By Giorgio Cafiero and Lisa Watanabe
The US has maintained a relatively passive approach to Libya under President Donald Trump, whose administration largely left the Libyan dossier to Egypt, several Arab Gulf states, Turkey, Europeans, and Russia.
In 2021, however, America’s new leadership will probably try to assert US influence in the war-torn country more actively. President-elect Joe Biden and those in his inner circle have vowed to push back against Moscow in various ways, which means Libya could be a growing point of contention between the incoming US administration and Russia.
In any event, the Libyan crisis offers Biden an opportunity to demonstrate to Washington’s traditional Western allies that his administration is determined to reassert US leadership in the world and stand against President Vladimir Putin’s designs for Libya and, by extension, in the Middle East and Africa too.
It is unclear, however, whether Biden’s plans for countering Moscow’s hand in Libya will be more rhetorical or strategic, and how far his administration would be ready to escalate US-Russia tensions in relation to Libya.
Biden was vice president when Washington joined its NATO allies in military operations against Gaddafi’s regime in 2011. Thus, Biden will likely bring in other veterans of the Obama administration who view support for the UN-recognized and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) as necessary to “finish the job” started a decade ago.
The aim is to have an inclusive and civilian-led government, as opposed to an authoritarian military regime, in power in Libya.
Given that Russia’s government and Russian mercenaries have supported General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), which has been fighting GNA-allied forces from bases in the east of the country throughout the ongoing civil war, Moscow’s role in Libya will likely prompt the Biden administration to focus on countering the Kremlin’s hand in the Maghreb.
Russia’s Libya Agenda
Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Moscow has capitalized on trust deficits in Washington’s relations with various Arab states and their attempts to hedge against US drawdown in the region.
Perceptions of the US being an increasingly unreliable security guarantor have prompted some Arab regimes to turn to Moscow for a closer relationship with Russia despite their historic closeness to Washington.
Even if Arab states such as Saudi Arabia have disagreed with the Kremlin on various regional and international issues such as the Syrian crisis and Iran’s nuclear program, they have similarly noted that Putin has leverage, particularly following Russia’s military intervention in Syria, and, as the veteran US Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross wrote, “realize they need to be talking to the Russians if they are to safeguard their interests.”
Although many have seen Libya’s crisis as chaotic, Russia’s government has seen opportunities in the fray. From Russia’s perspective, Libya has been a conflict zone from where the Kremlin can advance several of its foreign policy interests.
In much the same way as it has done in Syria, Russia has an opportunity to promote its national brand while promoting itself as a bulwark against the West and a power that is adept at managing crises in Arab/African countries.
Ultimately, there is a broad Russian strategy that aims to enhance the Kremlin’s leverage in order to strike a political settlement with Ankara, which leads to the Russians and Turks sharing areas of influence in the North African country while leaving out the US and EU.
In terms of economic and energy interests, Russia is also actively involved in Libya, as highlighted by the agreement that the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft signed with the Libyan National Oil Company in 2017.
Since early on in the Libyan civil war, which broke out in May 2014, Russia has backed Haftar. In January 2017, Russia’s navy hosted him onboard the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier to discuss international terrorism, and the following year, the general visited Moscow.
Russia has also been involved in printing banknotes for the unrecognized Central Bank of Libya, which is aligned with the largely pro-Haftar, Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and the LNA.
Moscow’s support for the eastern commander increased significantly after Haftar launched “Operation to Liberate Tripoli” in April 2019. Moscow sent hundreds of mercenaries, mainly from the Wagner Group, to boost the LNA’s westward offensive.
However, despite joining the UAE in supporting Haftar, Russia been more balanced and willing to hedge in Libya than Abu Dhabi has been. As an influential diplomatic actor in Libya, Russia maintains its lines of communication with the GNA despite the Tripoli-based government disdaining the Wagner Group for its behavior in Libya post-April 2019.
The visit paid by the GNA’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Taha Siala to Moscow in late 2020 underscored the Kremlin’s continuation of dialog with the Tripoli government.
Moreover, in light of the setbacks that Haftar’s LNA experienced amid Turkey’s intensified military intervention in support of the GNA in 2019/2020, Russia has further hedged its bets.
Although Moscow has not ceased to back the Wagner Group, Russia is strengthening its ties to figures on Libya’s eastern side other than Haftar, such as Aguila Saleh, Speaker of the HoR, while continuing to pursue its shuttle diplomacy with the GNA.
As explained by Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University, “Moscow hopes that this multi-vector diplomacy will allow it to flexibly engage with all factions on Libya on reconstruction contracts once the war ends.” It would also help boost Russia’s image as a major power broker in the MENA.
Biden’s Actions in Libya and Implications for Europe
The odds are excellent that Biden’s administration will address Russia’s entrenched influence in Libya in a more concerted and consistent way than Trump’s did.
Two important questions are, first, whether Washington would act against potential Russian military installations in Tobruk and Benghazi, and second, whether the US would impose sanctions on those who finance the Wagner Group, which would possibly include individuals residing in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. For now, these questions remain open.
It is a safe bet that most of Washington’s traditional NATO allies, with the notable exception of France, would support a decision by Biden’s administration to step up US support for a pro-GNA agenda. For example, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte spoke to Biden in late 2020 and expressed Rome’s position in favor of more US attention to Libya in the post-Trump period.
Most European governments view Russia’s role in Libya as concerning. Europeans fear that growing Russian influence in Libya will make it harder for them to influence developments on their own doorstep.
In addition, there are also concerns that the Kremlin may acquire greater leverage vis-à-vis migration flows from eastern Libya, which Moscow could use to blackmail the EU in ways similar to Ankara’s instrumentalization of Syrian refugees.
In general, Biden will probably be less willing than Trump to endorse Emirati and Egyptian narratives about “terrorism” in Libya, and the 46th US president is likely to see Russian conduct in the Mediterranean as a direct threat to US and EU interests. These factors bode well for the prospects of greater US-European coordination on Libya-related issues in the post-Trump period.
Nonetheless, if Biden seeks to shore up greater European support for plans geared toward countering Moscow in Libya, the new administration will face challenges. Europeans are cognizant of the fact that the Libyan conflict is not a priority for Washington, which could encourage them to continue to pursue their own agendas.
Notwithstanding the extent to which EU-Russia relations have suffered in recent years, some European powers such as France, Germany, and Italy continue engaging with Moscow on Libya, as exemplified by the Berlin Process – a German-led initiative begun in January 2020 to encourage a return to peace talks under UN auspices.
They still tend to see Moscow as an indispensable interlocutor vis-à-vis a resolution to the conflict. Also, the EU lacks a coherent strategy for dealing with Libya, and its members have often worked at cross-purposes.
The France-Italy rivalry has greatly exacerbated intra-EU divisions, which have, in turn, afforded Russia greater leverage to assert its influence in Libya.
The Biden administration could start by helping to galvanize a more unified European approach to Libya, working in particular with European allies, especially Germany, to reduce France’s support for Haftar.
Should the Biden administration be willing to impose sanctions on the Wagner Group, this would help to reinforce those imposed by the EU against the group in mid-October 2020.
Finally, the Biden administration should use its relations with Egypt and the UAE to encourage these two states to cease providing military support to Haftar, making the latter a more costly partner for Moscow and perhaps reinforcing Russia’s support for other actors in eastern Libya that are more open to reconciliation with the GNA.
This would undoubtedly be supported by Europeans. It would also complement the goals of the Berlin Process that sought to focus attention on the role of external powers in fueling the conflict.
In short, the Libyan crisis could offer Biden’s administration an opportunity to show its European allies that it intends to restore US leadership in the world and to bring its influence to bear in Libya, as well as the broader MENA region.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
Lisa Watanabe is head of the Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security Team of the Think Tank at the Center for Security Studies (CSS).