Libya’s presidential elections, originally scheduled for December 24, were postponed. However, they might as well have been canceled considering the judicial disagreements between the various candidates, and the factions and political forces that represent them. Although the leaders present at the Paris International Conference for Libya – held on November 12, 2021 – expressed full support for the stabilization of the country in compliance with the October 23, 2020 ceasefire agreement, the failure of the elections to occur was a foregone conclusion.

In fact, less than a month later, the Libyan parties were called to come to an agreement regarding the new electoral law. The time window between the presidential and parliamentary elections offered the defeated candidates a great opportunity to oppose the result and plunge the country back into instability. Meanwhile, in an interview with the New York Times during the summer of 2021, Saif al-Gaddafi, the second son of the late Libyan leader Mu’ammar Gaddafi, launched his candidacy in the presidential elections.

Saif al-Gaddafi launched his candidacy in the presidential elections during the summer of 2021.

As a well-educated man with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, Gaddafi argued for the need to reform the country, giving the impression of being the “savior” of the former Jamahiriya (loosely translated as Republic of the Masses, a term conceived by Mu’ammar Gaddafi himself). He was considered by many to be his father’s heir. Indeed, until the revolts of 2011, he was the most popular member of the Gaddafi family in the West with his fluent English and sincere interest in democracy, human rights, and genuine reform in his country.

Then came the “Arab Spring” and at the end of 2011, Gaddafi was captured by rebel fighters and imprisoned by the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade until 2017.

At first, Gaddafi welcomed the revolution with open arms. He encouraged the MENA region governments to listen to the demands of their people and take the path towards democracy. However, when it came time to make concrete decisions, his position was very different. Later, in 2021, Gaddafi presented himself as a reform leader who might benefit from most Libyans’ nostalgia for the stability that existed during his father’s regime. His rise is closely intertwined with the help Libya received from Russia, which considers Gaddafi the ideal replacement for ex-General Khalifa Haftar, who had already tried and failed to stabilize Libya, mostly by war and armed militia’s terror tactics.

The failure of the Libyan electoral appointment gave Russia important indications on the relationship between Haftar and Gaddafi. The two have long been identified as the key figures required to safeguard Russian interests in the country.

To be sure, Russia has an important role to play in either resolving or further complicating the Libyan situation. For its part, Moscow had backed the December elections, considering them – according to its envoy for the Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Bogdanov –  as a fundamental starting point aimed at achieving the stabilization of Libya. But the ambitions of new “premier” Fathi Bachagha – who had wanted to be the head of the House of Representatives since the first day of his designation – have clashed with the threats of the outgoing premier, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah.

Russia has an important role to play in either resolving or further complicating the Libyan situation.

Although Gaddafi is still wanted by the International Criminal Court, he has expressed his desire to run for president of Libya. There are reports Gaddafi sent “emissaries” to Moscow last summer to discuss his leadership ambitions with the head of the Kremlin. Ten years after his father’s assassination by NATO-backed insurgents, he has been trying to restore his leadership.

Indeed, in the years before the collapse of the Jamahiriya, Gaddafi had taken on ever more important non-institutional – yet highly visible – political roles, especially in matters of foreign affairs. And just as the first rumblings of revolt began in Benghazi, and then in Tripoli, there were suggestions of replacing Mu’ammar with his son. That did not happen, of course, and after the NATO intervention and the killing of its four-decade-lasting autocratic ruler, Libya has experienced a long period of unrest, civil war, and political instability.

Russia, on the other hand, has shown a willingness to support Gaddafi’s presidency as an alternative to the Kremlin’s other candidate of choice, strongman Haftar, due to his promise of stability and hard stance on radical Islamism. However, the ex-general tainted his reputation by failing to defeat the Turkish-backed government forces in Tripoli when he launched a large-scale military campaign in 2019, costing him valuable political capital.

Meanwhile, Gaddafi has already presented a recovery plan for the country, along with a series of proposals to overcome Libya’s crisis. The proposal is approved by the international community as it safeguards its interests in Libya – one of them being the maintenance of a potential naval base in Cyrenaica. Mu’ammar had promised the Russians access to a naval base back in 2008, and Haftar had hinted as much. In essence, the Kremlin has been looking for an opportunity to exploit the West’s failure to promote stability in Libya by supporting the more secular factions, with or without UN recognition.

Gaddafi has already presented a recovery plan for the country.

With Haftar now weakened by his military failure, Moscow’s alternative to pursuing its strategic goals may be Gaddafi, especially since that in a post-Ukraine war situation, the Russians will be trying to secure strategic assets in view of an inevitable resumption of the Cold War.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group who is rumored to have sent military and political “aides” to Libya, is said to be one of the main sponsors of Gaddafi’s political ambitions. According to Bloomberg News, contact between the parties began to intensify in 2019. Initially, the collaborative relationship was established for other reasons. 

In fact, Gaddafi wanted to provide Russia with compromising information on some Western politicians who had received election funding from his family. The Russians responded that the material was of less interest than his leadership in Libya as they believed that nostalgia for his father’s old regime was still strong.

Moscow’s support for Gaddafi is clearly on the table even though his ambitions were first thwarted by the arrest of his Russian advisor in Tripoli, in May 2019, on charges of electoral interference and spying as a potential Turkish countermove to Haftar’s Russian-backed military activism. There has even been speculation that Gaddafi and Haftar coordinated their efforts. But, the fact that Haftar played an important role in disqualifying Gaddafi’s candidature in the (canceled) December 24 election last November all but confirms that Gaddafi represented a threat to the ex-general’s stature in eastern Libya.

Gaddafi’s appeal in Sebha was marred by an attack by the Tariq Bin Ziyad militias, likely operating at Haftar’s behest to prevent the “prodigal son” from challenging the sentence. This sent a clear message to Moscow, demonstrating that whatever its goals are, it must move carefully.

Similarly, it’s also clear that Russia will continue to look for candidates to influence in Libya. Given its continued political support in Africa and inevitable geostrategic realignment in the wake of the Ukraine war, Russia will have even more reason to secure what outposts it can in the Mediterranean, and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region especially.

Russia will continue to look for candidates to influence in Libya.

To date, Syria offers Russia its only window in the Mediterranean at the port city of Tartus. The Russian naval facility in Tartus was built in 1971 as part of an agreement between then Soviet leader Brezhnev and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. The aim was to allow Soviet ships stationed in the Mediterranean to carry out repairs or maintenance without having to return to Odessa or Sevastopol. Presumably, both ports will be fully back in Moscow’s control.

Russia will try to extend its influence from Tartus to strengthen ties to Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, as well as Syria, exchanging staple foods, such as wheat, and weapons via Russian Navy access to ports.  The Russian navy currently boasts more than 30 large warships, 21 amphibious ships, and over 50 submarines. Most of these are capable of deploying ballistic and cruise missiles.

While unifying Libya would certainly benefit Russia in the long term, for the time being, it’s essential for Moscow to identify as many potential partners in the war-torn country as possible, and these partners — given Tripoli’s proximity to UN, US, and EU interests – will likely be found in Eastern Libya; because of the influence of figures like Ex-General Haftar, and because it is there that the desired naval base would be built.