Vladimir Putin has pulled off a significant diplomatic coup by arranging a mini-summit in Moscow between the two sides in Libya’s long-running civil war.
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army forces in the east, and Fayez al-Sarraj, the leader of the UN-recognised government in Tripoli, held eight hours of indirect talks rather than meeting face-to-face but the presence of the two sides in the Russian capital is a confirmation of Russia’s increasingly important role in Libya.
Divided European countries have failed to bring about an end to an increasingly bloody nine-month assault on Tripoli by Haftar.
The Tripoli government led by al-Sarraj signed a truce deal, consolidating an agreement the two men separately made for a ceasefire over the weekend, but Haftar asked for further time to consult on the proposal.
The ceasefire, demanded jointly by Moscow and Turkey last week, came into force on Sunday, but was sporadically broken.
Sarraj had previously demanded that Haftar’s troops withdraw to their positions before the start of their April offensive. A ceasefire is seen as a necessary precursor to wider talks. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, will also be present at the Moscow meeting.
If the two Libyan antagonists met face to face it would not be for the first time, but it would be the first direct meeting since Haftar launched his attack on Tripoli, which has been denounced by Sarraj as a war crime.
The two men have previously met face to face in Abu Dhabi and in Paris to sign various peace agreements that have then fallen apart.
Only last week Sarraj refused to go ahead with a planned meeting in Rome with the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, after he learned that Conte was also meeting Haftar. Sarraj finally went ahead with the Rome meeting on Saturday, but without Haftar.
Russia has increased its leverage in Libya by allowing a small number of Russian mercenaries tied to the private Wagner Group to operate near Tripoli on behalf of Haftar. Putin insists if any Russian troops are operating they do not have his sanction.
The diplomatic jockeying between Europe, Turkey and Russia over Libya is significant since the country credited with finally bringing peace to Libya is likely to benefit in terms of diplomatic prestige and even future contracts.
Although Libya and Syria are very different cases, there are some parallels with the way an uneasy alliance of Turkey, Russia and Iran grabbed hold of the political negotiations in Syria, wresting the initiative from the US, Europe and the UN.
It is not yet clear if Putin is trying to push Europe out of the peacemaking process, or is willing to work in conjunction with European nations.
Putin met the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the weekend in Russia. Berlin has been due to hold a peace conference with the main interested parties and the array of external actors. Germany announced the much-delayed conference will be held on January 19 in Berlin, in a further sign of diplomatic momentum. The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already said he will attend, along with Conte and Putin.
Italy, once seen as the pre-eminent decision-maker in Libya, has been trying to recover lost ground by proposing a trilateral peace process with Russia and Turkey. Conte has come under ferocious domestic criticism for mishandling the crisis, and for being seen as irrelevant. He is due to meet Erdoğan on Monday.
Separately the new European commission has been seeking to take a more active role.
The EU council president, Charles Michel, on Sunday went to Cairo to talk to the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, one of the strongest backers of Haftar. The new commission, anxious that the US is pulling back in the Middle East, is desperate not to leave a western void filled by Turkey and Russia.
Turkey appears to have bought itself some leverage in the future of Libya talks by announcing it is prepared to send troops there to help up prop up Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA).
Military figures in the GNA claim as many as 500 Russian mercenaries have been operating in southern Tripoli, and there were signs that they were being pulled back from the frontlines at the weekend.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke to Putin on Monday to tell him he supported a ceasefire that was “credible, durable and verifiable”.