By Paul Iddon
Recent images purportedly show that advanced Russian-built high-altitude air defense systems have recently been deployed to eastern Libya.
If such a deployment has indeed taken place, then these systems could well solidify the stalemate that presently exists in that country’s civil war through the establishment of highly formidable air defense bubbles over strategically-important parts of eastern Libya.
The imagery in question appeared on social media and apparently show Russian-built S-300s or S-400s near the oil port of Ras Lanuf on Libya’s coast located east of the strategically-important city of Sirte.
The War Zone’s Thomas Newdick pointed out that the purported deployment follows a recent flight of a Russian An-124 strategic airlifter to Libya’s Al Khadim airbase. He noted that such aircraft would be needed to transport S-300s or S-400s and all their assorted components.
“Il-76 transports – operated both by the Russian military and big contractors – that have been making regular runs to Libya aren’t big enough to handle the larger components of either the S-300 or S-400,” he wrote.
Newdick also pointed out that when Russia began delivering the first S-400 components to Turkey in July 2019, it used both An-124s and Il-76s.
Eastern Libya is controlled by General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) group, which is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and France. Western Libya and the capital Tripoli is controlled by Haftar’s opponent, the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and is supported by Turkey.
Turkey’s military intervention on the side of the GNA was decisive in foiling Haftar’s attempts to capture Tripoli, which he subjected to a brutal 14-month long siege beginning in April 2019.
In May, Turkey helped the GNA completely break that siege and go on the offensive. Now, Ankara and the GNA insist that the LNA must withdraw from Sirte and the Al-Jufra region — the latter home to an important eponymous airbase — before they will even consider negotiations for a ceasefire.
The LNA refuse to make such a concession. Its Egypt backer warns that any Turkish-backed GNA offensive against Al-Jufra and Sirte would violate a red line. Russia most likely shares this view.
Advanced systems such as S-300s or S-400s enforcing an air defense umbrella over Sirte and Al-Jufra could well deter or actively prevent any GNA offensive since the group relies heavily on supporting drone strikes carried out by Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2s.
For example, the GNA’s capture of the LNA-controlled western airbase of Al-Watiya last May was primarily made possible thanks to dozens of Turkish drone strikes, which even successfully destroyed some of the LNA’s Pantsir S1 air defense missile systems.
Lack of such air support would likely make any GNA offensive against Al-Jufra or Sirte a costly failure for the group, especially since the defending LNA forces would have substantial air support.
The deployment of such advanced air defense missiles could well serve as a warning to Turkey from Russia not to encourage or support any eastward offensives by its GNA ally.
Also, the covert delivery of such an advanced system wouldn’t be without precedent.
After the LNA began suffering those setbacks in May, Russia delivered 14 MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets and Su-24 Fencer bombers to Al-Jufra airbase. The warplanes were unmarked and Russia publicly denies transferring them despite clear evidence to the contrary. Contractors are likely piloting them. Russian Wagner private military contractors are active in Libya in support of the LNA.
Russian personnel employed by Wagner would likely be operating any S-300 or S-400s in Libya on behalf of the LNA as well.
Russia could also have decided to deploy the systems to help the LNA compete with Turkey’s deployment of air defenses in western Libya.
Ankara has deployed a combination of low to medium-altitude air defenses in Tripoli and Al-Watiya this year.
The successful establishment of Turkish air defenses over strategically-important bases and parts of western Libya could embolden the GNA, convincing the group that it could mount offensive operations against eastern Libya without fear of retaliatory air or drones strikes.
If it’s proven to have deployed much more sophisticated long-range air defenses on LNA turf, Russia may well be actively helping enforce the red-line that group and its backers have declared around Sirte and Al-Jufra.
Successful enforcement of that red-line could well cement the current stalemate and pave the way for a long-term ceasefire. It might eventually even lead to serious negotiations over Libya’s future, negotiations in which Russia would likely play a key role.
I am a journalist/columnist based in Iraqi Kurdistan from where I’ve been writing about regional affairs for five years now.
Russia deploys S-400 missile systems to Libya
Russia continues to strengthen military support for the army of Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya, which has been waging a war over oil resources for more than four years with the UN-recognized government of national accord in Tripoli.
According to Forbes, in early August, Russia probably moved to Libya S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems or modernized version of the S-400, placing them near the port city of Ras Lanuf, which remains the fort-post of Haftar forces after they were defeated in the battle for the capital and retreated after the intervention of the Turkish army.
In photos posted on social media, military experts identified the S-300 launcher and its 96L6E radar. The radar is also used in the latest S-400 Triumph air defense systems.
The War Zone writes that the air defense systems could have been delivered to Libya by the An-124 cargo plane which flew from Mozdok to the Libyan airbase Al-Khadim, on August 3.
Traditional Il-76, which is used by the Ministry of Defense and private companies, are not able to transport these systems. This requires a heavy military transport aircraft such as the An-124. An An-124 was also used to deliver S-400 components to Turkey.
Russian systems are said to be deployed in Ras Lanuf, a key terminal through which Libyan oil is exported.
The port is controlled by Haftar’s army, which does not allow Libyan oil to the world market.
Last year, Libya brought its oil production to 1.2 million barrels per day, planning to increase it to 2 million within a few years, but in January, due to attacks by Haftar’s army on the oil fields, the National Oil Corporation (NOC), was forced to close wells, pumping a paltry 100,000 barrels per day.
Exports of Libyan oil have almost stopped. in August, according to Bloomberg, only two tankers, each with a capacity of 600,000 barrels, were shipped.
“Russians appear to have taken a page out of their Syria playbook, which is to send a mixed squadron and to augment air defense assets in the country. The S-300, if it is real, joins the Pantsir S-1 short range system. Together they would make Turkey think about testing that red line”, said Aaron Stein, head of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
The emergence of the S-400 or S-300 in Libya is a signal to Turkey, he notes. Late last year, Ankara sent fighters from northern Syria, as well as weapons and drones to Libya, forcing Haftar’s forces to end the 14-month siege of Tripoli and retreat along with fighters from the private military company the Wagner Group.
“The Russians have quietly signalled that Sirte and al Jufra are a red line, even though they have not gone as far as other countries in terms of public statements,” Stein said.