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.
Can Russia and Turkey mediate a just and permanent peace in Libya?
Ankara and Moscow also back opposite sides in Syria, where they have experience in co-ordinating military operations to avoid serious escalation. Through this, they have demonstrated their ability to, at least partly, be able to balance their differences. For example, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu recently stated that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have “agreed to continue working together to establish a lasting cease-fire in Libya”.
The increasing number of mercenaries from Wagner, who are mobilising to support Haftar’s LNA in Sirte, indicates that Moscow is repositioning itself and enhancing its position in the city. For its part, Turkey demands all mercenaries, including Haftar’s militias, withdraw from the strategic city before a comprehensive ceasefire can be reached. Turkish backed-GNA forces seem determined to re-take the city. Control of the city by GNA forces would serve to reduce the influence of mercenaries whose presence in the country serves nothing but to fuel more conflict and cause greater destruction.
The disagreement over Sirte and the al Jufra air base is likely to deepen the differences between Turkey and Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu were scheduled to meet their Turkish counterparts in Istanbul, however, the visit was postponed at the last minute.
Kuczyński further observed that “this is unlikely at the current stage of the Libyan war. First, it would have to be linked to the resolving of the Syrian case. Secondly, Libya – more than Syria – is now the state where the interests of other countries, such as Egypt and the Emirates, are constantly growing. Last but certainly not least, a just and lasting peace will not possible as long as Haftar remains ahead of one of the warring parties – he is much too independent from Moscow, and at the same time very conflicted with Prime Minister Sarraj making peace impossible”.
Profazio has a nuanced standpoint. For him, “considering the diverging agendas of their local proxies, their regional alliances and the intense competition to defend and advance their interest in Libya, it is highly unlikely that Russia and Turkey would find a common understanding and mediate a just and permanent peace in Libya.
By indicating Aguila Saleh as the most credible interlocutor to resume talks, Turkey made a choice towards a political solution to the crisis. However, Aguila Saleh has frequently accused Turkey for its intervention in Libya and is very close to the Egyptian leadership, which, since the start of the attack on Tripoli in 2019, has seen him as a useful alternative to Haftar”.
According to Ramani, “Russia and Turkey can, in theory, mediate a de-escalation in Libya. They had those intentions in January and have, in spite of its imperfections, reached an understanding in northern Syria. Whether they can mediate a lasting peace is unclear for two reasons. First, Khalifa Haftar is a rogue actor. He is not beholden to Moscow.
Even if Russia wants to de-escalate, his rivalry with Aguila Saleh and personal ambition could derail anything Moscow brings forward. Second, there are more players than just Russia and Turkey involved in Libya. Turkey can wield influence over the GNA and France is showing some signs of scaling back its alliance with Haftar, as is Egypt, but the UAE is something of a wild card, which could derail peace. And the UAE has much more influence over Haftar than Russia does. So, converting goodwill into a practical peace settlement involving Russia and Turkey is a difficult process”.
Turkey and Russia have proven to be the two most prominent external players on the ground in Libya. Although Haftar and his LNA have suffered a series of battlefield setbacks in the west, Russia appears determined to enhanceits presence in eastern Libya where most of the oil fields are located.
Recently, Moscow was accused of sending eleven cargo planes to Qardabiya airport with Syrian mercenaries, weapons and ammunition. Moscow also deployed six Pantsir air defence systems to the strategic city Sirte. These developments indicate that Russia seeks to bolster its presence in the oil crescent, including the Sharara oilfield.
Turkey stresses that any potential agreement in Libya can only be sustained once Sirte and al Jufra airbase are freed from Haftar’s militias. Thus, at this stage, it is unlikely that Ankara and Moscow will reach the required common ground to be able to mediate a sustainable peace in Libya.
Even if Turkey and Russia reach an agreement, other Haftar backers including France, Egypt and the UAE may undermine the agreement in the hopes of limiting Turkey’s role in the country. Considering this and the multitude of players involved, what comes next will more likely take the form of conflict management than a permanent ceasefire.
How will Moscow act moving forward?
Russia continues to maintain mercenaries in central Libya and has also recently stationed fighter jets in the east. Kremlin military assistance remains fundamental to the LNA’s survival by preventing GNA forces from advancing toward the oil crescent.
According to Ramani, “Russia will likely convince Egypt and the UAE to de-escalate in this scenario, as that benefits its interests. Russia wants to transition towards asserting power in the diplomatic sphere. It enthusiastically backed Egypt’s Cairo Declaration, and if Aguila Saleh, the head of HoR is believed, Moscow was partially behind Haftar’s truce offer in late April.
As of now, Egypt might be more amenable to Russia’s calls for de-escalation, though we should take a serious look at its mobilisations on the Libyan border. The UAE will be less convinced, and reportedly helped derail the January talks in Moscow. Until a de-escalation is achieved, Russia will keep some degree of military involvement to stall Turkey and slow the GNA’s counteroffensive and will provide Syrian pro-government mercenaries to complement the UAE’s Sudanese recruits, and provide an overall security umbrella for UAE-orchestrated drone strikes in Libya”.
According to Kuczyński, “Putin may want to play the Libyan card for his own political benefit – but he will only do so if he is confident of success. Haftar’s military success is improbable, so one must count on diplomacy. Undoubtedly, an agreement with Turkey regarding Libya would be such a long-sought-after diplomatic success”.
For Profazio, “the US could push for a multilateral approach to the crisis in Libya, making the efforts of UNSMIL more credible and reassuring EU allies about the seriousness of Washington’s diplomatic efforts. A return to the leading role for the US in Libya would force Moscow to reconsider its policy, which has so far been met with some degree of complacency in some sectors of the current administration.”
Russia’s strategic and military moves in Libya indicate that Moscow wants to be at the negotiation table and seeks to play a major role in structuring Libya’s political future. As it stands, Aguila Saleh could represent Russia’s best chance to exert its influence.
While it is likely that the Kremlin never believed that Haftar would come to control all of Libya, his assault on the capital nevertheless helped Russia to strengthen its position vis-à-vis diplomatic efforts to bring the conflict to a close.
Russia’s engagement in Libya has enabled Moscow to effectively counter Western influence in the region and emphasise that Moscow can play a decisive role in the country’s future, particularly as NATO and EU support has mainly been rhetorical. This has arguably provided Russia more room to manoeuvre to expand its influence at the expense of Western powers.
The fighting has now moved from Tripoli to Sirte and south-central Libya. GNA forces are fighting the LNA in Sirte, the gateway to the east of the country and oil fields.
Sirte is strategic for Tripoli-based GNA for two main reasons. First, Sirte has considerable commercial importance as a gateway to Libya’s oil crescent region. Secondly, taking Sirte would allow the GNA to seize control of the Libyan coastline stretching from the capital to the west and Benghazi to the east.
Moscow has reportedly increased the number of mercenaries, who are mobilising to support Haftar’s LNA in Sirte in order to protect its economic and political interests in eastern Libya. As a result, the fighting in Sirte is expected to continue.
Talk of a challenge to Haftar’s authority in the east has become widespread. Even his external supporters, including Russia, appear to be growing tired of his failure to take Tripoli. Russia and other external backers of Haftar, who have long supported the LNA, are now attempting to shore up their hold in the east.
Despite growing reservations, Russia seems to view the LNA as their only military ally in today’s Libya and will have little to no option but to continue providing the LNA with key military aid, particularly through the presence of Wagner mercenaries. Such support is being given on the expectation that it will prevent GNA forces from achieving a decisive victory against the LNA in eastern Libya.
The loss of Sirte, in particular, to GNA Forces would severely hamper Russia’s strategic objectives in the country.
The situation in Libya remains unstable and the presence of Russian warplanes and mercenaries raises the prospect of the intensification of the conflict. It seems that Moscow aims to expand its footprint in Libya by diffusing Wagner mercenaries’ presence across the south and east, including around critical oil fields and airbases. Such a posture also gives the Kremlin more leverage ahead of any future negotiations, whether bilateral or multilateral.
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.