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Is the US Using the Russia Threat in Libya to Bolster NATO Spending?

Sidi Barrani, Egypt (GPA) Western outlets claim Russia has just deployed troops to Egypt along the Libyan border in order to assist general Khalifa Haftar. Russia and Egypt say this claim is baseless and simply untrue. So who’s lying and why?

Russian Forces in Egypt?

An “exclusive” article from Reuters reports that 22 Russian special forces arrived in Sidi Barrani, Egypt this week. This intelligence information comes from anonymous sources including US officials and Egyptian security forces.

The article conveniently mentions that Sidi Barrani is roughly 60 miles from the Libyan border and explains that the Russian forces have probably arrived for the specific purpose of assisting general Khalifa Haftar in Libya. This is a bold claim to make with minimal intel. But is it true? Or could it be true?

Russia & Egypt Both Deny Claims

According to Reuters, their anonymous Egyptian source was quick to explain that a Russian special forces unit had indeed arrived in Sidi Barrani, but “declined to discuss its mission.” On the other hand, Egyptian army spokesman Tamer al-Rifai was quick to deny such accusations. “There is no foreign soldier from any foreign country on Egyptian soil. This is a matter of sovereignty,” he said.

Russia also brushed off the accusations. The chair of Russia’s Federal Defense and Security Committee, Victor Ozerov called the claims “yet another anti-Russian attack,” and a hoax. A spokesman from the Russian Defense Ministry also states that no Russian troops have been deployed to either country and calls claims nothing but baseless accusations:

There are no Russian special forces in Sidi Barrani. Some Western media have been disturbing the public with such reports, citing anonymous sources for several years now… And ever more foolish and indecent with regard to American intelligence are the words of the ‘source’ quoted by Reuters, who said that ‘intelligence activity of the United States into the [actions] of the Russian military are complicated because of the involvement of contractors and agents in civilian clothes,’” Russian Defense Ministry’s official spokesman, Igor Konashenkov said.

If Russia had in fact just deployed special forces to assist general Haftar would they deny it? Probably, so one shouldn’t rule out the claim entirely. But this also is exactly the kind of claim CIA and the Pentagon would make in order to justify more military intervention in Libya and NATO military spending.

READ MORE: Gen. Haftar Of Libyan National Army Meets With Russian Defense Minister

Nudging NATO Members to Pay Their “Fair Share”?

As far as the United States is concerned, ISIS has been defeated in Libya. With ISIS no longer threat #1 to Libya’s stability, Washington can now direct their attention to any opposition that threatens the UN-backed Government of National Accord and hegemony in Libya. This would essentially make the rival Libyan National Army lead by Khalifa Haftar the new enemy #1.

During Trump’s campaign, he promised to be tough on Russia but at the same time claimed NATO is “obsolete.” However when pressed for more information, Trump never promised to eliminate NATO. Rather, he claimed most NATO members weren’t paying their fair share.

So how do you get NATO members to pay what Trump considers a fair share? One simple way is to revive tensions in regions NATO already has an interest in. Putting Syria aside for a second, one’s attention is immediately drawn to two places: North Korea and now Libya.

Italy for example is one of only six NATO countries that spends less than 1% of its GDP on military defense– exactly the kind of country Trump complained about on the campaign trail. It’s no coincidence that Italy has been heavily involved in rebuilding and assisting Libya with the migrant crisis.

If the West can stoke fears that the Russians are assisting the opposition in Libya, they can nudge certain NATO countries (like Italy) to spend more on defense. It would also be an opportunistic excuse for Washington to increase military involvement and support for Egypt. If Trump wants to expand the military budget by some $54 billion, his administration is going to have to find more places to spend it. Keep an eye on naval operations in the gulf, a beefed-up presence in Asia, and of course North Africa.

READ MORE: Italian Embassy Reopens in Tripoli

Is Russia Innocent?

So using the Russian threat in Libya is very convenient for the US, and it could very well be a lie. But could the Russians be the one’s lying? On one hand, Egyptian and Russian officials have denied the accusations and have no problem with their names being attached to said statements. The western outlets only use anonymous sources.

At this point in the game, Egypt is an ally to the US. But el Sisi has expressed support for Khalifa Haftar in the past. Admitting to assisting Russia in Libya would give the Egyptian government shaky footing with the United States. Egypt certainly wouldn’t want to lose it’s annual aid package. Especially not while their “bread crisis” is under scrutiny from the West. But at the same time, Egypt is expecting more military assistance to come from Russia this year as well.

Russia cooperating with General Khalifa Haftar wouldn’t be completely unprecedented either. In as recently as January Haftar met with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to discuss medical assistance, counter-terrorism, and Russian support for the Libyan National Army. Russian influence in North Africa would certainly be a blow to US hegemony in the region.

But are the statements from anonymous sources enough to back-up the West’s claims that Russian special forces are on the ground in Egypt ready to assist Haftar? Or is everyone in this situation just banking on opportunism? Probably the latter.

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Also published on Medium.