Editors: Nadja Berghoff and Anas El-Gomati
A decade on from the February 17th revolution, how the global disorder transformed Libya into a battleground for interest, ideology and influence.
Russia: From Retreat to Resurgence
By Samuel Ramani
In early February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pledged to work with Libya’s new political administration, as Russia quietly transferred 310 new Syrian mercenaries to Libya.
This contradiction encapsulated Russia’s broader approach to the Libyan conflict. Russia is currently a leading military backer of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) chieftain Khalifa Haftar, an indispensable player in Libya’s diplomatic process and a potentially vital stakeholder in Libya’s postconflict reconstruction.
Russia’s rising influence in Libya also bolsters its standing in the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa, which are critical theatres for its great power status ambitions. Russia’s leverage in Libya has deep historical roots, but it also reflects Moscow’s opportunistic capitalization on Libya’s post-2014 descent into civil war.
During Gaddafi’s 42-year tenure in power, relations between Moscow and Tripoli were generally cooperative. Libya was a vital purchaser of Soviet military equipment and following Gaddafi’s 1976 visit to Moscow, the Soviet Union deployed 1000 technical advisors to Libya.
Due to their ideational support for socialism and adversarial relationships with the United States, the Soviet Union and Libya found common cause in conflicts ranging from Palestine to Nicaragua.
This anti-American partnership cooled during Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin’s tenure in power but returned to the fore with Vladimir Putin’s 2008 visit to Tripoli. During Putin’s trip, Russia cancelled 4.5 billion U.S. Dollars in Soviet-era debt in exchange for arms deals and a 3.48 billion U.S. Dollars contract with Russian Railways.
The 2011 Arab Spring protests upended Russia’s historic partnership with Libya. On March 9, Russia banned arms sales to Libya, which cost Moscow at least 2 billion in U.S. Dollars revenues.
Russia abstained from UNSC Resolution 1973, which imposed a no-fly zone on Libya for the purpose of protecting Libyan civilians. Russia’s alignment with the international consensus on Gaddafi’s illegitimacy created deep rifts within the Kremlin.
Vladimir Putin stated that UNSC Resolution 1973 resembled “medieval calls for crusades,” while Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that such rhetoric could lead to a “clash of civilizations.”
Russian policy towards Libya accommodated both perspectives. In September 2011, Russia recognized the National Transitional Council (NTC) as Libya’s legitimate government. However, Russia also emerged as the international community’s most strident critic of NATO’s military intervention in Libya.
Despite this balancing act, Russia’s influence in Libya plummeted after Gaddafi’s overthrow. In addition to Russia’s loss of arms deals with Libya, Russian Railways abandoned its Benghazi-to-Sirte railway project, which was a critical component of its economic presence in Libya.
The NTC awarded reconstruction contracts to countries that backed Gaddafi’s removal from the outset. In October 2013, the Russia-Libya bilateral relationship reached a nadir, as gunmen stormed the Russian embassy in Tripoli and Russian diplomats fled from Tripoli to Tunisia.
Although Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin asserted in February 2015 that U.S.-Russia cooperation against the Islamic State in Libya was possible, Moscow remained a peripheral player in Libya’s counterterrorism struggle.
The gradual resurgence of Russia’s influence in Libya since 2016 is driven by two principal aims.
First, Russia views Libya as an easy-access theatre to build on the successes of its military intervention in Syria. In particular, Russia wishes to secure a naval base in Benghazi or air base in Tobruk, which would connect with its facilities in Syria. Russia also wants to burnish its reputation as the diplomatic arbiter of choice in Middle Eastern conflicts.
Second, Russia wishes to ensconce itself as a vital stakeholder in Libya’s post-conflict reconstruction. Rosneft’s February 2017 oil offtake deal with Libya’s National Oil Company and the Wagner Group’s lead role in seizing the El Sharara oil field in the Murzuq Desert gives Russia an entry point into Libya’s oil industry.
The gradual erosion of international sanctions on the Tobrukbased government, which began with the removal of EU sanctions against LAAF aligned House of Representatives (HoR) speaker Aguila Saleh in October, could eventually translate into Russian arms contracts and lucrative infrastructure projects in eastern Libya.
Although Russia’s ambitions in Libya are clearly defined and have remained consistent over time, Moscow has used a fluid array of tactics to achieve its ends.
In contrast to its resolute support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Russia has eschewed hard alliance commitments in Libya. Russia sees the LAAF as helpful in its efforts to consolidate influence over eastern and southern Libya, but Moscow has periodically expressed displeasure with Haftar’s non-cooperative attitude during peace negotiations.
These frustrations were especially pronounced after Haftar’s walk-out from the Moscow peace negotiations on Libya in January 2020. Russia has also maintained close relations with Aguila Saleh, GNA-aligned President of Libya’s High Council of State Khaled al-Mishri and anti-systemic figures, such as Saif al-Gaddafi.
This balancing strategy reflects Russia’s event-driven approach to the Libyan conflict. Once the LAAF ensconced its hegemony over the historic eastern region of Libya Cyrenaica and secured Libya’s critical oil-producing ports in September 2016, Russia provided material and diplomatic support for Khalifa Haftar’s goals.
Russia supplied 4 billion Dinars to the Tobruk-based government, which helped the LAAF skirt international sanctions. In November 2016, Moscow dispatched technical experts to eastern Libya.
As Haftar’s staying power was uncertain and Russia did not want the GNA to view it as an aggressor, Wagner Group private military contractors (PMCs) primarily operated as stationary forces in Benghazi and Tobruk until 2019 and were marginal players in the LAAF’s triumph in Sabha oil field.
The LAAF’s April 2019 offensive on Tripoli gave Russia an opportunity to expand its military involvement in Libya. Although Russian officials were skeptical of Haftar’s ability to achieve a decisive victory over the GNA, Russia was quietly optimistic that a successful LAAF offensive would bolster his bargaining power in future peace negotiations.
Russian PMCs enhanced the effectiveness of LAAF snipers, mortar and artillery crews, operated Pantsir S-1 missile defence systems and provided defensive cover for advancing LAAF forces.
Turkey’s January 2020 military intervention in Libya stalled the LAAF’s momentum and caused Russia to embrace a hybrid military and diplomatic approach to the Libyan war.
Through the recruitment of Syrian mercenaries and deployment of MiG-25 jets, Russia tried to stall the GNA’s military advance and expand its diplomatic profile in Libya. Russia’s synthesized approach to power projection in Libya allowed it to remain largely immune to the conflict’s shifting balance of forces.
While Russia’s balancing strategy benefits its post-conflict reconstruction and diplomatic aspirations, it is also shaped by domestic considerations. Russia’s approach to the Libyan civil war accommodates rival perspectives within the Russian political establishment.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Main Intelligence Director (GRU), which oversees the Wagner Group PMCs, view Khalifa Haftar as a secular authoritarian bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s rising influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov views Aguila Saleh’s greater pragmatism as an appealing strength. Russian state-owned corporations regard a balancing strategy as the most effective means of safeguarding their future reconstruction revenues.
Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who is a close ally of Vladimir Putin and serves as Russia’s informal envoy to the Arab world, supports businessman Lev Dengov’s Contact Group on the Intra-Libyan settlement.
This contact group acts as a bridge between Russia and GNA officials. Russia’s fluid tactics aim to avoid a repetition of the overt intraKremlin rifts, which surfaced during the 2011 civil war.
Although major Russian polling agencies, such as the Levada Center or VtSIOM, have not surveyed public opinion on Russia’s policy in Libya, Moscow’s actions in Libya could also strengthen popular support for Russian foreign policy.
As Vladimir Putin has denied links between the Wagner Group and the Russian state, public awareness of the pernicious conduct of PMCs, such as the use of landmines and chemical weapons, is limited. Russia’s efforts to frame itself as a stabilizing force in Libya which counters the aftershocks of NATO’s military intervention complements its counter-revolutionary actions in Syria.
This reinforces the Kremlin’s efforts to consolidate Russia’s foreign policy identity around anti-Western norms. While the domestic political benefits of Russia’s strategy in Libya are apparent, the impact of Moscow’s actions on its international partnerships is more ambiguous.
The United States and European Union have both imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group’s lead figure Yevgeny Prigozhin for the conduct of PMCs in Libya. Western powers also view Russia’s base ambitions as a threat to the freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean.
The detachment of the United States from Libya and the willingness of European powers, such as France and Italy, to engage with Russia in Libya dilutes the impact of these condemnations.
President Joe Biden might increase US diplomatic involvement on the GNA’s behalf, but Libya is unlikely to feature prominently in his Middle East strategy.
Turkey has also chosen to diplomatically engage with Russia on ending the Libyan conflict. However, Turkish media outlets scathingly criticize the Wagner Group’s conduct and the trajectory of Russia-Turkey negotiations on Libya is periodically intermeshed with their disagreements over Syria.
Russia’s engagement with other crucial backers of the LAAF, such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, has also yielded mixed results. Due to Russia’s strident opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and support for authoritarian stability in Libya, Moscow has established close ideational synergies with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Russia’s treatment of these regional powers as equals is also appealing. However, the failure of the LAAF’s offensive against Tripoli has exposed strategic disagreements between Russia, Egypt and the UAE. Although Russia enthusiastically supported the Cairo Declaration, Moscow was alarmed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s threat to militarily intervene in eastern Libya.
Russia and the UAE regularly consult each other on developments in Libya, and Abu Dhabi is reportedly the Wagner Group’s leading financier. However, the UAE Embassy in Moscow’s obstruction of the January 12, 2020 Russia-backed peace talks reveals that its Libya strategy is much more Haftar-dependent than Russia’s.
This could create tensions between Russia and the UAE if Moscow ultimately distances itself from Haftar and aligns more firmly with Aguila Saleh. At the tenth anniversary of the Libyan revolution, Russia’s policy towards Libya is at a crossroads.
Russia publicly supported UN-backed ceasefire negotiations and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has publicly called for an intensification of intra-Libyan dialogue. However, its commitment to these peace initiatives is unclear.
UN efforts to expel foreign forces from Libya require the removal of Wagner Group private military contractors. As Turkey does not wish to withdraw its own foreign fighters, Russia will likely circumvent new Libyan Prime Minister Mohamed dbaibai’s efforts to expel Wagner Group PMCs from Libya.
Russia has also maintained its relationships with anti-systemic groups by blocking UN sanctions against Mohammed al-Kani’s al-Kaniyat militia and supporting the inclusion of Gaddafi loyalists in Libya’s political process.
These actions and Khalifa Haftar’s continued mobilization of troops in eastern Libya suggests that Russia could remain a spoiler of peace in Libya. In the short to medium term, we should monitor three dimensions of Russia’s conduct in Libya.
The first is Russia’s response to national democratic elections in Libya, which are expected to be held on 24 December 2021. In July 2019, the GNA arrested Russian political operatives aligned with Prigozhin’s Fabrika Trollei organization, as they were artificially inflating support for Khalifa Haftar and Saif al-Gaddafi in published polls.
Given this trend, Russia could use Wagner Group personnel to interfere on behalf of its preferred candidates and leverage the popularity of its Arabic-language media outlets, such as RT Arabic and Sputnik Arabic, to spread disinformation.
The second is Russia’s potential support for an informal partition of Libya between GNA and LAAF-controlled spheres of influence. This outcome could be optimal for Russia’s balancing strategy in Libya.
The third is Russia’s partial divestment from the Wagner Group in favour of using a more diverse array of PMCs.
The deployment of PMCs, such as; (a) Shield, which has battlefield experience in Syria; (b) Patriot, which has experience in other African conflict theatres, and (c) the de-mining focused RSB Group, could enhance Russia’s ability to intervene in a deniable fashion.
It could also rectify increasingly apparent shortcomings of Wagner Group personnel and help Russia withstand a potential U.S. pressure campaign against the UAE’s financing of the Wagner Group.
Although Russia’s short-term objectives in Libya remain in flux, Moscow’s focus on indispensability over consolidating hard alliances and synthesized use of economic, political influence, military and diplomatic means of power projection will continue for the foreseeable future.
Samuel Ramani is a final year DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations. Samuel is an expert on post 1991 Russian foreign policy and is currently writing a book on Russia’s foreign policy towards Africa, which will be published by Oxford University Press and Hurst and Co. in 2022. Samuel is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy and to broadcast media outlets, such as Al Jazeera English and the BBC World Service. Samuel has briefed the NATO Intelligence Fusion Center, U.S. Department of State and UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Russian security policy.
Nadja Berghoff – Programs and Communication Fellow at Sadeq Institute.
Anas El-Gomati – Director, Libya’s 1st think tank. Chief contributor Security & Governance.