By Wolfgang Pusztai
After the 1969 revolution, Libya’s previously close links to the United States quickly deteriorated. At the same time Muammar al-Gaddafi sought closer links to the Soviet Union.
The clear majority of the equipment of the “Armed Forces of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” originated from the Soviets or the Eastern Bloc. Many of the officers of all services were educated at military training facilities of the Soviet Armed Forces. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia remained as one of Libya’s key allies. A lucrative arms contract was allegedly signed in 2009, said to be worth four billion dollars.
In March 2011, Russia allowed UN Security Council Resolution 1973 to be adopted by abstaining from the vote. As the Resolution was used to support the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and the situation in Libya subsequently developed in a very negative way, Russia probably regretted its decision.
Nowadays, Putin’s Russia has become a major player in the Middle East & North Africa, pursuing its security and economic interests also regarding Libya.
Currently the naval facility in Tartus, Syria, is the only permanent base for the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean. Although there are plans to expand the base, it is considered too small to harbor large warships like the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its major escort ships. Therefore, the Russians are looking for a larger base to allow a sustained significant maritime presence in the region. It seems that their preferred option would be Tobruk in eastern Libya.
Russia considers Islamic extremism a major security threat. Consequently, it fights jihadists not only on its own territory, but also abroad and seeks regional partners in the struggle against Sunni terrorists. As Moscow has realized that Libya breaking up in an uncontrolled way would become a major hub for terrorism in the region, it supports the House of Representatives (HoR) and its Libyan National Army (LNA) in its fight against the Islamists.
On the economic side, Libya is an important market for Russia’s revitalized armament industry and for other companies. This could include a $2.4-billion high-speed railway project between Sirte and Benghazi, which was suspended in 2011. Furthermore, an influence on Libya’s hydrocarbon industry is desirable for Moscow. In 2009, Russia was already close in signing a major gas contract with Gaddafi. This would have allowed the Russians to dominate the European gas market even more than what is already the case.
Although Russia voted for UNSCR 2259 in December 2015, welcoming the “Libyan Political Agreement”, its backing has remained somehow lukewarm. Moscow insists that without an endorsement of the “Government of National Accord” by the HoR, the previous government is still in charge.
Russian private companies support the LNA with demining & security experts, technical expertise for sophisticated equipment, spares, pilots, and air transport. Delivery of equipment, which is subject to the UN arms embargo, is made through third states (e.g. four Mi-35P helicopter gunships probably via the UAE).
In the future, it can be expected that Russia will urge for a lift of the UN arms embargo, while providing direct support short of lethal weapons and ammunition. Those will continue to be shipped through third countries. Furthermore, it will enhance its intelligence support to the LNA.
The influence of General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the LNA, is frequently exaggerated. Although there is no doubt that he is a very powerful figure, he has his limits and is not irreplaceable for the East or the LNA. Originating from the Firjan, a noble, but less important smaller tribe, Haftar is aware that his position relies on the support of eastern tribal leaders and the military establishment. On several occasions, he already needed to revise decisions under pressure from tribal elders. Although currently, Haftar is Russia’s most important military partner in Libya, support to Haftar is certainly not an end in itself. As history proves, Moscow does not care about who is in charge, as long as he fits into the plan. Russia would support any proxy considered useful to achieve its objectives.
The LNA is not a homogenous army in a western sense, it is fragmented and by some analysts considered a ragtag army. In the East, it consists of former Gaddafi army units, which defected (like the Saiqa Special Forces) or disintegrated very early during the revolution, newly established formations and various militias. The air force and the navy constitute mostly of what was left over from the old services. In Tripolitania militias from Zintan and the “Noble Tribal Army” are considered part of the LNA, but their loyalty to Haftar is doubtful. In Fezzan, the 12th Infantry Brigade is the core force of the southern branch of the LNA, but it follows mostly its own agenda. It consists mainly of fighters from former Gaddafi loyalist tribes.
As the LNA is severely overstretched after suffering severe casualties in Benghazi, its military strategy does not foresee a direct conflict with Misrata in the near future. Although Misrata’s forces have lost in Sirte around one-fourth of their combat strength, which at its peak numbered 22,000 fighters, the city is still the most powerful military force in western Libya. The many Misrata-descendants living in the Cyrenaica’s coastal cities would be a threat for the LNA’s rearward areas. A military occupation of Misrata itself would be unrealistic anyway. Furthermore, it is doubtful that all the eastern units of the LNA would follow an order of Haftar for an offensive against Misrata.
The probable immediate objective of the LNA is to consolidate its control over northeastern Libya and the hydrocarbon infrastructure in the Sirte Basin.
The added value of Russian support is that the LNA will be able to consolidate more quickly and keep the initiative. This will allow Haftar to stabilize the situation in the east and eventually later on also to gradually expand its influence to the south. A direct Russian intervention is unlikely. Deploying a force to Libya would be logistically much more challenging than in Syria. The Russian navy would not be able to sustain a considerable force capable for land attack off the Libyan coast for a very long time. Most important, this would have a very negative impact on the relations with the U.S. at a time, when the prospects for a better cooperation are bright.
Keeping the difficult situation in northern Tripolitania in mind, neither Misrata can have an interest in an all-out war against the LNA. Maybe this is a chance for direct negotiations between the two most important military powers in the country. However, Misrata proxies like the “Defend Benghazi Brigade” and LNA units, as the 12th Infantry Brigade will do their best to drag their “masters” into a major confrontation.
Wolfgang Pusztai, Security and Policy Analyst