Turkey’s military support to Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has arguably “turned the tide” against renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s war on the capital, Tripoli, since April 2019. GNA forces recaptured key territories in western Libya throughout May.
Meanwhile Russia, playing a calculated but forceful role in the conflict supporting Haftar, may now adapt its strategy, particularly after reports that Moscow, on May 24, withdrew many of its frontline fighters operating alongside LNA forces.
Russia has long sought to bring Libya into its desired sphere of influence. In 1945, Joseph Stalin unsuccessfully sought a trusteeship over Libya’s western Tripolitania province. However, the era of Muammar Gaddafi saw positive relations with Moscow as Libya became an important Soviet Union arms client from the 1970s continuing after the Soviet bloc dismantled in 1991.
The NATO-backed revolution in 2011 against Gaddafi then cost Moscow its ally and therefore a loss of influence, though it tried to re-establish itself in Libya through expanding its involvement in the country. Russian oil company Rosneft signed an energy agreement with the Libyan National Oil Corporation in 2017, underlining Moscow’s economic interests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is driving Moscow’s assertive foreign policy and apparently seeks to establish a foothold in Europe’s backyard. It became a key backer of Haftar after his prominence soared in Libya’s post-revolution instability.
Russia’s influence in the UN Security Council (UNSC) has aided Haftar’s international impunity. In April 2019, it rejected a UNSC resolution as it sought to boost Haftar’s campaign.
Throughout the current conflict, Russia’s paramilitary organization, known as the Wagner Group, had deployed mercenaries to fight in Libya. A leaked UN report on May 8 revealed Wagner used around 1,200 mercenaries alongside Haftar’s forces. In March, GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga estimated there are between 1,400 and 2,000 Wagner mercenaries operating in Libya. Because many are fighters from Syria’s Assad regime, this also highlights Moscow’s previous aim of connecting both its allies Assad and Haftar to bolster its regional sphere of influence.
Putin himself acknowledges Wagner’s operations but claims that its owners have no connection to the Kremlin, seemingly to cover up Moscow’s interference in the country. Russia also dismisses the UN report as “speculation.”
Yet Russia has also extensively armed Haftar’s forces directly, together with others, including Egypt, France, and the United Arab Emirates. Amid the GNA’s latest pushback, Libya’s Foreign Ministry on May 21 accused Moscow of sending eight new warplanes to Haftar.
However, now, after Moscow’s withdrawal of its fighters from the frontlines, along with its Pantsir missiles installed in Nasmah, Mizdah, Tarhuna, and Bani Walid, Libyan analyst Jalel Harchaoui argues these developments indicate Russia seeks to bolster supply lines into Tarhuna – considered to be the next stage of the conflict – and to ultimately shore up Haftar’s forces.
The West has often denounced Russia’s role in Libya; more recently the US and the UK condemnedMoscow following the UN report highlighting Moscow’s mercenary presence. The US ambassador to Libya Richard Norland said the mercenaries were “disrespectful to Libya’s sovereignty and regional security.”
Yet while viewing Russia’s presence as provocative, Washington and Europe’s failures to broker an effective peace solution for Libya has enabled Moscow to become a greater player. The Russian-Turkish brokered ceasefire in January – though it failed after Haftar renewed his offensive –reflected Moscow’s growing status as a power broker, along with that of Ankara.
Though claims that Russia may withdraw its support to Haftar are exaggerated, Moscow’s support of the general is not unconditional. It has pursued a balanced approach in Libya, trying to maintain communication with all sides, including with the GNA and Turkey. Moscow even reportedlyconsidered supporting Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, to becoming Libya’s leader last March before Haftar’s offensive.
“In Moscow, we remain convinced that the only possible resolution in Libya is through political and diplomatic communication between all parties, above all those in conflict,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in April amid the latest violence. Peskov also voiced support for the unsuccessful Berlin Conference in January, to consolidate the ceasefire.
In seeking to retain ties with the GNA, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov condemned Haftar’s self-proclaimed mandate “from the Libyan people” in April, indicating Moscow directly opposed ending political talks.
Following the GNA’s latest victories and Turkey’s subsequent dominance in Libya, some analysts argue that Russia and Turkey may engage in further peace talks, which may also limit the influence of other countries involved.
Emadeddin Badi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said: “What we are likely to see is once again a diplomatic rapprochement between Turkey and Russia that would be designed to shut all other powers out while Ankara and Moscow act as power brokers in western and eastern Libya, respectively.”
Since Russia has not burnt any bridges in Libya, unlike the UAE which firmly backs Haftar and therefore has sour relations with the GNA, it can also experiment with backing alternative actors. Russia’s superpower status naturally gives it more sway over all sides, and it could also resist further UAE pressure to fully back Haftar.
Furthermore, given Haftar’s burning determination to capture Tripoli, and Russia’s more balanced stance, the two have contradicting aims; Moscow is clearly just using Haftar as a short-term tool for influence.
Russia will indeed likely continue backing Haftar for now; he is still the most powerful figure in eastern Libya. Yet Moscow will continue assessing other options, particularly if its support for Haftar pays little to no dividends. Russia may even seek to work with other players in eastern Libya, such as Aguila Saleh, leader of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.
“I think Moscow was willing to support Haftar so long as they saw him as a winner and could unify Libya under his leadership,” Dr. Mark Katz, Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, told Inside Arabia. “Now he has turned out to be a loser, the question is whether Moscow will try to find other allies in eastern Libya, make peace with the GNA in Tripoli, or both.”
“Now Moscow may be happy with influence just over the east and good working relations with the Tripoli government. If nothing else, Moscow will undoubtedly offer its services as a mediator between east and west,” Katz added.
There are speculations that Libya may drift towards de-facto partition if either warring side fails to make lasting gains and defeat their opponent, and if unification talks continue faltering, with the GNA becoming dominant in the west and the LNA in the east.
Russia’s power game indicates how Libya and its people are used as pawns for various international geopolitical ambitions. Such interference prevents the country from reaching stability, and future peace efforts will not serve Libyans’ own interests, but that of countries like Russia and others involved in the conflict.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa region. He has particularly covered Gulf issues and Western foreign policy in the region, having delivered numerous talks and articles on these topics. He has been published in Carnegie Endowment, Middle East Eye, the New Arab, TRT World and many others. He has also worked for Al Sharq Forum, where he mostly researched the UAE’s regional foreign policy. A graduate of the University of Exeter, Jonathan studied History and Middle East Studies.
This article first appeared in InsideArabia. Click here to go to the original.