As Moscow tightens its grip on the eastern regions of Libya, it has triggered new geopolitical tremors within the wider North Africa region, parts of the Mediterranean and even further west, across the Atlantic. The catastrophic flooding in September, which left up to 20,000 people dead in Derna, has turned into a strategic opportunity for Russia to increase its influence in the region. Notorious putschist Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of eastern Libya, is leveraging this same crisis to strengthen his reign, widening his ties with Moscow and, oddly enough, the US too. That is not all, but why is this alarming?
Of course, Russia’s cozy “partnership” with Haftar is no secret. However, the increasing contacts with Russia, including a late September visit to Moscow and meetings with President Vladimir Putin, raise concerns about a rapid expansion of Russian influence and huge shift from a passive, often covert, role to a more active reengagement in Libya. Having successfully reorganized its primary “agent” in Africa’s hotspots, the Wagner private military company, Russia is transitioning away from maintaining a significant but under-acknowledged presence in Libya’s east and south, where Haftar, the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army’s supreme leader, holds sway.
Particularly concerning are the unconfirmed reports that Moscow is pushing Haftar to sign a deal for the supply of air defense systems and pilot training in exchange for Russia establishing air and naval bases in Libya to sustain its operations there, as well as in the Sahel. The deal signals Moscow’s intent to legitimize the activities that were previously undertaken covertly by Wagner in Libya and across Africa under the auspices of its Ministry of Defense. It is a profound shift in Moscow’s ties to Haftar that date back to 2016, when he sought foreign military expertise from Russia, France and the US to combat extremist strongholds in Benghazi and Derna. Russia seized this opportunity to regain a foothold in Libya through Wagner’s mercenaries, which have since established themselves in Sirte and Jufra, close to lucrative oil sites.
The last time Russia was this actively engaged in Libya, the Haftar-Moscow partnership almost led to the seizure of Tripoli, which ultimately failed thanks to Turkiye’s intervention. Since then, they have resorted to consolidating Haftar’s grip on an expansive region, which he now leverages in ongoing negotiations on an enduring political settlement. Over the past few years, Haftar’s “empire” has afforded Moscow all the cover it needed to continue carving out significant strategic advantages in Libya, turning it into a power projection platform toward the Sahel and potentially the Mediterranean. The Russian mercenaries in Libya now number between 1,000 and 1,500, supported by about 1,000 pro-Damascus Syrian militiamen that rotate between Benghazi and Syria.
By lurching toward a profound shift — setting aside its motives that may or may not involve Russia’s troubles in Ukraine — Moscow is signaling that it is here to stay in Libya. Even more worrying is the swift centralization and accumulation of power within the ranks of Haftar’s immediate family and inner circle. At its core is an intricate process of nepotism masquerading as military restructuring. Command responsibilities previously distributed across various military personnel are now unmistakably converging under a coterie of Haftar loyalists, effectively marginalizing potential adversaries.
However, this introspective campaign for supremacy does not stop at merely subordinating the entire military command to Haftar pseudo-dynasty. It also involves an unchecked incursion into Libya’s economic and political domains by erecting patronage structures and initiating a variety of revenue-generating ventures. By broadening its influence, fostering alliances and dependency, the Haftar parallel regime can leverage these ill-begotten gains politically as the situation unfolds. To Russia, this is particularly encouraging because its long-term agenda for Libya will endure well into the future.
The emergence of Saddam Haftar, Khalifa Haftar’s youngest son, paints a vivid picture of an ambitious figure spearheading the family’s political and economic pursuits. As he continues to make his mark in Libya’s complex landscape, his incremental growth and influence not only provide insights on the Haftar family’s overall roadmap, but they also reflect Russia’s intentions as it seeks to reestablish itself after an unceremonious exit in 2011. However, even with a cunning gambit and its careful execution, the prospect of Moscow securing a legitimate defense agreement — as a first of many coups de grace — with Haftar’s parallel regime is fraught with difficulties, although they are not insurmountable.
The internationally recognized Libyan government led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh will still have to approve such an agreement and, given the current climate, that is very unlikely. Besides, even within Haftar’s own fiefdom, there are problems. The eastern-based House of Representatives still retains the legal authority to scuttle such a deal if its ratification diminishes the influence of Aguila Saleh, the head of the parliament, who is keen to carve out his own sphere in post-settlement Libya.
However, the West should not bet on these apparent bottlenecks and lull itself into inaction merely based on “what-ifs” and an endless game of geopolitical probabilities. The developing situation in Libya, while in its infancy, is still an unvarnished reflection of Russia’s broader geopolitical ambitions and Europe seriously needs to pay attention.
Firstly, the fragility of Libya, a nation still grappling with long-standing political divisions and a protracted conflict between the east and the west, provides the perfect storm for Russia’s ambitions. By aligning with Haftar, Russia not only gains a strategic ally but also a platform from which it can influence the region’s dynamics. Besides, cultivating a closer relationship will prop up a post-Haftar dynasty, potentially catalyzing a new conflict hotspot right at what some would call Europe’s doorstep.
The quasi-military Wagner group continues to entrench itself in Libya, despite the recent loss of its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. Yet, across Western capitals, there is still a palpable dismissive narrative that continues to frame Wagner and Russia’s presence in Libya as mere opportunism. The reality, however, is that the mercenary group is only a small part of a prolonged engagement, just one manifestation of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions that extend far beyond military or naval bases for spying in NATO’s backyard or being a proverbial thorn in the soft underbelly of Euro-Atlantic hegemony.
The effects of this ongoing geopolitical chess are already tangible. With each new Russian move to extend its presence, the balance of power in Libya keeps tilting, mostly in favor of the Haftar-dominated east — affording Tobruk and Sirte unprecedented leverage in securing an enduring, albeit controversial and lopsided, settlement of Libya’s protracted political divisions. Moreover, Russia has also not been shy about making inroads with Haftar’s western rival, the Tripoli-based, Western-backed caretaker government led by Prime Minister Dbeibeh.
By playing both sides, Russia is shifting from a passive role in a UN-managed process to active participation, which is potentially concerning. While Russia will continue publicly endorsing the UN process, it could also use its newly cultivated ties with both sides to covertly push for a settlement that safeguards Moscow’s long-term interests, to the detriment of Libyan aspirations for restoring long-lost sovereignty in a stable, unified state. In other words, if Moscow’s interests are better served by a Libya in perpetual tumult, then the shift toward a more active role will not bode well, both for Libyans and the West’s still-unclear vision for the North African country’s future.
The spillover effects of a Libya in perpetual limbo — drifting from one foreign-backed convulsion to the next — are immense, potentially resulting in increased migration flows toward Europe, the worsening of governance in Libya and the further entrenchment of malign actors. It is not just Libya that should be concerned. The potential spread of instability into the wider North Africa region, extending to the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, could worsen the already volatile security dynamics there, creating new vulnerabilities or introducing new complexities that only serve to extend the power vacuums caused by prolonged conflicts.
In conclusion, Russia’s tactical efforts to fortify its military presence in eastern Libya cannot be viewed in isolation by Europe. Such assertive maneuvers, including the potential realization of a naval base on Europe’s southern flank, could shift the delicate balance of power in the region. This could have ramifications not only for Libya’s internal dynamics but also for the global geopolitical landscape, posing a tangible threat at Europe’s doorstep.
Therefore, it is vital for Europe to confidently navigate this strategic conundrum. To counter the growing impact of Russia’s influence in Libya, Europe needs to display geopolitical sagacity. This could involve taking more decisive action in Libya, revitalizing diplomatic dialogue or strengthening the bloc’s collective defense capacity. As Europe seeks to safeguard its regional interests, it must also advocate for a stable, peaceful Libya — which, in the end, is the true necessity for all parties involved.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC.