Russia became a major player in Libya in 2019 when it became unofficially involved through the presence of Wagner Group forces in the country as a result of a cooperation agreement with the Tobruk Parliament in 2018.
The Ukraine war will likely cast an even darker shadow on political, security, and economic conditions in Libya if Moscow takes steps to defuse growing pressure by the West and the US’s European allies by intervening further in the situation in the country.
Libya continues to be a source of concern in much of Europe in terms of migration, energy, and security issues.
The political crisis in Libya escalated in recent days after the Tobruk Parliament chose a new government led by Fathi Bashagha to succeed the national-unity government headed by Abdel-Hamid Dbeiba, who is refusing to hand over power before parliamentary elections areheld in late June to elect a new legislative body.
His opponents in the east of the country disagree with Dbeiba, as do his allies in the West who want to succeed him.
Presidential elections in Libya slated for 24 December 2021 were postponed amid much controversy, accompanied by the obstruction of the democratic process and despite the hopes of the more than 2.8 million registered Libyan voters.
The escalation of the political crisis and growing differences between the Libyan rivals regarding the new political arrangements approved by the parliament have raised fears of a renewed conflict that would take Libya back to square one in the conflict that has been raging in the country.
The Western powers and the UN have stressed the need to avoid any further escalation or steps that could destabilise the situation further and are urging the Libyan actors to move forward towards the elections.
Russia, which has been reluctant to support the Western-sponsored peace process in Libya, could sabotage the process by disrupting political, security, and economic conditions in this member state of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
The Western powers are counting on benefiting from Libya’s oil and gas production to help fill the shortfall resulting from the impeded access of Russian energy supplies to international markets.
Politically, Russia is unhappy about the overthrow of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 in an uprising supported by the Western powers and NATO. It objects to Western arrangements made in Libya since 2015 to settle the crisis based on the Skhirat Agreement, amendments resulting from the Berlin Process in 2020 and 2021, and the Paris Conference on Libya.
In December 2018, Libyan Parliamentary Speaker Aguila Saleh signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian parliament during a trip to Moscow that included security and military matters and gave Russia its first taste of political and then military involvement in Libya.
It then intervened militarily during the campaign of Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, to take control of Tripoli in April 2019, becoming a key player on the Libyan scene.
Since the Tobruk Parliament chose Bashagha as the country’s new prime minister on 10 February, Russia has been the only global power that has welcomed this step and called on others to respect it.
This indicates an undeclared insistence by Russia to undermine the West’s efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis, especially since its position is inconsistent with its reservations about Bashagha becoming prime minister, since he had promised the West to undermine Russia’s influence in Libya and not allow Moscow to establish military bases there.
Russian advisers have been giving political support to Saleh, who admitted as much during a meeting with his kinsman at his headquarters in Al-Qubba last year. The support has also been confirmed in the regional and international news media.
Over recent years, Russia has worked on renewing its links to several key figures in the former regime, notably by supporting the return of Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the former Libyan leader, to the political scene.
Russia believes it will benefit from undermining the West’s political process in Libya through its connections with Saleh and Haftar, both of whom are supporters of the overthrown regime and have strong influence on the domestic scene.
The two men helped to facilitate Russia’s return to Libya to compete with the Western powers after Gaddafi’s overthrow.
On the military and economic fronts, Russia has the ability to shatter the fragile ceasefire in Libya and turn off the main economic taps there through its paramilitary Wagner Group, which includes professional mercenaries and security contractors who play a substantial role in providing support to Haftar’s National Army.
The latter controls vital regions in the south and centre of Libya and participates in protecting major oil fields and facilities.
As the political crisis escalates in the country, some players in Libya have threatened to cut the country’s oil exports, leading to a strongly worded response from the US and its European allies warning against any such moves.
This is being seen as an attempt to head off attempts to use energy as leverage to force Dbeiba to step down and hand over power to Bashagha.
On 24 February, the embassies of France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and US warned against sabotaging or politicising the work of the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC), saying this would threaten Libya’s peace and security.
In a joint statement, the five embassies called on all the players in the country to “respect the unity, integrity, and independence [of Libya] and maintain the non-political and technical nature of the NOC, since its uninterrupted operations will benefit all Libyans.”
Russia is expected to work to replace current UN Special Adviser to the UN secretary-general on Libya Stephanie Williams and appoint a new head of the UN Support Mission in Libya.
It is also expected to continue to undermine the West’s current political process in Libya by insisting on a new and more inclusive process, in order to usher in supporters of the former regime to key seats at the negotiating table if efforts to push for elections next summer fail.