public diplomacy

While you were sleeping, Russia began to fill the Middle East power vacuum

Libya Flags

U.S. and Libyan Flags (Photo/U.S. Embassy in Libya)

Over the past eight months, Russia’s state-sponsored news media have provided extensive coverage of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Many scholars have argued that this coverage may be an attempt by the Kremlin to undermine western democracy and the U.S. electoral process. But one potential objective has been ignored: distraction. Russia appears to be consciously feeding the narrative that it interfered in the U.S. election, while also burying news of its recent aggression in Libya and Egypt. While the U.S. continues to focus exclusively on Russia’s electoral meddling, Moscow’s attempts to fill the Middle East power vacuum have gone unchecked.

Following the inauguration of President Trump, the Putin regime ramped up its efforts to further Moscow’s influence in the Middle East. Russia has been particularly involved in the ongoing civil war in Libya. The Kremlin has backed Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a former Ghadafi-loyalist who opposes Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli. Russia views Fayez al-Sarraj’s Tripoli-based government as a NATO puppet regime installed to help the West gain access to Libyan oil fields. Haftar has visited Moscow twice this year and Russian Special Forces have been spotted on an Egyptian military base near the Libyan border. Analysts say that with Russian military assistance, the Libyan National Army may be able to take over the country and institute a military-led regime.

Moscow’s influence in Egypt also appears to be growing. The Kremlin recently increased its arms sales to the country and Russia’s state-run nuclear energy company, Rosatom, was contracted by the Egyptian government to construct a power plant along the Egyptian coast. Russia has also continued to cultivate relations with Turkey, recently inviting President Erdogan to talks on Syria while excluding the U.S.

While Russia has been pursuing further geopolitical influence in the Middle East, the Kremlin and its state-run media organizations have remained largely silent on the topic. President Putin has yet to comment on whether Russia’s military is supporting the LNA, and the only official Kremlin statement that has been issued came from the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, who told RIA Novosti, “Certain western mass media have been stirring up the public for years with such false information from anonymous sources.” The Kremlin’s major state-sponsored media organizations, RT and Sputnik, have provided sparse coverage of Russia’s involvement in Libya and Egypt. RT wrote only three articles in March about Russia’s intervention in Libya while Sputnik featured 10. In comparison, Sputnik wrote 937 articles in March about Russia’s military involvement in Syria. Eight of the 10 articles in Sputnik alleged that a report Reuters published about Russian military sightings along the Libyan border were “grossly inaccurate.” U.S. Africacom later confirmed the validity of the Reuters report. The other two articles claimed that Libya was in a state of chaos and emphasized the growing levels of violence in the country. Both RT and Sputnik referred to the UN-backed Libyan government as “illegal armed groups” and “militants” and stressed the need for stability in the region.

Despite RT and Sputnik’s limited coverage of Russia’s actions in Libya and Egypt, they have both extensively covered the investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In March, Sputnik published over 387 stories about the House Intelligence Committee hearings and Russia’s involvement in the U.S. presidential election. The majority of the articles about the investigation focused on the undemocratic nature of the hearings and criticized FBI Director Comey’s lack of transparency. The Putin regime has also begun to publicly insert itself into the conversation on Russian electoral interference. During a CNBC-moderated panel on March 30, President Putin said, “All those things are fictional, illusory and provocations, lies. All these are used for domestic American political agendas.” Two days later, the Russian Foreign Ministry set up an automated telephone switchboard for embassies as an April Fools Day prank that included a fake voicemail offering services of “election interference” and “hackers.” The recording said, “To arrange a call from a Russian diplomat to your political opponent, press 1. To use the services of Russian hackers, press 2. To request election interference, press 3 and wait until the next election campaign.”

Throughout the past few months, the Kremlin’s spokespeople and state-run media organizations have overwhelmed audiences with hundreds of stories about investigations into Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election. The Kremlin has also begun to actively insert itself into U.S. news stories through strong denials of responsibility and April Fools Day pranks. At the same time, RT and Sputnik have written only a combined 18 articles about Russia’s actions in Libya and President Putin has yet to publicly address the issue. It seems as if Russia is attempting to distract attention from its actions in the Middle East by keeping Western focus on Russia’s electoral interference.

Mark Toner.png

So far, it appears to be working. The United States has done little to address Russia’s aggression in Libya. While the U.S. State Department repeatedly expressed its “deep concern over the escalation of violence” in Libya during the final months of the Obama administration, it has not commented on Russia’s aggression in Libya since February 11, 2017. As a result, the U.S. media have maintained its focus on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and have spent little time covering Russia’s actions in the Middle East. If the United States hopes to maintain its influence in the region, it must challenge the Kremlin’s information campaign by addressing Russia’s actions in Libya, Egypt and Turkey.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.



8 thoughts on “While you were sleeping, Russia began to fill the Middle East power vacuum

  1. This blog demonstrates that distractions play a large role in public diplomacy. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the April Fools Day prank set up by the Russian Foreign Ministry. The U.S. has to remember to balance domestic policy issues with foreign policy issues. Your analysis was spot on. I am particularly concerned about Egypt. Here is why:

    Posted by lolaflomen | April 30, 2017, 2:51 pm
  2. You did an excellent job of explaining Russian involvement in Libya, Egypt, and Turkey. This Atlantic Council report does an excellent job of illustrating Russia’s involvement in Syria (, offering more evidence of your larger point: Russia is filling the American power vacuum. If your goal is to convince U.S. policymakers to get more involved in public diplomacy campaign in the region, I think a Syria link is important because it is at the forefront of the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

    Posted by reedelman | April 30, 2017, 1:50 pm
  3. This is an extremely well written blog that makes a very strong argument. Russia’s disinformation is a powerful force, and there are too few pieces about this topic out there. It’s impressive that you were able to find such concrete facts despite the Russian media working so hard to cover this topic up- and it demonstrates that perhaps there needs to be more work done to look beyond Russia’s media as we see it.

    Posted by jennacampolieto | April 30, 2017, 10:10 am
  4. I found this piece very insightful, and it’s interesting to see how Russia uses misdirection and meticulous planning in its state-sponsored media pieces. I think it speaks to the episodic nature of US media (for better or for worse) that there have been relatively few overarching stories like your piece that tie together Russia’s movements in the Middle East. Here’s a piece by CNN from a month ago that begins to note some of the themes you comment on:

    Posted by brettm17 | April 29, 2017, 1:38 pm
  5. Really thought-provoking, and considering U.S. executive leadership has been hesitant – or unwilling – to address even election interference and misinformation, it seems even more unlikely that this will be addressed appropriately by the administration. I think it’s increasingly accurate to consider Russian tactics part of an undeclared war, and the goal of distracting the U.S. from Middle East military operations adds more evidence and a new level to that idea, which was recently argued at this Brookings event:

    Posted by Alexa Smith-Rommel | April 29, 2017, 11:10 am
  6. Great article Allison

    Posted by Ivan Olave | April 21, 2017, 9:06 pm
  7. Allison keep up the good work.

    Posted by Lisa Richerson | April 17, 2017, 7:12 pm
  8. Allison, very convincing argument that put an additional perspective on Russian strategy. Thank you. I will forward to Bob, Rebecca and j

    Posted by jessie Brynan | April 17, 2017, 11:55 am

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