Marco Giannangeli

Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar is “so inexorably linked to the Russian state that every decision is now taken in the realm of what Moscow finds acceptable”, warn experts. And this includes weaponising migrants. Western diplomats who engage with Libyan hardman Khalifa Haftar are hindering Europe’s capacity to curb Russia’s growing influence in the North African country, experts warned last night.

And they could pay a heavy price if Moscow chooses to engineer mass waves of migration which could “stretch European infrastructure and unity”. Using Benghazi as an alternative Libyan capital, the General – who received his military training in the USSR – is now completely reliant on Russian military might for his power. There are 2,000 Russian mercenaries employed by the Wagner group in Libya today. They were joined recently by a further contingent of 1,500 regular Russian troops.

Russia’s entrenched presence in Libya already presents several threats to Europe and the UK, in the form of plundered gold and diamonds which bring billions to Moscow’s war chest, Russian oil sales and control of the port of Tobruk from which it can threaten Nato interests just 700 miles away. Now, the weaponisation of desperate migrants offers another, deniable and non-military method of exerting pressure on the West.

It means that Russian leader Vladimir Putin can use Haftar to hold a gun to Europe’s head should he seek leverage in UN Security Council votes or in the event of military setbacks in Ukraine. European leaders and the US have been trying to court Haftar for the last two years.

In March the UK struck a £1m deal to ensure Libya’s formal government in Tripoli stops migrants from crossing into Europe, instead repatriating them to their countries of origin. But this holds no sway over Haftar. Italian PM Giorgia Meloni has twice visited Benghazi, offering valuable concessions and economic contracts in return for Haftar’s pledge to clamp down on migrant flows from Libya. The first meeting last year was followed by a 600 per cent rise in migrant flows from Cyrenaica. And action by Western leaders is offering no deterrence.

On Thursday, Libya’s UK ambassador Dr Martin Longden met with Haftar in Benghazi to “relay the view that all parties should engage in the UN’s political process.” Jalel Harchaoui added: “The UK, US, France, Italy all sent their diplomats to celebrate and honour Haftar’s armed coalition in Benghazi on Thursday – barely weeks after Russian armed forces sent tens of thousands of tonnes of military hardware “At the very same time, the same Western democracies vow to combat corruption and Russia’s expansionism”

When countries like Italy legitimise Haftar and offer incentives, it has a knock-on-effect, he said, adding: “Once Italy becomes engaged with reconstruction projects it can no longer support, say, a British call for sanctions.” And it will not work, because when the West talks to Haftar, it is talking to “someone who is inexorably linked to the Russian state”.

“He considers Russia vital and every decision is now taken in the realm of what Moscow finds acceptable,” said Mr Harchaoui Russia has already used migration as a weapon in 2023, when crossings from Belarus to the EU increased by 62 per cent. Frontex, the EU’s border police, has warned that an increasingly isolated Putin choosing to move migrants to Europe’s doorstep – both along Russia’s eastern borders and through proxies in the south, including in Africa – is a major threat to security for 2024.

Now, Moscow controls the borders around Haftar-occupied Libya including Chad, Niger, Sudan and Egypt. “Imagine if the situation in Sudan worsened and migrant numbers increased and Italy began to panic,” said Mr Harchaoui “It now has to face a power base backed by Russian forces. Options have dwindled.”

Alia Brahimi of the Atlantic Council think tank said: “More than a security issue, this is fundamentally a humanitarian emergency, and short-term deals with human rights abusers erase from the picture the desperate people trapped in an abhorrent cycle of violence involving enslavement, forced labour, sexual exploitation, and organ theft. “Libya is fast becoming a mafia state, where a few individuals own almost all the criminality. The same Russian proxies who run large human trafficking rings are also trading in illegal drugs from Syria as well as vast quantities of fuel stolen systematically and in plain sight from the Libyan state, which ends up with Russia’s allies in Syria and Sudan.

“Haftar is very unlikely to abandon his strong relationship with Russia as this will risk his entire empire. So the Libyan migration crisis is a weapon open to Moscow. “Illegal migration from Eastern Libya has a capacity to stretch European infrastructure and unity. And this is something that Russia is very alive to.”

“The UK, US, France, Italy all sent their diplomats to celebrate and honour Haftar’s armed coalition in Benghazi on Thursday – just  weeks after Russian armed forces sent tens of thousands of tonnes of military hardware. Meanwhile, the same Western democracies vow to combat corruption and Russia’s expansionism”.  Jalel Harchaoui, RUSI

A second meeting in May seemingly heralded results, with transit figures now dropping as Haftar reins in his criminal gangs. While only 100,000 migrants crossed from Libya into Europe last year – compared with a million in 2015 – this situation can change. “If Haftar has the power to crack down on the number of fishing vessels being used to illegally transport migrants from Libya, he has the power to do the opposite,” said Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui of the RUSI think tank. “He can also just send migrants along to Western Libya. “If something happens in Ukraine, or within the UN Security Council, there is the possibility that Moscow will use Libya as part of its tool kit to exert punishment on Italy or Europe.”


Marco Giannangeli is the Defence and Diplomatic Editor at the Sunday Express. He covers defence and security issues as well as Geopolitics around the world and is particularly interested in recruitment and personnel, Nato, weapons systems and other innovations.


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