By Mohamed Eljarh & Mohamed Dorda
This paper explores the divergence and convergence between Europe and Russia in Libya.
Russia and Libya’s Post-Skhirat Political Process
Similar to France and the Arab countries, Russia’s cooperation with Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA) started when the latter waged “Operation Dignity” to oust extremist groups from cities like Benghazi.
For Moscow, Haftar’s role in fighting ISIS, Al Qaeda-affiliated groups and militias linked to “Operation Libya Dawn” made him worthy of taking a central role in Libyan politics.
When the Skhirat Agreement was signed in December 2015, recognising the GNA as the national unity government, Russia’s Foreign Ministry was lukewarm about a political process it considered rushed and fragile.
For Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, the reality on the ground was vastly different from the substance of political negotiations. In his view, the LPA failed to acknowledge that Libya was still reeling under fighting that was underpinned by foreign financing and competition for natural resources.
The sudden rise in popularity of the GNA among western countries was interpreted by Moscow as another sign of Western interference. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not fail to highlight the fragility of Libya’s political compromise in June 2016, later claiming that the West only resorted to conflict management instead of conflict resolution.
For him, the GNA’s lack of recognition by the HoR meant that a crucial step of the political process had been skipped and that the international community had compromised on a solution in which the main Libyan actors could never be consolidated in power.
Back then, Lavrov was concerned that the GNA’s legitimacy was questionable and that it did not have an adequate security apparatus to comfortably exert its power over Tripoli, let alone Libya.
This led Russia to adopt a cautious approach towards the GNA. Moscow refrained from reopening its Embassy in Tripoli and did not appoint an Ambassador to Libya until 2020.
Russia has become significantly engaged in Libya post-2014 when the country’s democratic transition came to a halt due to the disputed elections of the House of Representatives that resulted in the current institutional and political split.
Since then, Russia saw Libya’s political arena as non-representative of the country as a whole. This view pushed Russia to open its doors to anyone it deems to have a chance at temporarily ruling over parts of Libya.
As such, Moscow established relationships with all possible interlocutors on the Libya scene such as the GNA, factions from the western coastal city of Misrata, the LNA, the HoR, the eastern-based Interim Government and former regime loyalists.
This was starkly different to Europe’s approach with the exception of France. The majority of EU member states saw Libya through the lens of the Skhirat Agreement. In this paradigm, the GNA was the only permissible UN-recognized interlocutor for Europe and the West.
By contrast, Russia viewed the GNA as one part of a crowded political arena. This all-inclusive policy by Russia afforded Moscow flexibility in its approach to the crisis and provided Russia with a rounded view of the political and social dynamics while European inflexibility resulted in their being caught off guard by local developments.
However, given Libya’s volatility, this has also meant that different groups within Russia’s foreign policy establishment have been in discord regarding the most promising contender for the political throne in Libya.
Some in Moscow called for more active support for Haftar as a way to replicate Russia’s successful backing of Bashar Al Assad in Syria.
Others have managed to rein in this support by stressing the need for neutrality and utilising their good ties with Misrata – primarily with Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Mitiq – to seek contracts in Agriculture, Oil & Gas, and reactivate a dormant railway project signed during the Gaddafi era.
Yet another set of hardliner policymakers in Moscow has rejected any support to Libyan actors — excluding Saif al-Gaddafi’s second oldest son who was considered Gaddafi’s heir apparent, whom the Russians regard as too inimical to the West and therefore amenable to cooperate with Russia.
Russia’s Libya Policy in Flux
For Russia, Haftar has represented an asset in an uncertain Libyan environment. From 2015 onwards, Lavrov highlighted the commonalities of his country’s approach to the Libyan crisis with Egypt and the UAE — two Arab countries that are amongst Haftar’s staunchest supporters.
These common approaches have undeniably involved some financial, diplomatic and military support to the LNA.
In addition to having Russian backing for his capture of Southern oil fields in February 2019, Haftar benefitted from Moscow’s equivocal position regarding his April 2019 offensive on Tripoli.
In fact, Lavrov has consistently refused to “unilaterally” put the blame on Haftar for Libya’s renewed crisis and even agreed to block a UNSC statement drafted by the UK in April 2019 denouncing Haftar’s military campaign.
This is understandable when considering that Russian officials have invested considerably more effort in their relationship with Haftar and his eastern allies (who were invited several times to Moscow) than other Libyan interlocutors in western Libya, thus making the Russians reluctant to lose Haftar without a clear replacement.
During one such visit to Russia in November 2018, Haftar even met with a key agent of Russian covert military operation abroad, namely Evgeny Prigozhin, who heads the private military company Wagner Group through which Moscow has benefitted from oligarch-funded military assistance throughout Africa and parts of the Middle East, thus gaining access to natural resources or strengthening diplomatic relations with struggling political regimes.
According to several sources, the Russian private military company has increased its activities in Libya, mainly — but not exclusively — supporting Haftar militarily by providing mercenaries, and operating advanced weaponry systems against Turkish drones and advanced radar systems.
Russia and Regional Players in Libya
The Kremlin likes to present Russia as a natural player in the grand design of geopolitics in the region by not taking sides in regional conflicts such as the one between Saudi-UAE on one side and Iran on the other, or between Israel and Iran.
However, apart from Syria, Moscow tries to play the role of a neutral mediator and ensures its engagement in conflict zones is in-line with its plausible deniability approach through use of Private Military Contractors and technological tools for the purpose of protecting Russia’s own interests.
As highlighted in the previous section, the Kremlin has shifted its position in Libya gradually in support of the eastern based authorities increasing Moscow’s political and military footprints in Libya.
However, the eastern Libya theatre is already crowded with other foreign actors including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France.
As Moscow deepens its engagement with eastern Libya it will have to contend with this crowded field and capitalise on overlapping interests and mitigate competition with those players.
While Cairo would be nervous about growing Russian influence in eastern Libya and the potential for long-term Russian military presence on their western borders, the Emirates seem to have greater alignment with Russia and are helping facilitate some of Russia’s involvement in Libya by bankrolling some of the Wagner PMC’s activities in Libya.
Greater Russian-Emirati cooperation is evident in other theatres including Syria and Yemen. Additionally, both Moscow and Abu Dhabi have helped facilitate the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Assad regime and the eastern authorities in Libya resulting in growing air traffic between Damascus and Benghazi.
France on the other hand, is in a precarious position given its NATO membership and its strategic relationship with the United States.
Mohamed Eljarh is co-founder of Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting, and holds the position of Regional Manager for CRCM North Africa in Libya. Previously, Eljarh was a fellow with the Atlantic Council with focus on Libya and the Libya contributor for Foreign Policy Magazine. He worked as a political and security affairs consultant for the British Envoy to Libya, Jonathan Powell and worked briefly as a political consultant for the Libyan Mission to the European Union. Eljarh has published extensively on post-Qaddafi Libya and has a vast media experience commenting on Libyan Affairs in local, regional and international media outlets. His work is published and cited by leading international Think Tanks and Media outlets.
Mohamed Dorda is a senior partner and consulting director at Libya Desk, a specialist geopolitical risk consultancy that produces evidence-based analysis on the political, regulatory, social, tribal and security environments in Libya. Mohamed holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) and has worked extensively on Libya. Prior to Libya Desk, Dorda researched instances of arbitrary detention, torture, extra-judicial killings, and due process violations committed by various armed groups across Libya.
Source: EUROPE’S OPTIONS TO ADDRESS THE CONFLICT IN LIBYA (NAVIGATING THE REGIONAL CHESSBOARD)