The changing tides in the Libya conflict have pushed Russia to adopt a dual track approach now that Khalifa Haftar’s offensive has failed: Support the Wagner Group with weapons while propping up Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif, in the upcoming democratic elections.
Whereas Russian President Vladimir Putin once employed the Wagner Group – a shadowy mercenary operation – to back Haftar, on August 5, Libyan authorities issued an arrest warrant for Saif due to alleged collaboration with the Russian mercenaries. This has not deterred Moscow from refocusing its efforts to align with Saif’s political aims. Saif represents to Moscow what Haftar once did: a malleable client who would suppress Islamism and spread autocratic influence.
Moreover, Russia knows that further usurping the UN-sponsored elections by supporting Haftar will result in greater international recrimination. Moscow, consequently, is now adopting a dual-track approach by backing Saif in the elections while maintaining the status quo and integrating Wagner with Haftar’s forces.
Putin maintained close relations with Muammar Gaddafi during his reign, signing trade agreements and receiving access to the Libyan port at Benghazi. After Gaddafi’s death in 2011, and Libya’s subsequent civil war, Putin found another figure to play the controversial leader’s role: ex-General Khalifa Haftar. However, when the eastern commander’s siege of Tripoli stalemated in 2019, Egypt began questioning its support for Haftar causing speculation that Russia would follow suit.
In September 2020, rumors then circulated that Saif Gaddafi flew to Moscow; and, in December 2020, a company owned by Yvgeny Prigozhin – the head of the Wagner Group – paid two recently freed men in Libya US$500,000. Libyan authorities accused these men of election meddling after working with Saif. The payment indicated Moscow had begun to show interest in Saif’s campaign.
Indeed, Haftar’s military failures had changed Putin’s calculus and, by the October 23, 2020 ceasefire, violence somewhat diminished as a credible option to augment Russian influence in Libya. The upcoming elections thus became more attractive a vehicle to advance Russian interests. In this context, Russia began to hedge its bets and support a candidate for the upcoming Libyan elections in December, namely Saif.
According to Libyan intelligence officials interviewed by BBC, “If Russia had its way, we would have had Saif [al-Islam] Gaddafi giving his victory speech in Tripoli’s famous Martyrs’ Square.” This quote evokes the long-standing relationship that Russia maintained with Gaddafi’s government, one in which Russian Railways was slated to construct a US$2.2 billion railroad between Sirte and Benghazi and sell Libya billions of dollars in arms before Gaddafi’s death. Russian oil companies enjoyed lucrative oil contracts under Gaddafi, and they remain anxious to renew the pursuit of that wealth.
Tatneft – a Russian energy company whose CEO is the President of the Russian province Tatarstan – extracted Libyan oil until 2014. During the subsequent civil war, and Haftar’s offensives, Tatneft was unable to pursue its contracts. Recently, though, Tatneft committed to the reopening of certain sites – based on contracts received from the senior Gaddafi. The exploitation of Libyan resources proves more feasible for Russian companies under the tentative ceasefire and is more reason for Russia to support a friendly candidate in the elections than continue its military escapades via Haftar.
Reinforcing the idea of a presidential bid, in July 2021, Saif gave a rare interview to Robert F. Worth of the New York Times. He attempted to paint himself as a reformed leader who values democracy; he also played upon supposed Libyan nostalgia for the stability of his father’s rule. Worth, however, concluded by writing that Saif understands the Western language of human rights, and he speaks it to increase Western support for a presidential run.
Like Putin in his early days, Saif sees the rhetoric of democracy as a means to an end: power. Putin understands that Saif’s willingness to feign this discourse on human rights could obviate the obstacles Russia faces when supporting Haftar. Putin wants to avoid situations like that of 2020, when USAFRICOM’s publicly exposed Russian military equipment deployed on Haftar’s behalf.
Moreover, despite rumors of Haftar running in the upcoming Libyan elections, due to his consistent links to Moscow, and burgeoning unpopularity, Russia may want to turn its attention to a relatively more electable target.
Saif maintains links to Wagner affiliates, the Wagner Group, and the Russian government. If forms of Russian aid help him win an election, he would return the favor to Russia. Gaddafi’s son in power could see not only the return of Russian oil companies, but new arms and development contracts to rebuild Libya. Also, Russia could reinvigorate its hope of a naval base in the country, expanding its security presence in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The result is no different than if Haftar attained power, but with maintained peace, Russian companies like Tatneft may enter Libya sooner.
Accusations that Russia profits from instability may also fade if Russia phases out its support for Haftar and emphasizes Saif. Still, many complications lie ahead. The International Criminal Court has a warrant for Saif’s arrest citing numerous atrocities and crimes against humanity. This is in addition to the Libyan authorities recently issued arrest warrant for Saif. Russia understands this dilemma, which explains why it has not completely ceased support for Haftar, as BBC uncovered massive Wagner efforts on behalf of Haftar as recently as August.
Russia has realized that Haftar, and violent conflict, will partly achieve its interests while resulting in international castigation. Therefore, Moscow’s dual-track approach—supporting Haftar while also backing a potential candidate in Libyan elections—provides another axis through which to pursue Russia’s Mediterranean goals.
On top of hedging its bets, a continued Wagner presence via Haftar gives the mercenary group the logistical ability to expand into the Sahel, as this writer predicted in November 2020. Either way, Russian support for Saif reinforces Putin’s attempts to exploit democracy for geopolitical leverage, just as he has across Africa, in the United States, and in the Kremlin itself.
Dylan Yachyshen is an intern at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and will graduate from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in May 2021, majoring in international affairs and economics and French. Dylan is an editor at Boulder’s Colorado Political Science Review, involved in the community through volunteer initiatives, speaks English and French and is learning Arabic.