Ufuk Necat Tasci
Russia’s plan to open up consular services in Benghazi is another sign that Moscow is not ready to give up on warlord Khalifa Haftar.
Russia has once again thrown the spanner in the works of an international effort to bring peace and stability to war-torn Libya, which has been divided by a decade-long conflict, experts say.
Moscow has indicated that it will open up its embassy in Libya’s capital Tripoli by the end of year. At the same time, it has insisted that consular services will start functioning in Benghazi in the east, an area that is under the control of renegade warlord General Khalifa Haftar. “It is not that easy, safety is the most important thing.
We cannot put our people and the safety of our foreign missions at risk,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said earlier this week.
His remarks were aimed at highlighting why Moscow has dragged its feet in resuming consular services in Tripoli where other European powers such as Spain have recently opened up their embassies.
“Moscow is more interested in the Benghazi consulate than its embassy in Tripoli because it’s still betting on the military solution in Libya despite the political progress that has been made,” said Abdulkader Assad, the chief editor of The Libya Observer and Libya Alahrar English.
The Kremlin wants the world to believe that it’s making a genuine effort to bring stability to Libya but in fact Russia wants military presence in eastern and southern Libya to secure lucrative oil, gas and construction projects, he told TRT World.
Perhaps it was no surprise when one of Haftar’s commanders this month called for a secession of eastern Libya despite UN-led attempts to maintain peace between the warring sides.
These statements are indicative of Russian plans to prolong the conflict, said Assad.
Oil-rich Libya is split between the UN-backed Tripoli government and a Russia-backed administration run by Haftar in the east.
A ceasefire between the two sides in October 2020 deescalated most of the tension. Then a UN-led mediation effort helped install a Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli in March. The GNU will ensure that a national election takes place in December.
Russia has in the past tried to scuttle peace initiatives. Moscow at first supported the UN’s mediation effort in Libya in 2019 that was led by the former special envoy, Ghassan Salame.
Yet at the same time it blocked a UN Security Council resolution in 2019 that called on warlord Khalifa Haftar to halt a military assault on Tripoli against the UN-backed government.
“Russia is a conflict enabler in Libya. Haftar’s international posture and attack on Tripoli wouldn’t have been possible without active Russian political and material assistance,” said Salah El Bakkoush, a political analyst and former advisor to Libya’s High Council of State.
Thousands of mercenaries belonging to the infamous Russia-based Wagner Group have been fighting in Libya alongside Haftar’s forces, and numerous reports show that’s being done at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia wants a strategic advantage against NATO and it has concluded that continuing to support warlord Haftar, Aguila Saleh, and Gaddafi elements will prolong conflict, which can serve for its goals,” Bakkoush told TRT World.
“Russia’s interests, at least for now, are best served by prolonging the conflict and Haftar is a useful tool in that strategy.”
Russia has allegedly used its mercenaries to take control of Libya’s oil trade. Sirte, located between Tripoli and Benghazi, is a strategic gateway to oil reserves.
“The mercenaries have dug trenches to connect oilfields to near-sea positions in Sirte so that they can illicitly ship off oil from Libya with the help of Haftar’s militias,” said Assad, the chief editor of The Libya Observer.
“This has been confirmed by a UN panel of experts, and yet no action has been taken neither by the international community nor the UN Security Council to force Russia to withdraw its mercenaries.”
On its part, Russia is saying that it wants a good relationship with the Tripoli government. Bogdanov, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, said Moscow has invited GNU leaders for talks.
But experts said that this is just another Russian ploy to prolong the conflict. “Russia’s support for Haftar is still ongoing despite the UN-brokered ceasefire,” said Assad.
“This is clearly manifested in the rejection of Moscow to withdraw Wagner Group mercenaries from Sirte, Jufra and various areas in eastern region.”
Russia will not make an exit for Libya any time soon as it sees Haftar as a way to get hold of Libya’s resources, said Assad.
In recent months, some GNU officials have indicated their willingness to cooperate with Russia. But Assad said the GNU must first demand Moscow to pull back its mercenaries to show its commitment to peace.
“Let’s face it, Moscow’s main reason for its involvement in Libya is the oil and gas projects, and the presence of their Wagner mercenaries near the Sharara oilfield is proof of this,” he said.