President Trump's team needs to take care to prevent Libya from falling under the sway of Russia, according to U.S. policymakers and experts.
"It is important that in Libya, whatever government gets installed, it's not another puppet government of Russia," New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Washington Examiner.
Libya, which has experienced chaos as warring factions have strive for power following the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, has emerged as the next theater of Russian President Vladimir Putin's plan to expand his influence on the world stage. As crises in Syria and Ukraine have pit Russia against the West, Putin's team has sent forces to Libya to support a leading warlord and added the nation to his diplomatic agenda.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is hosting the European Union's top diplomat at the end of April. "The parties will discuss the state of and prospects for Russia-EU relations and key international problems, including the situation in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Libya, the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Deal), Middle East settlement, and the fight against international terrorism," the Russian Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday.
That bulletin, which echoed the Russian preview of Lavrov's meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was released one day after Putin hosted Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the Kremlin to discuss foreign policy. That was the second high-level visit by an Italian official to Moscow in three weeks, as Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano made his own trek to talk to Lavrov. That meeting alarmed some U.S. lawmakers, who worried that it might provide Russia an avenue for cutting energy agreements that undermine the economic sanctions imposed by the West in retaliation for Russia's aggression in Ukraine.
Italy is a key player in any international diplomacy involving Libya, Russia and other Western allies. It is a member of the EU, NATO and the G-7, but it has a tradition of strong ties with Russia, relative to other Western powers.
"Foreign direct investment from Russia going into Italy, it's pretty high, so they've got economically a lot to sustain by maintaining relations," the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Boris Zilberman, an expert on the Middle East and Russia, told the Washington Examiner.
Italy has long counted Libya within its sphere of influence. The two countries are separated by less than 300 miles, so it has been on the front lines of a refugee crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of people flee North Africa for Europe.
That leaves Italy with a particularly strong interest in Russia's activity in Libya. "We hope for a constructive approach on the part of Moscow, and its understanding that stabilizing the situation in Libya and the Mediterranean is quite important for Italy," Mattarella said during a joint press conference with Putin.
Russia might hope to convince Italy to undermine the Ukraine-related economic sanctions, but western leaders don't expect that to happen directly. "We have a very strong bilateral relationship with Italy," acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on Wednesday. "Italy's a very strong friend and partner to the United States. And we believe, as I said, that regardless of who is meeting with Russian leadership, they're hearing the same message."
Those economic sanctions give Russia an additional incentive to play powerbroker in Libya, however. Rosneft, a state-run energy company that was targeted by the west following the Ukraine crisis, has struck an energy agreement with Libya's National Oil Corporation. The corporation is officially controlled by rivals of Haftar, Russia's partner in the country, but the general's forces control the most of the actual oil reserves.
Zilberman suggests that Italy wants "to have their cake and eat it, too" when it comes to Russia. Does that make them more likely to support Haftar, or another Libyan power player who could be expected to throw Russia's energy sector a lifeline?
Engel, who emphasized that Italy will stand with the west "when the chips are down" on an issue such as G-7 sanctions, isn't certain. "It might be a concession that Italy might decide down the road to make but we have no way of knowing that," he said.
The New York lawmaker knows one thing, however. "Whoever is installed in Libya, we have to do everything we can to make sure it's a government that will work with us and not work with Putin," Engel said.