent a skilled pair of hands to pluck ripe fruit. Aganin can easily ask any militia to blockade or sabotage an oil pump, taking hundreds of thousands of barrels away from the West. He could have gas pipelines sabotaged. He could use his obvious flair for the Arabic language and deep familiarity with Arab culture, which his Western counterparts also lack, to charm Libya’s tribes into thinking that they would be better served by Russia. He could work with any number of thugs to try and force migrants from across the Middle East and Africa to Europe en masse. In a more extreme case, he could work with one of Libya’s many political strongmen to try and force the country back into civil war. It also works in Russia’s favor in the rest of Africa, giving Russia an outlet of influence in the Sahel as well as even more leverage over Egypt.
How can the West respond? The truth is, it cannot. To do so would require putting serious thought into how to end Libya’s decade of political misery and sending skilled diplomats of its own who can engage with tribal leaders and build a Libyan consensus. To do so would require a willingness to use just part of its vast economic and political power to threaten Libya’s strongmen. The very least the West could do is threaten no more shopping trips to London, no more holidays in the South of France, no more pizza in Rome unless you can provide a decent life for your own people. But they have not done this for a decade. Why would they start now? When the oil stops flowing again, and it will, they should not blame Aganin. They can blame only themselves.
Burak Bilgehan Özpek is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara. Özpek is also one of the founders of Daktilo1984 Movement in Turkey.