Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel made a joint plea for a ceasefire in Libya hours before a Russian-engineered truce was scheduled to come into effect, amid a last-minute push to convince a Moscow-backed militia to comply.
The German chancellor flew to Moscow on Saturday in response to a surge in tension in the Middle East, for crisis talks with the Russian president on the conflicts in Libya and Syria and the crisis in Iran caused by the US assassination of a military commander and the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane by Tehran.
The talks capped a day of diplomatic talks for Mr Putin who used telephone calls with leaders in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to reiterate demands for the midnight ceasefire in Libya, following a call with Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi on Friday.
The talks with Ms Merkel, Mr Putin’s closest western partner, came amid rising German concern about the war between military strongman General Khalifa Haftar and the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
The struggle has turned into an increasingly complex proxy war, despite a longstanding UN arms embargo. Neighbouring Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates back forces loyal to Gen Haftar in their more than six-month long siege of the capital. On the other side, Turkey has just sent troops to support the embattled administration in Tripoli.
Mr Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan jointly agreed to a ceasefire this week to pause the conflict. Russian news agencies said the Tripoli government had agreed to the truce but Gen Haftar had not.
“I hope that today, in a couple of hours, as we agreed . . . the warring parties would stop hostilities,” Mr Putin said at a press conference following his talks with Ms Merkel in the Kremlin.
The situation in Libya has become a focus for European worries about migration, Russia’s growing Mediterranean ambitions and Turkey’s increasing regional assertiveness.
In what appeared to be veiled criticisms of Russia’s support for Gen Haftar, Ms Merkel said: “We have to prevent too many outside countries trying to influence events and Libyan interests taking a back-seat.”
Turkey has accused the Kremlin of sending 2,000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organisation run by a close associate of Mr Putin, to participate in the conflict.
On Saturday Mr Putin said that “if there are any Russian nationals in Libya, they do not represent Russia or get any funding from the Russian government.”
“In any war, there are mercenaries,” he added.
Germany has been preparing to hold a peace conference for Libya in Berlin, under the aegis of the UN. Ms Merkel said Mr Putin had supported the idea of holding the conference “very soon”.
“We will obviously have to speak to all other potential participants,” she said, adding that Egypt and the UAE were also playing a “hugely important” role in diplomatic efforts.
Mr Putin said planned peace talks hosted by Berlin were “a step in the right direction to avoid any possible negative consequences”.
“It will lay the first brick in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict by political means,” he added.
Ms Merkel said countries of the Sahel were increasingly faced with the threat of terrorism, and this would only be eradicated when peace was restored to Libya. “And that’s the goal we’re working towards”.