By Jalel Harchaoui
Russia has been doing well in Libya — and it likes the fact that few seem to notice it.
When describing the relationship between eastern Libyan-based commander Khalifa Haftar and the Kremlin, press articles have been littered with phrases such as “the Russian-backed Libyan general,” “Moscow’s man,” and other verbiage that gives the impression of a straightforward dynamic whereby the Russian state bets and relies on Haftar and therefore focuses on supporting, not undermining, him.
Yet a more granular timeline of events reveals a different reality. Since 2014, the United Arab Emirates has been a steadfast, generous, and consequential foreign benefactor for the strongman of Benghazi.
In contrast, Russia’s attitude toward him has been complex and ambivalent. The old concept of proxy warfare, whereby a foreign actor chooses indigenous agents as the conduit of its weapons, training and funding, is of little pertinence in the case of Russia’s Libya policy.
To increase little by little its sway over Libya’s centers of decision-making, Moscow has followed a less intuitive, more innovative methodology. And it has done so successfully thus far.
It is first important to explore the motivations animating Libya’s three top meddlers, Turkey, the Emirates, and Russia. We can then better understand Moscow’s multifaceted action and shine a spotlight on how the Russian state manages to gain political sway — often irrespective of the conflict’s twists, turns, and reversals.
The Big Three Third Parties
Libya is endowed with a population of only 6.5 million, vast natural resources, an enviable location, and a littoral with immense potential. This helps explain why six to 10 countries interfere in it, as observed by former U.N. Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé.
Each one of these foreign meddlers is driven by a unique combination of motivations. The Libyan civil war, which has been ongoing since 2014, experienced two inflection points in recent years.
One such defining moment took place in April 2019, when Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army, propelled by the United Arab Emirates, attacked the capital, Tripoli, in an attempt to overthrow the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord.
The second watershed event was the January 2020 kickoff of Turkey’s largely overt military intervention against Haftar’s operations in Tripolitania, the country’s northwestern quadrant.
Russia was not instrumental in precipitating either of the two ruptures — but the United Arab Emirates and Turkey were. At the same time, Russia’s pervasive action is impossible to ignore. For this reason, it is necessary to see the Libyan war’s international dimension as involving at least three poles.
The seductive idea of a “Turkish-Russian condominium” or “Syrianization” is premature and false since it glosses over the Emirates’ important and uninterrupted interference.
Although not a vital interest for Russia, Libya does attract it for economic and geostrategic reasons. In 2011, Moscow saw the U.S.-led, U.N.-mandated intervention against Gadhafi’s regime throw in limbo roughly $6.5 billion worth of signed or verbally promised contracts.
Having noticed the recent apathy of Western states, Moscow is now determined to revive that chunk of business in the form of infrastructure projects, arms deals, and sales of agricultural goods. It also seeks to exert greater control over the flow of hydrocarbons into southern Europe.
On a geostrategic level, entrenchment in Libya helps Russia secure a passageway into sub-Saharan Africa. Lastly, planners in Moscow hardly forget what U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon noted in 1957: Libya occupies a “key strategic position” on the southern flank of NATO.
Especially since the Ukrainian crisis of February 2014, the Kremlin perceives the top Western security organization as hostile to Russia’s core interests. For that reason, Moscow seeks to weaken it and positions itself accordingly.
Aspects of Turkey’s agenda in Libya present some similarity to that of Russia. Ankara is interested in recouping all or part of $20 billion of pre-2011 deals that it had with the Gadhafi regime in energy, construction, and engineering.
It also sees its growing military presence in the Maghreb country as a stepping-stone for expanding Turkish influence in sub-Saharan Africa. Even more important, Ankara’s maritime ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea require it to guarantee, mainly by military means, the survival of a pro-Turkey, U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli.
Ankara believes that an as-yet-unratified memorandum of understanding signed in 2019 with the Government of National Accord can help justify its expansionism and unlawful activities in the sea until Greece yields and accepts a redrawing of the maritime jurisdiction zones between the two neighbors.
For instance, at a more sustained pace in 2020, Turkish seismic survey ships, accompanied by navy frigates, have explored for natural gas in waters close to Greece’s territorial waters. Ankara believes that these waters should be part of Turkey’s own exclusive economic zone. Within that framework, Ankara uses its memorandum with Tripoli as a legitimizing argument.
Unlike the Europeans, Russia has shown a patient willingness to accept and accommodate Turkey’s aspirations to become a full-blown regional power. Ankara and Moscow are often on opposing sides, such as in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, Armenia-Azerbaijan, and other conflicts.
Despite this, Moscow makes an effort to remain pragmatic and amenable to talks because Turkey is a convenient partner for Russia to keep.
Although a brusque divorce may occur at any time, Moscow has so far valued the option of striking temporary arrangements with Ankara. Those come in handy since they help Russia avoid situations wherein it must wage an intensive, costly conflict over a long period.
Another benefit that Moscow derives from preserving its partnership with Ankara is that it contributes to eroding NATO cohesion.
In the eyes of the United Arab Emirates, economic and geostrategic considerations matter, but their top concern about Libya — overriding all others — has been ideology.
Indeed, the North African country’s wealth and structural advantages give it a showcase quality: Its fate is closely watched by political constituencies and factions in the rest of the region.
If a form of government that grants a degree of influence to political Islam holds onto power in Tripoli in a peaceful context, Abu Dhabi worries that neighboring Sunni-majority countries might be inspired by the Libyan precedent.
The Emirati state fears a domino effect across North Africa that could extend to the Arabian Peninsula and ultimately jeopardize its own survival.
Because it wishes to prevent this ideational contagion from starting in the first place, the United Arab Emirates is committed to eradicating any mode of governance that may accept or defend the Muslim Brotherhood or a similar faction as a legitimate political strand in Tripoli.
An irrevocable corollary from these threat perceptions is that Abu Dhabi will not cease its attempts to make Turkey’s presence in Libya costly, painful, and unsustainable. And yet, although Abu Dhabi knows full well that Moscow regards Ankara as a partner in some circumstances, it has sought “strategic ties” with Russia.
Abu Dhabi sees Russian influence in the Arab world as desirable, particularly in light of Moscow’s support for the Bashar Assad government in Syria.
This Emirati conundrum has significant ramifications for Libya, where Abu Dhabi always remains tempted to hurt Turkey’s interests, hoping that Moscow will adopt a less conciliatory stance vis-à-vis Ankara.
Absent such Emirati activism against Turkey, Moscow and Ankara may work out an arrangement whereby the two Eurasian powers would cohabitate in Libya and share the spoils — an outcome that Abu Dhabi deems unacceptable. Said simply, the Emirates’ Libya policy is absolutist while Moscow and Ankara are both somewhat pragmatic.
In addition to these three states, which are the only ones committed to playing a military role and acting as game changers in Libya, others are involved, such as Egypt, Qatar, Italy, France, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.
In a theater so overcrowded with foreign intruders, it is difficult for a meddler to pursue a coherent strategy at its own preferred pace and without becoming sidetracked into counterproductive detours. Almost every meaningful politician or armed actor in Libya has been courted by more than one external sponsor.
That makes Libyan leaders notoriously capricious and hard to dominate as proxies. To maximize its control over locals and minimize its dependence on them, Moscow has built leverage over the years using a sophisticated mixture of tools, ranging from disinformation to diplomacy to banking interference to clandestine military intervention.
Lethal equipment deliveries to the Libyan National Army have been linked to Russian entities since late 2014. This happened in part at the instigation of Egypt, which asked Russia to back Haftar’s military campaign.
But beyond the military domain, another early boost that Haftar received from Moscow was in the realm of banking.
Jalel Harchaoui is a senior fellow specializing in Libya at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a Swiss-based institute. He previously was a research fellow at The Hague’s Clingendael Institute, where he is grateful to have had the opportunity to work on parts of this essay.