James Brooke 

May was Russia’s bloodiest month in its 28-month war against Ukraine: 38,940 soldiers dead or seriously wounded. This mountain of casualties did not stop the Kremlin from sending 2,000 soldiers and thousands of tons of military equipment to the eastern half of Libya, controlled by a warlord in Benghazi.

Benghazi was front of mind in 2012 when Islamic fundamentalists murdered the American ambassador to Libya and three other American officials. As one byproduct, Washington lost its taste for Libya’s cutthroat politics.

Moscow, however, stepped into the vacuum. Now, after years of intense courtship, Russia might be on the verge of winning basing rights for Russian Navy warships in Tobruk. From that point in the central Mediterranean, Russian Kalibr cruise missiles could hit almost any target in Western Europe. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia could provide long-range weapons to other countries so that they could strike Western targets.

“A Russian Mediterranean base in Libya would threaten Europe and NATO’s southern flank,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) wrote in its new report “Russian Outreach Across Africa.” “The Kremlin’s position in Libya also gives it the opportunity to destabilize Europe by weaponizing migrant flows from Africa, which it now has an even greater influence over thanks to its recent expansion along southern points of trans-Saharan migrant routes in the Sahel.”

In Russia’s hybrid war against the West, Moscow uses uncontrolled immigration as a new weapon. Libya has the longest coastline in North Africa — about 1,100 miles. During the 42-year rule of Moammar Gadhafi, Europe had an unwritten deal with Libya’s eccentric ruler: you keep Africa from crossing the Mediterranean, and we overlook your “eccentricities.”

However, since Gaddafi’s overthrow and death in 2011, Libya reverted to the east-west split of the Italian colonial era of a century ago. There is one government in Tripoli, the United Nations-recognized capital. There is another government in Benghazi. With the split, control of the coast is a thing of the past. Last year, the European Union’s border patrol agency reported that 380,000 African migrants attempted to cross into Europe from Libya — the highest number in almost a decade.

Tobruk, a bitterly contested port during World War II, is 175 miles south of Crete, the Greek island. Human smugglers make that boat trip in one night. To the south, Russia’s new allies — Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger — control human smuggling routes out of the heart of Africa.

Over the last two years, Russia and its satellite Belarus have pumped undocumented migrants across their western land borders. The migrants are pawns in attempts by Russia and Belarus to fuel anti-migrant sentiment and in turn boost far-right parties in the European elections.

In Eastern Libya, the local leader, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, reportedly profits from sending boatloads of African migrants north.

“Haftar has explicitly aided migrant smugglers in Libya by granting them security clearances,” the ISW charged last week. “Russia’s partners in the Nigerien junta annulled an EU-backed migration law that aimed to stem migrant flows in December 2023.”

Ensconced in Benghazi, Gen. Haftar personifies the failure of American diplomacy in Libya. An American citizen, he lived for two decades in northern Virginia where he was a CIA asset. Recently, however, he and many of his six sons quietly moved their money out of American bank accounts.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is reaping the fruits of a Soviet-era investment. In the late 1970s, Haftar, then a rising young officer in the Gaddafi inner circle, completed a three-year degree for foreign officers at the M. V. Frunze Military Academy in Moscow. A Russian-speaker, Gen. Haftar now is the target of Kremlin courtship: a trip to Moscow to meet President Putin last September and five meetings in Benghazi with Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov, including one in recent weeks.

The fruits of this blossoming alliance could be seen two weeks ago at a parade in Benghazi marking the 10th anniversary of the defeat of local Islamist forces who might have been involved in the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. According to open-source intelligence analyst Janes, the centerpiece of the parade were rows of Russian-made Volk, or Wolf, armored personnel carriers, painted in desert camouflage. The Volk fleet is the tip of an iceberg of five shipments made since April 1 to Tobruk from Russia’s Eastern Mediterranean port of Tarsus, Syria, according to ISW.

Russia is partly using Tobruk to send equipment south to bolster the countries in the Sahel where Russian troops are replacing French troops: Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. However, many Russian military assets are now spread around Eastern Libya, according to a new report, “Mediterranean Sea Objective for the African Corps.”

“Russian military personnel and equipment have been spotted in at least 10 locations in eastern Libya since the beginning of March,” according to the report, a joint project of independent outlet Verstka and the All Eyes on Wagner project. Wagner, the Russian mercenary group, has largely been replaced by Russian soldiers answering to Russia’s Defense Ministry. Wounded soldiers from Eastern Libya are routinely treated in Russia.

On the financial side, Libya is believed to launder Russian gas for sale to Europe, contravening EU sanctions. Last month, at the Russia-Islamic World Forum in Russia, Libyan officials invited the Russian company Tatneft to build an oil refinery in Benghazi or Tobruk. Last month, on a visit to eastern Libya, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia plans to open a consulate in Benghazi.

In previous assaults on the government in Tripoli, Gen. Haftar flooded the country with as much as $1 billion in fake Libyan dinars, printed by the Russian state currency printer Goznak. Now, analysts believe the new funneling of arms into Eastern Libya presages Russian backing for a military assault by Gen. Haftar on the remaining one-third of Libya outside his control.


James Brooke has been reporting for The New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America. He reported from Russia for eight years and from Ukraine for six years.


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