By Igor Serebryany
What’s behind the British call for ‘urgent action to counter Russia’ in Libya? What key facts did the editorial: ‘Putin Troops in Libya’ ignore? Are we witnessing a Russian pivot to Libya, and what’s really at stake?
As the Russian presence in Syria passes its three-year mark, its activities around the world have become the subject of more media scrutiny than ever before, and occasionally deep controversy.
Within Russia, coverage of the Syrian war has become as regular as the weather forecast.
One week ago, The Sun tabloid paper published a report under the sensational title PUTIN TROOPS IN LIBYA, causing an uproar among senior British government members.
But back in Russia, media coverage on Libya is relatively rare and nearly absent, mainly because Moscow, already committed to the Syrian conflict with no near exit in sight, has little appetite of getting invested in the strife and conflict of yet another Middle Eastern country.
According to the British tabloid newspaper which vaguely cited anonymous sources, Russia recently deployed its troops between the coastal cities of Benghazi and Tobruk, both strongholds of a Libyan warlord, Khalifa Haftar, commander of the East Libyan army.
According to The Sun, dozens of officers from the GRU military spy agency as well as its Spetsnaz special forces wing are already ‘on the ground’ in eastern Libya, “carrying out training and liaison,”
“Devastating Kalibr anti-ship missiles and state of the art S300 air defense missile systems are also now believed to be on the ground in Libya,” The Sun wrote citing an unidentified source from 10 Downing Street.
The newspaper, this time in an editorial, highlights that President Putin is attempting to establish a foothold on Libyan soil to render it “Syria 2.0”, later changing the phrasing to: “his new Syria.”
The Russian Defense Ministry denied the report in its usual blunt fashion, while a host of Russian political and military experts also strongly expressed that the alarm raised by The Sun is false.
At best, they admit, the tabloid is overreacting.
Lost in interpretation
But as always, there is no smoke without fire, concedes Grigory Lukyanov, an expert in the Middle East affairs in Moscow Higher School of Economics.
“There are actually one or more Russian private military companies present in Libya, and no one has ever tried to conceal that fact. These PMCs are there for completely legitimate reasons – hired to protect international humanitarian missions, cargo convoys, commercial establishments, and so on,” he said.
This is where the key to The Sun’s source assumed “misinterpretation” can be found.
Russian PMCs are happy to hire anyone capable of carrying arms and risking their lives for money. Though not quite mercenaries in terms of international law, these folks come from all corners of the former Soviet Union, with many having served in the Soviet Army.
As such, they speak Russian as their first or second language and are virtually indistinguishable from Russian passport holders, even though they might not hold one.
However, Lukyanov argues that these Russian-speaking non-Russian nationals have nothing to do with Putin’s far-reaching plans to unleash a wave of refugees into Europe from Libya, as presented by The Sun.
“It may well happen that the troops The Sun or its unidentified source in Downing Street has detected in Libya could be simply be a PMC on a rotating shift,” Lukyanov suggests.
The expert points out that Moscow has no political or military interest in getting bogged down in a Libyan civil war that has dragged on for years, with no foreseeable light at the end of the Syrian tunnel.
East or West
The Kremlin’s official stance bringss it equally distant (or equally close) from either powers in Libya’s east-west divide.
There is a cold-minded calculation behind this neutrality.
Both the UN-recognised nominal prime minister Faiz al-Saraj and the ruler of eastern Libya, Commander Khalifa Haftar, control the oil pipelines, and lately, the migrant’s “delivery routes” from the Middle East and Africa to Europe.
“Moscow has been willing to cooperate with each of the parties in order to achieve stabilisation in Libya, in order to make it a predictable partner on the oil market and an alley in fighting international terrorism which uncontrolled migration brings about,” the expert said.
He stressed that such cooperation in no way means that Russia was ready to supply any, or all, of the parties involved with arms or any form of military aid, given that “the United Nations introduced an arms embargo on Libya in 2011, and Moscow is not going to violate the ban.”
“This is not because Russia respects international agreements blindly,” he concedes, but is, “for the simple reason that any arms delivery to Libyan parties–however equal and balanced they are–would only deteriorate Moscow’s relations with both “western” and “eastern governments,” says Lukyanov.
Catch them (if you can)
Lieutenant General of Russia’s External Intelligence Service (SVR) Leonid Reshetnikov, gave me a different take on the story.
No serious expert or politician would buy the story of direct Russian military intervention in Libya, he comments. However, he does not rule out “indirect” intervention in Libyan affairs.
“Russia has actually established contacts with Khalifa Haftar quite some time ago. But those contacts have been political and peacekeeping in nature, rather than military”, he insists.
On the stationing of GRU agents, Reshetnikov adds, “even if” GRU (Russian military intelligence) officers were to be dispatched to Libya, no reporters would be able to catch them.
“These officers would be wearing civilian clothes – to not make the peeping reporters happy. Alternatively, they would wear a military uniform, which is the same that all Russian officers wear. So The Sun, or its sources, are daydreaming,” he says.
The suggestions that the Russian military has been sneaking into Libya under the guise of contracted PMC’s disguise are “rubbish”, the expert believes.
“Under no circumstances can a Russian serviceman act or present himself as a private company’s fighter. If a serviceperson wants to work for a PMC, he or she must first formally cut ties with the Russian Armed Forces. Those who suggest otherwise are simply not aware enforced Russian military regulations,” he concludes.
The question remains, can the uniform be instrumental when the need to hide a country’s troop deployment arises?
“Yes, it is” a GRU’s Colonel Anatoly Korchagin reluctantly confirms.
“It’s impossible to distinguish GRU officers from their Armed Forces’ colleagues at a distance because they both wear the same uniform and insignia. But one would be blind to confuse a GRU/Army uniform with that of Wagners’, or any other, private military company’s outfit,” he says.
Unlike other experts interviewed, Russia’s special envoy to Libya, Lev Dengov, is not surprised by the reports of an alleged Russian military build-up in Libya.
“I’ve been hearing rumors such as these for a long time. The gossip has been spread by some political forces who want the chaos in Libya to continue indefinitely. This time, it could be an attempt to undermine the Palermo conference in Libya scheduled for November,” he suggests.
These forces can only be external to Libya because no citizen of that country wants their homeland to stay split forever, Dengov believes.
“I am utterly certain about this because all reports about the Russian military presence in Libya, without exception, come from non-Libyan sources. How can that happen that no Libyan has ever noticed their presence?
Besides, Libyans themselves, whatever tribe or party they belong to, bear no ill feelings toward Russia,” said the diplomat who has been to the country frequently.
Igor Serebryany is a Russian-Canadian journalist, who worked for Russian, Canadian, US, Chinese, British media. Currently, he lives in Moscow.