The advance of the army of general Khalifa Belqasim Haftar towards Tripoli raises again the issue of Russia’s ambitions to control Libya’s deep-water ports of Tobruk and Derna, like reported by portseurope.com.
For Moscow, the port of Tobruk is an ideal logistics and technical base for its navy, on the doorstep of Southern Europe. It is rumoured that Russia already has established two small military bases in the eastern part of Libya. Tobruk (Tobruck, Tubruq, Tobruch, Tubruk) is a port on Libya’s eastern Mediterranean coast, near the border with Egypt.
The sailing distance from Tobruk to the port of Valletta in Malta is only 214 nautical miles. From Tobruk, Moscow could control the transportation of oil to southern Europe in case it gains a foothold in Libya’s energy industry.
It is widely reported that Russian private military company Wagner Group controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin from President Putin’s inner circle has been supporting Haftar, the rebel commander of Libya’s breakaway eastern half, with hundreds of mercenaries, and provided his Libyan National Army (LNA) with arms, drones and ammunition
Field Marshal (general) Haftar is a Libyan-American and the head of the LNA, currently engaged in the Second Libyan Civil War. Haftar served in the Libyan army under the ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He also took part in the coup that brought Gaddafi to power in 1969, but later tried to topple Gaddafi.
In April, Moscow also established the Libyan Russian Oil & Gas Joint Company in Benghazi in order to guarantee for itself access to Libya oil and gas riches. Haftar’s LNA has been seizing oilfields in a campaign that began in January.
Moscow is backing Haftar also because it wants its navy to have access to Tobruk, which is a better positioned and equipped warm water port than Russia’s existing Mediterranean facility at Tartus in Syria. Russia also has printed banknotes for the Tobruk government loyal to Haftar. A “warm water port” is a port where the water does not freeze in winter. Because they are available year-round, warm water ports can be of great geopolitical or economic interest,
Russia is also eyeing the oil storage facility at Tripoli port in Libya, 30 kilometres from the Syrian border and 60 kilometres from the port of Tartus.
Russia is expected to sign by the end of April a 49-year lease contract for the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus, according to Russian deputy prime minister Yury Borisov. The agreement includes possible extensions by 25-year periods.
The agreement to rent Tartus was provisionally reached in 2018. The use of the port will give Russia influence over eastern Mediterranean. It also allows Russian Navy to expand its technical support and logistics base, located on the northern edge of the port of Tartus.
Tartus is the Russian Navy’s only Mediterranean port facility, sparing Russia’s warships the trip back to their Black Sea bases through the Bosphorus Strait. It is the Russian Navy’s only overseas base. In the Syrian civil war, Russia sided with and saved the regime in Damascus.
The Tartus military facility, leased in 2017 also for a 49-year period, can currently accommodate up to four medium-sized vessels but only if both of its 100 m floating piers are operational.
Russia was preparing the ground for taking over Tartus for years. In October 2018 Syria’s Transport Ministry said it is cooperating with Russian company Stroytransgaz in a project to expand the seaport of Tartus.
Last week, the Syrian authorities have concluded a 49-year investment contract with Stroytransgaz for the expansion and operation of the port of Tartus, transport minister Ali Hamud said.
A total of $500 million (€449.5 million) will be invested in the reconstruction of the port, including the expansion of the port in the north and the construction of new infrastructure. As a result, its handling capacity should increase from the current 4 million to 38 million tonnes per annum.
The minister noted that the experience of working with a Russian company in Tartus could be extended to other Syrian ports.
Stroytransgaz has been operating in Syria since 2000. To date, contracts have also been implemented for the construction of the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) with a length of 319 kilometres and the gas processing plant No. 1 (South Middle Area Gas Exploitation Project) – GPP-1.