By Ferhat Polat
This policy outlook examines Russia’s strategy towards Libya post- 2011. The Kremlin ’s various interests in Libya are assessed and used to explain Russia’s policy in Libya and its effect on the Libyan conflict.
Moscow’s ties with Haftar
The Kremlin, under Vladimir Putin, has sought to increase its influence in Libya through its backing of Haftar’s war against the Tripoli-based GNA. Russia’s rapprochement with Haftar can be traced back to 2015 when Moscow engaged in the Libyan civil war after the NATO-backed intervention to oust Gaddafi.
According to media reports, Putin wants to make the war torn North African country “his new Syria”. From 2015 to 2019, Moscow provided financial and diplomatic support for Haftar but since 2019 Russia has intervened far more directly to shape the outcome of Libya’s chaotic civil war.
Reportedly, it has brought in advanced fighter jets, air defence systems, mercenaries, and precision-guided artillery, the same playbook that made the Kremlin a principal player in the Syrian civil war.
Since 2015, Russia’s diplomatic engagement with Haftar has intensified. Haftar has met with Russian ministers on several occasions. It was claimed that Russia and the LNA signed a $2 billion arms deal in exchange for allowing Russia to establish a military facility in eastern Libya.
According to media reports, Haftar reached out to the Kremlin for military and financial support in 2015. In return, Haftar promised lucrative oil exports to Russia if he could take control of the Sharara and El Fil oil fields. Allegedly, Russia accepted the offer and started giving Haftar’s forces military advice and diplomatic support at the UN. Russia has even been accused of printing money for the parallel central bank in eastern Libya. It is claimed the money has been used to fuel the war on Tripoli.
Since 2015, Russia has been ramping up its engagement in Libya, where it sees an opportunity and a chance to expand its influence. Therefore, the Kremlin has been supporting Haftar in order to preserve the sites for exploration and production of oil, which are located largely in the east and southeast of Libya, currently controlled by Haftar’s forces.
The Central Bank of Libya headquartered in Tripoli is Libya’s only internationally recognised central bank. However, Russian state-owned company Goznak has been accused of printing Libyan dinars and delivering them to the eastern-based Central Bank of Libya (CBL) which is not recognised by the international community.
For instance, Malta recently seized US$ 1.1 billion worth of Libyan dinars notes printed in Russia and bound for eastern Libya. According to a Wall Street Journal report, there have been a series of cash infusions that have helped fund Haftar’s operations. In April this year, 100 tonnes of Russian manufactured Libyan bank notes were delivered to the eastern-based CBL. The inflow of Russian-printed Libyan dinars over the years has aggravated Libya’s economic challenges.
For Ramani, “Russia wants Haftar to have de facto control over eastern and southern Libya, so Moscow can get preferential access to oil fields under his control and maintain a sphere of influence in Libya. Russia’s aim in supporting his offensive on Tripoli was to bolster Haftar’s diplomatic bargaining position, so this dovetails closely with Moscow’s broader strategy”.
Russia’s involvement in Libya takes place primarily through the ‘private’ security firm Wagner, a company with reported ties to the Kremlin. According to a UN report, since September 2019, hundreds of mercenaries from Wagner Group have been operating in Libya. Fighting alongside Haftar’s militias bolstered their efforts to seize the capital from the UN-backed government.
Reportedly, Russia has also supplied Haftar’s militias with anti-tank missiles and laser-guided artillery. Supported by a number of countries, Haftar’s militias made some slow territorial gains in the capital and pushed the war into a more dangerous phase until December 2019.
In November 2019, Turkey signed a military pact with UN-backed GNA. Since then Turkey has provided vital military support, including armed drones and air defence systems which have shifted the balance on the ground. In early June, GNA forces pushed Haftar’s militias out of Tripoli’s international airport. The following day, they re-captured Tarhuna, a city 90 km to the southeast.
A day after, the oil fields in Sharara were back in the GNA’s controls and were pumping for the first time since January. At the time of writing, GNA forces were advancing on Sirte, the gateway to the east of the country and Libya’s oil fields.
As a result, hundreds of Russian and Syrian mercenaries supporting Haftar have been pulled back from Tripoli’s frontlines. In the meantime, Russia has been accused of sending 14 MiG 29 and Su-24 fighter jets into Haftar-controlled al Jufra airbase, a key military base that has been used as the primary air and logistics hub for Haftar’s LNA into western Libya and launching point for the offensive against UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Will Moscow continue to support Haftar?
At the end of April, Haftar sought to rule out the Libyan Political Agreement(LPA) and pledged that he would move toward installing a new government. Many interpreted his actions as being a means to prevent a bigger role for Aguila Saleh, the Speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives(HoR) during any negotiations that might take place.
Russia did not appear to endorse Haftar’s power grab in Libya. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow did not approve of Haftar›s move to seize control of the country.
In the past few weeks, the Kremlin seems to have been reaching out to other Libyan political leaders, the most notable of which is the aforementioned Aguila Saleh.
Haftar’s heavy losses in western Libya have caused fractures within his eastern camp. His recent rejection of the political settlement and declaration of full control over eastern Libya, which angered many of his political allies, including Aguila Saleh and dominant tribes such as al-Ubaidat, have been fanning the flames of discord.
As a result, Haftar may increasingly face challenges to his position. On 30 April, Aguila Saleh declared that he had worked with Russian advisers in drafting a political road map that called for an end to aggressions, the establishment of a three-member presidential council representing Libya’s three main regions and a new government of national unity while proposing only a military position for the LNA.
For Profazio, “The withdrawal of the Wagner company’s mercenaries from the southern Tripoli frontline in early June was a strong sign of Russia’s progressive and ineluctable disengagement from Haftar.
The series of defeats in western Libya and the loss of the strategic base of al-Watiya represented a significant blow to the Libyan National Army and its ambition of taking control of Tripoli. From this point of view, Moscow became fully aware of the impossibility for Haftar to implement its nationalistic project and seize power in the entire country”.
“Additionally, at the same time, the re-deployment of the Wagner mercenaries in al Jufra and, more importantly, the delivery of a dozen fighter jets from Moscow to the same airbase via the Khmeimim Air Base, shed light on the complex strategy adopted by Russia in Libya. Given the inability of Haftar to take control of Tripoli, the presence of the Russian forces in al Jufra talks represents a red line, an indication of Russia’s interest in freezing the front and trying to preserve the unity of the eastern camp facing the GNA’s counteroffensive.
In this perspective, the resumption of talks and the calls for a ceasefire on 6 June in Cairo shifted the focus from the military to the political dimensions, in which the importance of the President of the House of Representatives (HoR) Aguila Saleh is furtherly stressed”, Profazio said.
For Kuczynski, “this will likely depend on the stance of Haftar himself – whether and to what extent, is he ready to make concessions after his recent defeats. His current position has been weakened, and it is difficult to imagine a repetition of the situation that took place in January in Moscow, when Haftar refused to sign the truce, humiliating his Russian hosts.
Importantly, Haftar may also have problems on his own territory – the presence of the President of the House of Representatives from Tobruk, Aguila Saleh, in Cairo at a joint conference of President Sisi and Haftar might have been an attempt by Egypt and Russia to put pressure on the LNA commander. Moscow now seeks a truce and will want to force Haftar to accept it – the problem is that Tripoli and Turkey will not necessarily agree on all points”.
Haftar started his assault on the capital, expected to last just a few days, more than a year ago. While Turkey’s recent intervention in support of the UN-backed government has tipped the balance of power on the ground in favour of the GNA, Haftar’s foreign backers, including Russia, are likely to place Aguila Saleh as the Kremlin’s new political ally for the next phase of its engagement in eastern Libya.
Will the U.S. act to confront Russia’s military moves in Libya?
Russia and the U.S. appear to be heading for some kind of confrontation in Libya, as tensions increase on both sides. The Pentagon has been highlighting Russia’s increasing involvement in Libya. Until now, the U.S. has been reluctant to intervene in Libya.
The Trump administration has long seen the Libyan conflict as a European problem of little strategic importance. This has arguably provided Russia more room to manoeuvre and exploit a vacuum where Moscow sees economic opportunities and a chance to expand its influence at the expense of Western powers.
Libya seems to increasingly be on Washington’s radar largely because Russia has stepped up its involvement by sending fighter jets, mercenaries and is reportedly aiming to set up a military base. Thus, the United State Africa Command (AFRICOM) recently sounded the alarm by releasing details of arms transfers.
AFRICOM said it is considering deploying a Security Force Assistance Brigade in Tunisia to confront Russia’s aggressive military moves in Libya. In a statement, AFRICOM said that “Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favour in Libya”.
On June 8, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan phoned President Trump to discuss Libya. The two countries have reached “some agreements” that might open a “new era” in the war-torn country, Erdogan said in an interview with state broadcaster TRT.
Profazio argues that “the US military is certainly raising the alarm about Russian conduct in Libya, and containing Russia is undoubtedly behind its strengthened support for the GNA, dialogue with Turkey and NATO’s similar policies. The US believes that Russia’s policy in Libya is much like Syria or Ukraine and seems to overestimate the leverage Moscow possesses relative to the UAE, which gets little scrutiny in Washington, except from some Democrats in Congress.
In practice though, the US is detached from the Libyan military developments and peace process and will not intervene to counter Russia in a material way. Russia knows that US rhetoric is unlikely to lead to intervention, so it is pushing Washington’s limits through military escalations and assertiveness in the diplomatic sphere”.
For his part, Kuczyński contends that “for now, Russia has limited its military movements in Libya. Mercenaries were withdrawn from the front, and the issue of aircraft that arrived in al Jufra and the subsequent AFRICOM message remains debatable – it will be extremally difficult to prove that the fighters were a form of Russian military assistance to Haftar. In my opinion, you should not expect US military involvement – the reason is, among other things, that Trump will not want another US military intervention abroad during the election year”.
Recently, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General, held a phone call with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj to discuss the latest developments in the country. The NATO chief confirmed the military alliance’s readiness to support Libya by building defence and security capacities. In addition, the NATO secretary also spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and discussed the possibility of a NATO capacity building mission in Libya. NATO’s offer of support for the UN-backed government is especially notable in that it may bring the GNA closer to NATO.
Given the circumstances in Libya, the US may provide support to the GNA under a NATO flag and in close coordination with Turkey and with other international efforts, including those of the UN and the European Union to confront Russia’s influence in the country.
Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policy.