Frederic Wehrey & Andrew Weiss
The challenge for Western policymakers is to avoid viewing Russian activism in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa through an exclusively zero-sum lens.
The region’s political disarray, complexities, and especially the unpredictability of local rulers all present built-in buffers to Russian influence—as they do to all external players.
Neighboring Libya has similarly been a long-standing site of Russian activism and influence, driven both by geopolitics and by economic interests.
At the 1945 Potsdam Conference, then Soviet premier Joseph Stalin unsuccessfully tried to obtain a UN trusteeship over the former Italian-ruled territory of Tripolitania (western Libya).
In the immediate years following the 1969 Libyan officers’ coup, which toppled the pro-American king Idris al-Senussi and installed then captain (and later colonel) Qadhafi as de facto head of state, Libya pursued a nominally nonaligned foreign policy.
But by the early and mid-1970s, Qadhafi was importing significant quantities of Soviet weaponry, starting a trend of military cooperation that would later expand to the deployment of thousands of Soviet advisers to Libya.
By the mid-2000s, Russia had forgiven Libya’s substantial debt in return for deals on energy, weapons, and transportation infrastructure.
Yet Libya’s arms trade with Moscow did not translate into real fraternal relations or transform Libya into a strategic Russian client. Throughout the 1970s, for example, Qadhafi attempted to diversify his sources of arms and increasingly turned to the Soviet Union only after Western governments refused or attached conditions.
Similarly, the oft-cited example of a Russian naval port in Benghazi was always more aspirational than assured; Qadhafi was cleverly dangling this access as leverage over Russia and the West.
And in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, the common narrative of Russian financial losses resulting from the NATO-led regime change was also somewhat misleading. More often than not, Moscow was talking about potential losses resulting from signed or verbally promised deals.
Since then, Russia’s activities in Libya can best be described as opportunistic, flexible, diversified, and scalable. Moscow aims to rekindle and surpass the economic benefits harvested under Qadhafi through the installation of a friendly and preferably authoritarian government.
Suggestions that Russia seeks to undermine Europe through release of irregular migrants, especially to Italy and, further afield, Germany, vastly overstate Russia’s degree of control on the ground.
That said, Russia has opportunistically sought to thwart European diplomacy in Libya through increasingly aggressive initiatives unencumbered by human rights concerns.
For example, Moscow has at various points made overtures to a local militia actor on an illegal hydrocarbon deal, cultivated diverse and often divided currents of Qadhafi loyalists, especially the late dictator’s son Saif al-Qadhafi, and backed renegade eastern commander Khalifa Haftar.
Yet the notion of Haftar serving as “Moscow’s man in Libya” or a reliable Libyan proxy is overblown. To be sure, Russian support was critical to the aspiring strongman’s rise in eastern Libya from 2014 to the present—though clandestine military support to Haftar from two U.S. allies, France and the United Arab Emirates, was arguably more consequential and destabilizing.
Working with the UAE and Egypt, Russia sent weapons, spare parts, and medical care to Haftar, as well as technicians, logisticians, advisers, and intelligence personnel.
Moscow also printed dinars for the Haftar-aligned, unrecognized Central Bank in eastern Libya, ensuring this parallel administration’s solvency. Russia state media and proxy actors supported Haftar’s rise with a fairly sophisticated information campaign.
Most significantly, mercenaries from the state-sponsored Wagner Group bolstered the firepower of Haftar’s frontline forces during his assault on Tripoli from late 2019 to mid-2020, improving the precision of his artillery, directing the battlefield maneuvers of his fighters, and degrading morale of the Tripoli forces with fearsomely effective sniping.
The net result of this injection of Russian support, which was accompanied by Wagner Group human rights abuses like summary executions and the planting of antipersonnel mines in residential areas, was to put Haftar within reach of toppling the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord (GNA).
Despite all of this, Moscow was both suspicious of Haftar, given his long-standing ties to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and contemptuous of his military competence.
Russia was a reluctant backer of his April 4, 2019, attack on the capital Tripoli. And even as it was sending mercenaries to assist his campaign in Tripoli, Moscow kept channels open to his opponent, the GNA—pursuing a gas deal in a GNA-controlled western area, for example—in the hopes of reaching a settlement that would secure its economic interests.
More importantly, Moscow’s substantial aid to Haftar did not translate into loyalty or responsiveness from the notoriously headstrong Libyan commander.
When the Russian Wagner Group deployment on Haftar’s behalf prompted the panicked GNA to turn to Turkish military intervention in the form of drones and Syrian mercenaries, the resulting battlefield stalemate in early 2020 prompted Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to call their own diplomatic summit in Moscow—to which Haftar was invited but ultimately walked out of.
The blatant snub to Putin only accelerated Moscow’s distancing from Haftar, shown in its outreach in mid-2020 to his eastern political rival, the House of Representatives chair Aguilah Saleh Issa, and Moscow’s decision to halt providing printed dinars to Haftar’s beleaguered eastern administration amid a UN- and U.S.-backed effort to unify Libya’s financial institutions.
Similarly, Russia has been backing a UN-brokered road map for elections scheduled for the end of the year and has been engaging the GNA on possible military support.
In the meantime, the Wagner Group and regular military personnel have expanded their presence in and around air bases and oil facilities in the central and southern regions of Libya.
Taken in sum, these recent shifts indicate that military force and more malign forms of meddling are chips that Russia plays that can be withdrawn, scaled, or complimented by other types of engagement in response to changing local and international contexts.
Depending on the outcome of Libya’s fraught transition to elections, Russia could easily restart a more bellicose policy of military support to Haftar or another Libyan spoiler.
Looking ahead, external influencers on Russian moves in either direction are the policies of Turkey, which exerts uncontested sway over western Libya through military forces and basing, and, to a lesser extent, those of the UAE, whose long-standing military intervention in Libya provided the opening for Russian support to Haftar in the first place. Ankara and Abu Dhabi have shifted their rivalry in Libya to the diplomatic sphere—for now.
CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS
The motives for Russia’s renewed global activism have been well-documented over the course of Carnegie’s ongoing project, the Return of Global Russia. The Kremlin’s quest for stature and clout on the world stage is never far removed from its decisionmaking—if anything, these wider ambitions propel its opportunism and attempts to seize upon the self-inflicted mistakes of other powers, especially the United States.
At the same time, the Kremlin does not trouble itself with conditionality on its military assistance, respect for human rights, or the protection of delicate regional balances—principles that the U.S. and major European players have long embraced yet not always observed in practice.
Russia’s competitive advantages in the Middle East and North Africa are nontrivial. Its willingness to engage with all parties in the region allows it to maintain ties that are off-limits to U.S. officials, most vividly in Syria where the United States cannot speak directly to most of the key players.
Russia’s highly centralized national-level decisionmaking allows it to perform nimbly and adroitly in fast-moving situations. Free of unwelcome scrutiny by an independent parliament or news media, the Kremlin does not have to worry all that much about the domestic blowback of policy failures or setbacks.
At the same time, the Kremlin has rarely, if ever, committed the capabilities or resources to lead the search for first-order problems in the region. It would rather collect a fee (say, in the form of commercial opportunities) for offering its good offices than provide the actual resources that are necessary to broker political deals and to make them stick.
Even in Syria, where Russia is the largest outside actor, there is a clear mismatch between how the Kremlin is viewed by local actors (who sometimes have unrealistic expectations about Russian hard power, influence, and other sources of strength) and what it can actually deliver.
In North Africa, the possibility of Russia acquiring a permanent or contingency military base cannot be ruled out. (The most likely candidates are an air base in Libya or a maritime port in Egypt, Libya, or Algeria.)
Such facilities could enhance Russian power projection capability into the Mediterranean and serve as the springboard into the African interior. To be sure, Russia’s various contributions to cronyism, corruption, human rights violations, and an already toxic media environment are detrimental to the region’s long-term economic and political health.
Yet U.S. and Western policymakers have ample tools at their disposal to deal with some of these challenges. For example, in Libya, shifting developments on the ground and more active multilateral diplomacy like the UN-brokered election road map have removed opportunities that Russia had hoped to exploit.
Increased U.S. diplomatic backstopping to European, especially British and German, diplomatic efforts helped limit both European disunity and French unilateralism. Such moves mattered far more than “exposés” like the release of satellite photos from the U.S. Africa Command about the deployment of Russian mercenaries.
Targeted pressure tactics (such as the seizure of Russian-printed banknotes bound for Haftar’s eastern administration, stricter multilateral enforcement of oil sales norms and embargos, and the takedown of Russia-backed fake social media accounts) are cost-effective ways to frustrate and stymie Russian meddling, although their net impact on Russian calculations should not be overstated.
But beyond this, the challenge for Western policymakers is to avoid viewing Russian activism in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa through an exclusively zero-sum lens.
The region’s political disarray, complexities, and especially the agency, obstinacy, and unpredictability of local rulers all present built-in antibodies and buffers to Russian influence—as they do to all external players.
Russia has done itself no favors through a series of ham-fisted interactions with the region. Such moves have fostered views among local elites and the broader public that Moscow is an unreliable and problematic partner, especially compared to Europe and the United States.
These reputational shortcomings are likely to have a consequential impact on Russia’s standing for years to come.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sector governance, and U.S. policy, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
Andrew Weiss is the James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, where he oversees research in Washington and Moscow on Russia and Eurasia.
Source: Reassessing Russian Capabilities in the Levant and North Africa.