Inside Putin’s Libyan Power Play
The Kremlin is trying to prove it can succeed where Washington failed in ending the country's slide into chaos.
Libya, which has been wracked by instability and violence since 2011, is re-emerging as a geopolitical hotspot. With opposing forces fighting for control of the war-torn country — the main two being the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) — foreign powers have begun taking sides, internationalizing the conflict. For Western observers, the growing involvement of Russia, a major ally of LNA commander Khalifa Haftar, represents a particular concern.
Coming on the heels of the Russian military intervention in Syria, Moscow’s role in Libya’s civil war may seem, at first glance, like déjà vu. Once again, it appears that the Kremlin is working to consolidate the power of a pro-Russian regional strongman and establish a “crescent of Russian influence” across the Middle East. And given the similarities between Haftar and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, some degree of anxiety is understandable. Like Assad, who has long appealed to foreign governments by referring to Syrian rebels as terrorists, Haftar often frames himself as a bulwark against violent extremism in Libya, where the Islamic State remains active and Islamists have formed powerful militias and entered mainstream politics.
Yet Russia’s actual strategy does not involve bombing Libya into submission so it accepts “Moscow’s man” as its leader. Russia’s intentions in Libya are far more cooperative with the international community — though no less in its own national interests.
To be sure, Russia has invested in Haftar. It has received him in Moscow like a foreign leader already in office, arranging meetings with high-ranking ministers as well as security officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. Haftar’s image as a “leading political and military figure,” as the general was recently described by Deputy Foreign Minister Gennadiy Gatilov, is further burnished by shots of Haftar aboard the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which visited Libya during its tour of the Mediterranean.
Of course, material assistance counts for more than photo opportunities and kind words. And here, too, the Kremlin has delivered: Moscow has printed around $3 billion in Libyan dinars on behalf of the Haftar-allied Central Bank of Libya and dispatched Russian technicians to help refit, renew, and upgrade the military capabilities of the LNA, which almost entirely relies on Soviet weaponry.
In accordance with a U.N. arms embargo, Russia cannot be seen to be directly arming Haftar’s forces. But it could send weapons through Egypt, a pro-Haftar neighbor that borders the Haftar-held parts of eastern Libya and is said to have hosted Russian special forces. Moreover, some in Libya — like Abdelbasset al-Badri, the GNA’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a Haftar ally who visited Moscow in March — openly encourage the deployment of Russian forces to Libya as part of a Syria-style intervention. Haftar, when asked about military cooperation with Moscow, has said he would “welcome any role” for Russia in Libya.
Russia expects to gain three things from its support of Haftar. First, Moscow hopes Haftar will eventually wield enough political power to give Russia pride of place in making economic deals, thus making up for the financial losses — $150 million in profits from construction projects, $3 billion from a Russian Railways contract, up to $3.5 billion in profits from energy deals, and at least $4 billion in arms sales — incurred because of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall. With oil production in Libya at 700,000 barrels per day in January and the country’s so-called oil crescent controlled by Haftar’s forces, energy is an especially lucrative area of cooperation. In July, Russian state oil giant Rosneft began purchasing oil from Libya’s National Oil Corp. as part of a yearlong contract meant to be, in the words of one Russian official, an initial step toward the “renewal of contracts concluded under Qaddafi.”
Second, Russia looks to Haftar to help consolidate its military position on the Mediterranean Sea, allowing Moscow to project power near Europe’s coasts and reinforce its outreach to the Middle East and North Africa. In 2008, Qaddafi broached the subject of Russian naval bases in Libya. Although none were ultimately leased, Russian officials have resurrected the idea, discussing with Haftar the possibility of opening a base near Benghazi. Granted, Russia’s intervention in Syria has already secured a lasting military presence in the region, most notably through a 49-year lease on a naval base in Tartus. But a presence in Libya makes Russia’s overtures toward regional governments look far more realistic, while frustrating European attempts to punish Russian assertiveness.
Finally, Russia seeks the political dividends of being able to settle regional crises. To that end, it would be an enormous gamble if Russia relied exclusively on Haftar, whose ability to consolidate his control over the entire country is still very much in doubt. His rivals include not only the GNA but also Misrata-based rebels, and any uncertainty over his military predominance threatens Russian interests in Libya, particularly long-term arrangements like leases on bases or contracts. In Syria, by contrast, Assad has been in power for years and benefits from a deeply divided opposition and large numbers of Iranian ground forces. Haftar does not possess these advantages, and Russia is averse to the kind of investment that delivering them to him would require.
Russia, therefore, has adopted a strategy of hedging its bets. Rather than back Haftar alone, Russia has also engaged the U.N.-backed GNA. Despite its partnership with Haftar, Russia continues to formally endorse U.N. peacemaking efforts in Libya. While the Kremlin often obfuscates in its dealings with the international community, Moscow’s deference to the United Nations on key matters — such as the arms embargo, which Haftar desperately wants lifted — may signal that it remains open to brokering a Libyan peace deal with the help of international partners.
There is evidence to suggest Moscow’s ultimate strategy is to set itself up as a broker between Libya’s rival partners rather than engineer a total victory for Haftar. In May, Russian pressure helped bring about a key meeting between Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, the first in 16 months. The Russian government has also received Sarraj in Moscow, albeit only once — Haftar visited Moscow for a third time this August — and with less fanfare. Just this week, Sarraj’s deputy, Ahmed Maiteeq, visited Russia, meeting with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny and Russian Middle East hand Mikhail Bogdanov in Moscow. He may not have sat down with President Vladimir Putin, but neither has Haftar.
“We do not wish to be associated with either side of the conflict,” said Lev Dengov, the head of a Russian working group on Libya that is run jointly by the Foreign Ministry and the lower house of parliament, in a recent interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant. He added that neither Haftar nor Sarraj could realistically govern Libya alone and dealt a blow to Haftar’s counterterrorism credentials by saying he played no role in the liberation of the city of Sirte from the Islamic State. Dengov instead gave credit to “groups that answer to the government in Tripoli,” where the GNA is based, and called Sarraj an “opponent of radical Islam.”
Russia stands to gain more from a coalition government in Libya with Haftar as the head of its armed forces than a government entirely under Haftar’s control. The former would imply a measure of political reconciliation between the country’s primary warring parties and thus sufficient stability to justify securing the long-term economic investments and military facilities that Russia seeks without fearing they could be abruptly lost as they were after Qaddafi’s fall.
Increased Russian involvement in Libya is hardly universally popular. The United States in particular views Russia’s role with caution: The head of U.S. Africa Command recently warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that Moscow “is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who becomes and what entity becomes in charge of the government inside Libya.”
Yet President Donald Trump has ruled out nation building or maintaining a military presence in Libya — a position that limits Washington’s ability to affect or decide what happens there. While a light footprint has its perks — especially for those averse to long-term commitments or foreign entanglements — it will not provide Washington with the influence necessary to shape local political outcomes. In the absence of the United States, other foreign governments will inevitably fill that vacuum and seek to broker a peace of their own.
Russia has signaled its interest in the Libyan conflict, expressed its desire for a solution involving the international community, and demonstrated its willingness to invest financial and military resources. It will likely find some support abroad for its peacemaking effort, as its policy aligns with those of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The European Union is also eager for a peace deal, as it desperately needs to reduce the influx of refugees from across the Mediterranean. France, for one, has adopted an approach to Libya’s war resembling Russia’s balancing act, another sign that there may be takers on the continent.
Ultimately, the main return Russia seeks on its investment in Libya is neither a base nor a contract. It is the ability to substantiate one of the central narratives that it has told the world and its own citizens in recent years: that what the United States breaks, Russia can fix. Russian officials regularly tout Libya’s descent into chaos after NATO’s 2011 intervention, heavily criticized by then-Prime Minister Putin, as the perfect example of the instability that U.S.-led interventions cause. If Putin’s Libyan adventure pays off, Russia will have shown that it can shape lasting political outcomes abroad without costly ground invasions or destructive air campaigns. Such a psychological victory may be the most valuable reward of all.
ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images
Lincoln Pigman is a writer whose work has been featured in the New York Times, IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, and Bellingcat.