By Jo Becker and Eric Schmitt
“The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” the general, Thomas D. Waldhauser, told lawmakers.
Oil and Arms
Mr. Putin has had Libya in his sights for years. Ever since he became convinced that the United States, and specifically Mrs. Clinton, then the secretary of state, had double-crossed Russia by toppling Colonel Qaddafi in what had been billed as a limited, humanitarian intervention, the Russian president has been working to regain influence there.
Basit Igtet, a Libyan oil entrepreneur married to the Seagram heiress Sara Bronfman, recalled in an interview that, after announcing in 2014 that he would run for prime minister, he was invited to meet privately at a conference in Greece with Vladimir Yakunin, then the head of the state-owned Russian Railways.
During the Qaddafi era, Libya signed a deal to have the Russians build a high-speed rail between Benghazi and Tripoli, one segment of an envisioned North African corridor. But the project had stalled after the 2011 intervention and, Mr. Igtet said, Mr. Yakunin pressed him to move it forward if elected.
Mr. Igtet said Mr. Yakunin seemed “desperate,” even offering what appeared to be a bribe to restart the project. “They offered to give me a percentage of the contract as a commission,” he said. “I didn’t want to offend anyone, but I just wanted to leave.”
The same year, the Russians also approached Ibrahim Jathran, a militia leader who controlled Libya’s key oil ports before General Haftar. United States Navy SEALs had recently boarded a North Korean-flagged ship and disrupted a plot by Mr. Jathran to bypass Libya’s government and sell oil directly on the international market.
Two of Mr. Jathran’s top deputies, who asked that only their first names, Osama and Ahmed, be used, for fear of reprisals, described how the Russians then stepped in with a “really amazing” proposal to help Mr. Jathran sell the oil — and arm his militia.
The Russians, Osama and Ahmed said, would market the crude oil, moving it through Egypt to Russia. Mr. Jathran would be paid in weapons for the first six months, and in cash thereafter.
“The weapons included everything we have, plus armored cars, antiaircraft missiles, heat-seeking shoulder-held weapons, light weapons and comm gear including Hetra wireless,” Osama said.
But when the Russians demanded exclusivity, Ahmed and Osama said, their boss balked. Fearing that the Russians could not be trusted, Mr. Jathran, who is now in hiding and could not be reached for comment, walked away from the deal.
The next year, in 2015, the Russians came back, Ahmed and Osama said. The same weaponry was on the table, but this time they wanted Mr. Jathran to throw his support behind the Russians’ choice for defense minister: Libya’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time.
Officials in the U.N.-backed Libyan government convinced Mr. Jathran that it would be far more productive to align himself with the West. A meeting was set up between Mr. Jathran and Jonathan Powell, then the British envoy to Libya, after which “Ibrahim instructed me to close the file on Russia,” Osama said.
Then, in September 2016, General Haftar’s Libyan National Army seized the oil terminals from Mr. Jathran’s forces. Ahmed, who served as a commander during the fighting, recalled being stunned by the sophistication of the weapons General Haftar seemed to have acquired overnight.
Fast-moving desert vehicles. Self-guided heat-seeking missiles. A newfound ability to launch airstrikes by day and night. Osama and Ahmed, who said he was injured by Russian-made munitions, came to believe that the Russians had begun facilitating arms shipments to General Haftar after their boss turned them down.
“You could notice the difference, and it definitely tilted the balance,” Ahmed said.
That assessment, based on anecdotal evidence and informants, was backed up by American and British intelligence reports. A former senior American national security official and a former senior British official said evidence gathered in late 2015 and 2016 indicated that the United Arab Emirates were cooperating with Russia to provide Russian weaponry to General Haftar’s forces with Egypt’s help.
The British official recalled landing at the airport in Tobruk, controlled by the Haftar-allied Eastern government, in late 2014 or early 2015. A giant Antonov cargo plane was on the runway, and people were unloading crates of what looked like military equipment, he said, adding that the pilot said the matériel was from Belarus.
The official described the weapons shipments as a way for the Russians to expand their influence, and tweak the United States, without being too deeply involved.
For its part, Russia has maintained that it is in compliance with a United Nations embargo on transferring weapons into Libya. Only the United Nations-backed government, which General Haftar refuses to recognize, can import weapons, and only with the approval of the United Nations.
To be sure, Russia’s involvement in Libya pales in comparison to that in Syria, where punishing Russian airpower has been deployed to crush rebel factions fighting to oust Mr. Assad, and Russian and American aircraft are jousting in the eastern skies at cross purposes.
In Libya, the heavy lifting of providing military support to General Haftar has fallen largely to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which are engaged in a proxy war for regional influence with Qatar, which supports Islamic factions in the country that the general has vowed to eradicate.
Still, it wasn’t until after Mr. Trump’s election that the Russians were brazen enough to give General Haftar a full-dress parade aboard their aircraft carrier.
Over the last year, Russian assistance has generally been subtler. Russian military advisers and intelligence officers have regularly gone in and out of General Haftar’s area of control, American intelligence officials said. Other Russian support personnel have provided spare parts, equipment repairs and medical care.
Private Russian contractors have guarded factories in Benghazi and provided demining equipment to General Haftar’s troops, the officials said. Russian special forces are using an air base in western Egypt, just over Libya’s border, in an early sign of recent basing agreements between Russia and Egypt.
In August, General Haftar said he had raised the issue of Russia’s providing military assistance with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. And last month, Aguila Saleh Issa, the speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and an ally of General Haftar, told the Russian news agency Sputnik that Russia had in fact provided military training to Haftar’s army.
“Putin is pushing the envelope, and will keep pushing and pushing until he is stopped,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, who was the State Department’s second-ranking diplomat for Middle East policy from 2013 to 2016.
Appearing to hedge his bets on Libya’s political future, Mr. Putin has also reached out to the Government of National Accord, welcoming its prime minister, Mr. Serraj, in addition to General Haftar, to Moscow.
According to Western officials, Russia is seeking a political settlement — a central government favorable to its economic interests, especially on arms contracts, energy deals and a railway project.
“If they can give the E.U. a black eye along the way, so much the better,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the forthcoming book “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya.”
Still, despite evidence in Syria and elsewhere that Russia and the United States have sharply divergent interests in the region, some senior administration officials have appeared open to the idea that Russia could be part of the solution in Libya.
He said he had spoken to several top administration officials and his impression was that they believed Moscow could play a useful role.
“Where they are, at least my sense is, is that any settlement is a good settlement and they are kind of happy if someone gets that done,” he said. “They feel the Russians could help.”
Perhaps that explains the reaction of several officials the administration made available for this article. When asked about Russian interference in Libya, a senior State Department official refused to condemn or even comment on it, saying, “That’s a topic I don’t really want to get into today.”
That official referred questions to White House national security aides, who also refused to comment. Then, just days ago, another State Department official suggested Russia was being more helpful in “promoting a stable, unified and prosperous Libya.”
But at least in some quarters, suspicions linger about Moscow’s intentions. “We remain concerned, and it should be no surprise Russia is trying to develop relationships in their best interests,” General Waldhauser said in response to questions from The Times.
‘No Role,’ or a ‘Leading Role’
In September, after Mr. Bannon’s departure from the White House, the Pentagon persuaded Mr. Trump to approve a limited action against the Islamic State in Libya. American drones conducted strikes on a training camp there on Sept. 22, killing 17 militants. The militants were shuttling fighters in and out of the country and stockpiling weapons, the United States Africa Command said.
And on Oct. 29, American commandos in Libya captured a second suspect in the 2012 attacks against the United States diplomatic mission and C.I.A. annex in Benghazi — terrorist attacks that have been used by Mr. Trump as a political spear against the Obama administration.
The man, Mustafa al-Imam, was brought aboard an American warship and taken to the United States, where on Nov. 9 he pleaded not guilty to criminal charges tied to the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Despite Mr. Trump’s assertion in April that the United States would have “no role” in helping to rebuild Libya, State Department and White House officials now insist the administration is taking what one called a “leading role” by pursuing “a two-tier strategy”: carrying out counterterrorism strikes aimed at the Islamic State, while supporting political reconciliation aimed at stabilizing the country and bringing Libya’s various contentious factions together to support Mr. Serraj’s government.
To many Libyans, though, the Trump administration’s strategy looks a lot like the Obama administration’s post-Benghazi “lead from behind” approach: carrying out reactive strikes while leaving the difficult tasks of reconciliation to the latest United Nations envoy.
Current and former Libyan and American officials say that while there are no ready solutions for resolving Libya’s woes, a more engaged and effective American policy would include more frequent, highly visible diplomatic engagements with Libyan leaders; a new United States special envoy with a mandate to work closely with the rival Libyan factions; a seasoned diplomat to replace Peter W. Bodde, who retired at year’s end as Washington’s ambassador to Libya; closer support for European and United Nations-led efforts to reconcile the warring parties; and a greater number of Special Operations advisers on the ground.
“We have clearly delegated all of our foreign policy in the Gulf and Libya to a coalition of Emirates, Saudi and Egyptians,” said Jason Pack, executive director of the U.S. Libya Business Association. “That’s essentially letting the Russians win in Libya because they support exactly the same groups.”
The consequences, Mr. Pack added, are far-reaching. “Libya is important because of where it sits. He who can project power into Libya has the ability to deluge Europe with migrants and bring right-wing populists to power there, interfere in the market price of oil, and more.”
Jo Becker is a reporter in the investigative unit of The New York Times. Eric Schmitt is a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times. Mark Mazzetti and David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting.