By Jalel Harchaoui
Russia has been doing well in Libya — and it likes the fact that few seem to notice it.
Cuts Both Ways
Deterring the Government of National Accord-aligned armed groups is not the only purpose of Wagner’s security apparatus. The Russian presence also acts as a potential means of coercion against Haftar or anyone else aspiring to lead the eastern Libyan factions.
A telling illustration is the failed coup attempted by Haftar last spring in eastern Libya, his own fief.
Weeks before experiencing the above-described series of military trouncings in northwestern Libya, the 76-year-old field marshal suffered a political setback in Cyrenaica. On April 27, Haftar appeared on TV and declared his intention to form a new government under his authority and have the Tobruk-based parliament submit to the Libyan National Army.
The very next day, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov aired Moscow’s disapproval of Haftar’s remarks about political power being transferred to his army. Such a public rebuke coming from Russia on a domestic issue would have been unthinkable six or 12 months prior.
What is even more noteworthy is the fact that Moscow prevailed: Cairo agreed with Moscow’s preference and both capitals prevented Haftar from dissolving the existing civilian government of eastern Libya.
Also, Aguilah Saleh, the head of the eastern-based parliament, did not submit to the Army General Command like Haftar wanted. Instead, the head of parliament has remained active, including on the diplomatic front, despite — or, rather, thanks to — his slight divergence from the Libyan National Army boss.
To underscore the preference, Lavrov referred to Saleh several times as Moscow’s direct interlocutor while making almost no mention of the field marshal since April.
In the summer, the Kremlin showed once again its wariness of Haftar by negotiating a first step toward a potential stabilization of the Libyan conflict without including the warlord.
Ahead of Aug. 21’s tentative ceasefire proposals from both Saleh and Government of National Accord Prime Minister al-Serraj, Russia held diplomatic negotiations with both Turkey and Egypt but shunted the Libyan National Army altogether.
For that reason, the latter initially dismissed the Aug. 21 declarations. On at least five occasions, Haftar’s forces stationed at the frontline near Sirte fired salvos of Grad-type rockets toward Government of National Accord forward positions around Abu Grein, a town to the south of the prominent anti-Haftar city of Misrata.
The Russian fighters in Sirte stayed away from Haftar’s attempts to break the ceasefire, which ended up holding.
The August 2020 incidents serve as a reminder that the Libyan National Army’s General Command has no control over the Russian forces.
Over the course of the year, Wagner has significantly increased its influence on the ground, including inside or near important oil facilities. While the Russian forces’ strength grew, the Emirati mission in Libya lavished two Libyan National Army units — the Sudanese-heavy 128th Brigade and the Salafist-dominated Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion — with top-of-the-line equipment funneled through the General Command.
According to a U.N. source, Abu Dhabi speaks directly to some senior Sudanese mercenaries in Haftar’s camp, and provides them with logistical support in a bid to bolster the Libyan field marshal. But none of this puts a dent into the Russian forces’ autonomy.
In late summer, U.S. diplomatic pressure was a major factor pushing Haftar to lift an Emirati-backed $10 billion oil blockade that he imposed at the beginning of 2020. But Wagner’s presence at Libyan oil installations such as Ras Lanuf and es-Sider also played a role in bringing about the end of the blockade.
In mid-September, when Russia invited Haftar’s son and heir apparent Khaled along with the Government of National Accord’s deputy prime minister, Ahmed Maetiq, to convene a resumption of oil exports, the field marshal was in bad need of visibility.
By agreeing to let oil exports resume, he seized an opportunity to appear powerful once again — even as he relinquished crucial leverage, knowing that reinstating the blockade may prove more difficult than in early 2020.
After more than two months of negotiations, the U.N.-backed Political Dialogue Forum hasn’t managed to create a brand-new government of national unity, but it showed Saleh as still holding a small chance of being installed at the helm of the country’s Presidential Council, while no formal role was truly contemplated for Khalifa Haftar.
This is not to say that Moscow is attached to Saleh. Rather, it has been using him, and other figures, to eclipse Haftar slowly, without hurting the field marshal frontally.
Another effect of Russia’s influence was the presence of Gadhafi loyalists among the delegates chosen by the United Nations, a notable difference when compared to the format of 2015’s U.N.-backed talks in Skhirat, Morocco.
A cornerstone in Russia’s thinking about Libya is its firm intention to bring back politicians, technocrats, and security officials known for their loyalty to the late Moammar Gadhafi, another point of agreement between Cairo and Moscow.
Among numerous other maneuvers, Moscow invited a delegation of Gadhafists led by Cairo-based figure Khaled al-Khoweildi in April 2019, and reportedly, even established indirect contact with Moammar Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Gadhafi .
A turn to Gadhafist networks is a means of counterbalancing the Haftar family’s highly personalized brand of rule in eastern Libya, without strengthening the pro-Turkey factions in the west.
The Russian state, despite having the capacity to do so, never made the strategic decision to engage head-on in a long bout of war and ensure that Haftar triumphs in western Libya.
Instead, Moscow has been working quietly to render the field marshal less and less indispensable to its agenda in eastern Libya — but gradually, without ever clashing with him.
The Kremlin wishes to see a less unpredictable, less dysfunctional class of Libyan elites run Cyrenaica. It would use that to secure more perennial access to key facilities there, such as, potentially, a naval base, more hydrocarbons concessions, and the option to do business with Tripoli.
The Kremlin moves slowly and surreptitiously closer to that objective by exploiting the weaknesses of the United Arab Emirates’ Libya policy. Despite Moscow’s pragmatic attitude vis-à-vis Turkey, Abu Dhabi and its proxies have no choice but to keep working with Wagner.
By fulfilling a military role in eastern and southwestern Libya, Wagner acquires essential importance there. The Kremlin then converts this into sheer power in those Libyan territories, which currently fall outside of Turkey’s sphere of influence.
As for the Turkish-backed authorities, Moscow has managed to preserve a communication channel with them even though Wagner continues to be a dangerous threat. “If we have to give a bit of business to the Russians to get them off our back, that can be envisaged,” said a member of the Government of National Accord in a June 2020 interview.
The admission is a euphemism given the distinct possibility that Tripoli may have to award large contracts to Russian companies within the next year or two.
Since its 2013 rise as a major counter-revolutionary interferer across swathes of the Middle East and Africa, Abu Dhabi has become renowned for its single-mindedness. Moscow views that trait as a given — not as a phenomenon it must combat, appease, or rectify.
As with many other dysfunctional dynamics characterizing the region, the United Arab Emirates’ stubborn absolutism offers rewards for actors nimble enough to work around it, or even exploit it tactically.
Indeed, the two anti-liberal powers disagree on fundamental points, a particularly salient one being whether Turkish influence should be allowed to exist in Libya. But as things stand today, the Emirati-backed camp there is too weak to be able to even hinder Turkish expansionism without Russian military assistance.
For that reason, the United Arab Emirates has no choice but to work and coordinate with Wagner. In fact, Abu Dhabi has likely funded parts of Wagner’s operations, as U.S. Africa Command Center noted in a recent report.
Wagner’s indispensability in turn strengthens the Kremlin, whose own goals do not include the total eradication of Turkish influence from Tripoli. Abu Dhabi, however, cannot settle for anything less.
Cognizant of the discrepancy between Little Sparta’s exigencies and vulnerabilities in Libya, Russia has implemented a new modus operandi by combining skillful soft-power maneuvering with the use of force through an unacknowledged semi-state actor.
This low-cost strategy has enabled Moscow to become an impossible-to-circumvent power broker in a country where it had lost all sway in the wake of the U.S.-led intervention in 2011. In all cases, the war is not over — and the Russian pendulum is not done swinging in Libya. Time is on its side.
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.