In what would normally seem like an unlikely alliance, France and Russia have been not-so-secretly allying with each other in the Libyan civil war. While the UN recognizes the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, Russia has openly supported rogue General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). While France has not officially admitted its support of Haftar’s forces, French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly issued calls for Turkey to cease its support of the GNA.
The Start of Something New
On Friday, June 26, Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a video call and pledged to work together on Libya in addition to other global hotspots, as the New York Times reported.
“If we want to achieve positive results, we need to combine our efforts,” Putin told Macron. “I know about your intention to organize joint work on many of those issues. We will fully support your proposals.”
The two leaders discussed the anniversary of the UN Charter, which is now 75-years-old, and the coronavirus pandemic that prevents Macron from visiting Moscow, which he intends to do once the threat of the virus subsides. When the discussion turned to Libya, however, Macron ironically expressed the need to prevent foreign interference, by which he means Turkey.
Macron Calls on Putin to Help End ‘Dangerous Cycle’
Calling it a “dangerous cycle,” Macron appealed to Putin to work with him in what has quickly become a lost cause for the GNA and its allies. Thanks to Ankara’s bolstering support of the GNA, Haftar’s forces have been locked out of Tripoli and their attacks repelled.
France’s embroilment with Russia and its refusal to side with the GNA are two oddities in modern geopolitics. Firstly, Russia has meddled or attempted to meddle in nearly every foreign state it can. In the 2016 US elections, Moscow was there sponsoring social media disinformation campaigns and the same with Brexit.
It attempted to assassinate a former operative in Salisbury, England, and then managed actually to do so in Berlin. It has tried to undermine NATO at every opportunity and annexed part of Ukraine without consequence. In short, Russia is indisputably an enemy of the West, which begs the question: why is Macron turning to Putin as if he is an ally?
Choosing Russia Over Turkey
Turning to the Libya situation, the West has made it abundantly clear that it supports the UN–recognized government. The GNA was created with unanimous consent from the UN Security Council, of which both France and Russia are permanent members. Russia’s refusal to back the GNA should come as no surprise, because the situation quickly deteriorated into a ‘West vs Others’ proxy battle for political influence over the African state.
France’s defection is more curious, however. It is one part an economic move and another part Macron’s first attempt to usher in a new era for French influence. When Macron came to power, the GNA was still newly minted under Macron’s predecessor. Indeed, Macron invited Haftar to Paris as an attempt to secure a peace accord, as POLITICO reported.
‘Half Naiveté, Half Opportunism’
“Macron was misadvised into thinking that Libya could be a quick win for his charisma,” said Tarek Megerisi, a Libyan researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “He underestimated the complexity of the country. It was half naiveté, half opportunism. He tried to rely on military personnel to solve a political problem.”
It was also an attempt to correct former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s perceived error in being too lenient with late Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.
Economic concerns, primarily oil-related, led Macron to believe backing Haftar is the best chance for stability in Libya. The reality is that Paris’ support of the general has put France in a precarious position and oddly given it justification for building a bridge between Paris and Moscow.
Their budding friendship unites not only in Libya, but also on a regional scale against Turkey. Macron has used the opportunity to criticize Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but Ankara actually stands with the UN in this rare case. The French president has also used it as an opportunity to call Turkey’s NATO obligations into question.
“Turkey is supposed to be a NATO partner, so this cannot continue,” an official for Macron said.
Turkey Gains Upper Hand in UN
GNA forces have already maintained control of the military situation on the ground, but soon the Libyan government may gain an upper hand in the UN. Although it was already the UN-recognized government, the recent election of Volkan Bozkir, the first Turkish president of the UN General Assembly, could alter the power dynamic.
Bozkir, a close Erdogan ally and fierce defender of Ankara, comes into his new post with a strong bias. He declared his intention to pursue International peace and where better to start than Libya? It would be difficult to imagine Bozkir supporting anything other than the GNA and restoration of Tripoli’s rightful government which will also be an easy point to sell to the West.
Macron, who has been positioning France as an international power capable of cutting deals and keeping the peace, will have to reconcile his continued devotion to Haftar’s cause. In the larger scheme, Paris will also be faced with the challenge of defending its new ties with Russia, a well-known adversary of the West and NATO.