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Russia: Putin Visits Libya For Talks On Energy, Arms

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi (file photo) (epa) Russian President Vladimir Putin is traveling to Tripoli to hold talks with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, a visit in which he hopes to secure key energy and arms deals.

European governments view North Africa as a possible alternative energy supplier that would lessen dependence on Russia. Putin's overarching strategy is to prevent this from happening by cutting deals with energy-rich Libya and Algeria.

Federico Bordonaro, a Rome-based energy analyst with the "Power and Interest News Report," says Putin's strategy in North Africa resembles Moscow's efforts to prevent the West from gaining access to Central Asian energy.

"Putin wants to do with Libya and Algeria what he was trying to do with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and the Central Asian republics," Bordonaro says. "Because in that way the Russians will have deals with these countries that will prevent Western Europe from using these countries as real complete alternatives to Russian gas."

Russia's state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom late last year won the right to explore gas fields in southwestern Libya.

The Tatarstan based oil company Tatneft also has an agreement with Libya to develop oil fields.

"There is no information about which specific agreements will be signed," said Nail Khabibullin, Tatneft's representative in Libya, in comments to RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service. "This will become clear after negotiations between the two leader take place tonight."

Putin's two-day visit follows Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's trip to Libya last week. Ukraine announced on April 14 that its state energy firm, Naftohaz Ukrayiny, had won an agreement to start pumping Libyan oil.

Clearing Soviet-Era Debt

Russian media reports that, in addition to energy, Putin and Qaddafi are expected to discuss arms sales. Interfax quotes defense-industry sources as saying that Putin will try to close a $2.5 billion arms deal including antiaircraft systems, fighter jets, helicopters, submarines, and warships.

Some analysts say the arms deal could be linked to energy concessions and toward clearing Libya's $3.5 billion Soviet-era debt. In 2006, Putin cut an arms-for-debt swap with Algeria, in which Russia also gained key energy concessions.

"Russia always links arms deals and energy deals," Bordonaro explains. "If we recall briefly what happened with Algeria in 2006, what [Putin] did was to cancel most of the Algerian debt with the former Soviet Union and, in exchange, Algeria had to buy Russian weapons systems on one hand. On the other hand, Russia got privileged access to Algerian energy resources."

On his way back from Libya, Putin is expected to make a brief stopover on April 17 in Sardinia, where he will meet Silvio Berlusconi just days after he won reelection to a third nonconsecutive term as Italy's prime minister.

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