Russia’s Role in the Libyan Civil War Gives It Leverage Over Europe
Russia has played all sides in the conflict to get a seat at the negotiating table. Now it wants an end to sanctions.
A recent joint Russian-Turkish summit in Moscow aimed at forging a cease-fire in Libya broke down after the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar left without signing the proposed truce agreement. One of Haftar’s main backers is Russia, and his unwillingness to sign on to the deal raises important questions about not only the degree of influence Russia actually has in Libya, but also how serious it is about bringing an end to the conflict.
Russia first rose to prominence in Libya in September 2019 after it deployed mercenaries to the front lines of Tripoli to back Haftar, sparking concern in the United States and Europe that the Kremlin had finally thrown its hat into Libya’s civil war. Its presence in Libya was strikingly reminiscent of the decisive role it played in Syria, where it backed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to brutal effect and essentially saved the regime from collapse.
Russia’s inability to push Haftar into a cease-fire could be a sign that it does not have as much leverage over the warlord as it seems or, frankly, that it isn’t trying that hard, and a look at its activity elsewhere in Libya might offer some insight into the reason why.
Moscow has spread itself across the different factions of the conflict, supporting Haftar and engaging his main rival, the Government of National Accord (GNA), as well as former members of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime. It is exploiting the conflict by playing each side off of the other in an apparent attempt to put pressure on the European Union to negotiate an end to the comprehensive set of economic sanctions the EU imposed on Russia after it began its intervention in Ukraine in 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to attend a conference in Berlin on Jan. 19 where he will meet EU member states seeking to negotiate a cease-fire in Libya.
To this end, Russia has allegedly deployed up to 200 Wagner Group mercenaries to buttress Haftar’s forces, in addition to providing funding worth $3 billion. (That money was counterfeit and is primarily in circulation in eastern Libya, a scenario that has turned the country into two financial territories and sowed deeper division.) But that support was never enough to give Haftar the edge. Two hundred mercenaries could break the current military stalemate, but they can’t seize and control territory on their own—never mind take a city like Tripoli.
And Russia’s financial assistance might provide a safety net for Haftar, but it will do little to offset his $25 billion debt, a total that threatens to derail his entire campaign. From this view, it appears that Moscow’s financial and military assistance was never meant to be decisive; it was enough to keep Haftar afloat but not enough to ensure his victory.
Russia’s willingness to play both sides was put on international display when Putin received Haftar’s chief political rival, GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, at a summit in Sochi in October 2019. In contrast, Haftar stormed out of Moscow last week after he was denied the chance to finally meet Putin at the Kremlin, revealing a somewhat testy relationship between the two. Since the Sochi summit with Sarraj, Russia is believed to be close to securing a billion-dollar deal to supply the GNA with 1 million tons of wheat, a move designed in part to boost the country’s economic productivity, but also to break into a market dominated by France and Italy and curtail the EU’s influence in Libya.
Moscow has also moved to cultivate relations with members of the late Libyan leader Qaddafi’s family. In early July 2019, two Russians linked to the Wagner Group and formerly accused of operating internet trolling operations in Africa were arrested in Tripoli after allegedly making contact with representatives of Qaddafi’s so, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi. They were accused of attempting to manipulate and influence future elections in favor of the younger Qaddafi.
A Qaddafi revival could severely undermine Haftar’s authority. He has, in large part, built his armed forces on top of the tribal patronage network left by the Qaddafi regime, and if Saif al-Islam reemerges as a political force, it could divide the loyalties of key players in that network.
Within the last month, the Russian state broadcasting company RT also aired an exclusive interview with Moussa Ibrahim Qaddafi, the regime’s former wartime spokesman, who had not been interviewed by the media in almost a decade. Moussa Ibrahim used the interview to reframe the current conflict dynamic as a fight between the Western-backed products of NATO’s 2011 intervention (embodied by both Haftar and Sarraj) against Saif al-Islam, the former regime, and the Libyan people more broadly. That Moscow was willing to let its broadcaster run an interview that so blatantly criticized one of its regional partners illustrates its effort to play each side off against the other.
The attempt to resuscitate fragments of the Qaddafi regime—despite the near impossibility that the former regime could regain control of the country—adds another player to the mix, which will only sow further discord in Libya.
The prospect of a prolonged conflict is concerning for European policymakers, as memories of the 2015 refugee crisis are still fresh. Over a million people reached Europe from parts of the Middle East and North Africa that year—many of them fleeing unrest through Libya. Their arrival fueled racial, ethnic, and religious tension in Europe and sparked the birth of a particularly virulent brand of Islamophobic populism.
Far-right nationalists rode the wave of populist agitation to power, taking over governments in Austria, Poland, Hungary, and Italy. They also spearheaded the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom and solidified a substantial electoral presence in France and Germany.
Migration levels have since dropped, but immigration is still a top concern for many voters, meaning another refugee crisis emanating from Libya could respark tensions, further embolden a deeply Euroskeptic far-right, and destabilize an already fragile European Union.
Russian efforts do appear, to an extent, to be succeeding. The number of migrants fleeing to Europe is rising again, and Russia has convinced Germany that it is a key player in the conflict, earning it a seat at the negotiating table in Berlin. Although Moscow has clearly clawed itself into a position of strength, it doesn’t want to invest resources indefinitely in Libya. It will only do so long enough to maximize the potential geopolitical gains it can reap from Europe. Now that European leaders are willing to talk to Moscow, and it appears that sanctions might be on the table, Russian policymakers may consider initiating a conversation with Europe over both finding a resolution to the conflict in Libya and ending sanctions.
Russia’s role is still limited, so European powers don’t necessarily need to feel pressure to give in to Russian demands. The risk, of course, is that Russia might then decide to increase its involvement and amplify the pressure on Europe. It is unclear how that could turn out for either Russia or Europe, but what is clear is that Moscow is trying hard to exploit the world’s most chaotic conflicts as a way of reaping geopolitical rewards elsewhere.