Erdogan e Vladimir Putin

What Would a Libyan Ceasefire Mean for Turkish-Russian Relations?

The Daily Sabah reports that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both expressed support for an immediate ceasefire in Libya during a phone call on Thursday night. The two politicians also called for the resumption of the United Nations political process in the African state.

Their calls for peace come as the Russian-backed Libyan National Army (LNA) declared that it was preparing to launch a significant air campaign against Turkish targets “in the coming hours,” according to Bloomberg

The statement suggests a likely escalation in the battle between the Turkish-backed government in Tripoli and the eastern-based LNA forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who may be seeking revenge following the loss of a crucial airbase southwest of Tripoli on Monday. 

Libya: Proxy War Central

Since Muammar Gadhafi was ousted from power in 2011, Libya has become a political playground for both Turkey and Russia. Haftar not only has the support of Russia, but Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli enjoys international recognition.

Turkey and Russia pushed for a resumption of peace talks in January, but the peace process collapsed after the ceasefire was repeatedly violated, and the GNA and the LNA’s foreign supporters continued sending weapons to the country.

The only nation that seems to have gained anything from this conflict is Turkey. The Jerusalem Post’s Seth J. Frantzman argues that Ankara appears to be winning in the African state because it sought to prevent Tripoli from falling to Haftar. This was nothing more than an opportunity for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to prove that he can embarrass major players in the Middle East.

For example, he proved to the US that his nation could slaughter Washington’s former Kurdish partners in the country, and that he can control Iraq’s airspace by bombing it.

Has Russia Lost the Libyan War?

Russia, Egypt and the UAE, meanwhile, seem to be interested in waging a proxy war in Libya to keep the conflict going. It was always unclear what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aims in the country were. Equally, Putin sold Turkey S-400s and agreed to allow Ankara to occupy Afrin, Idlib and Tel Abyad in Syria.

Regardless, Ankara is able to request a ceasefire from a position of strength and this will transform Russian-Turkish relations further. It is difficult to predict what the outcome of a Libyan ceasefire would be, but Turkey would be in a powerful position to dictate peace terms considering it has technically won the war there.

Putin must now accept that Moscow is not the only player battling for control over the Middle East, but both Moscow and Ankara have been allowed to fight over the region because the US has retreated from the global stage.

Russian-Turkish Relations Likely to Strengthen

Like with Syria, both Turkey and Russia have squeezed the US out of Libya. Beyond a potential ceasefire, both nations have an opportunity to collaborate with Iran and exert their control over the Middle East.

Ankara and Moscow are collaborating on a pipeline under the Black Sea called TurkStream, whilst Tehran is seeking to boost trade with Ankara by $30 billion from the $10 billion figure in 2017.

Russia’s war in Libya has been a catastrophic failure and they can only succeed in breaking the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces’ grip over Syria with Turkish help. Moscow must accept that it can either collaborate with Turkey in the long-term or, like with the US, witness its influence in the Middle East being eradicated by an arguably more prominent player. Putin has met his match in Erdogan.

Either way, the US should be deeply concerned that two autocratic regimes are determining events in the Middle East. The 2003 Iraq War and the 2011 Libyan conflict may have killed US voters’ appetite for wars, but without American involvement in the region, Russia and Turkey are only likely to strengthen their ties and become the new superpowers that dominate Middle Eastern geopolitics.