Russian President Vladimir Putin has been busy in the Middle East this month. On March 9 he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The next day he met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and on March 14 Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met Libyan general Khalifa Haftar’s envoy in Moscow.
Since Libya fell into civil conflict after 2011, Haftar has emerged as the most powerful leader in eastern Libya. Reports have emerged that Russia has sent special forces to Egypt, eyeing a Libya role. The decisions by Russia represent an increase of its influence in the region. The Kremlin is already the key powerbroker in Syria, so what is Moscow up to in Libya?
The Russian Foreign Minister, according to an article published by RIA Novosti, says it is only supporting an “inclusive dialogue” in Libya that will lead to a “stable arrangement, designed to bring the country out of a prolonged political crisis.” Russia recently hosted a delegation from the Government of National Accord (GNA), the UN recognized government of Libya that is stronger in the west of the country.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also met the Chairman of the Presidential Council of the GNA Fayez al-Sarraj in September of last year. At the time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs underscored “its commitment to Libya’s independence, unity and territorial integrity, as well as the need to involve representatives of the major political groups, tribes and country’s regions in the formation of the national unity government.” Translation: Include General Haftar and his supporters in Benghazi and Tobruk.
In February the Guardian reported that “European diplomats fear that [Haftar] could join what has been described as Vladimir Putin’s axis of secular authoritarians in the Middle East alongside Syrian president Bashar Assad and Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.”
The EU diplomats supposedly worried that Haftar, with Russian backing, could take over much of Libya. A map of Libya’s various armed groups shows why that’s not realistic. Like Syria, the country has been driven by six years of conflict that has devolved into regional power-centers. In December Libyan GNA re-took Sirte from Islamic State after the extremists held it for a year and a half. Similarly Haftar is bogged down in a battle with Islamist Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB).
Alex Grinberg, a Research Associate at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at IDC Herzliya, says Russia’s recent moves are a “preventive measure to help out Haftar and also prop-up Sisi.” Grinberg argues it is wrong to see Haftar as a “real ally” like Assad has been to the Kremlin. The reason Haftar has appeal is because of his relations with Egypt’s Sisi and his hostility toward Islamists, a loathing Russia shares.
“Do the Russians support Haftar because they want him to be the strongman and power broker, or he is the strongman and powerbroker and that’s why they support him,” asks Grinberg. Since Russia’s declared goal is stability, Grinberg says the real calculus may be ensuring Haftar moral support. “They can help here and there, but to remove the BDB from the oil crescent [oil ports along the coast] would require serious massing of forces.”
On March 3 the BDB rolled into oil ports Ras Lanuf and Es Sidr on the coast, undermining Haftar. In Haftar’s favor is the fact that he is a trained military officer and that although the GNA is internationally recognized, “it is completely impotent and incapable of reining in the anarchy of militias in Tripoli,” says Grinberg. But he cautions that we should not see the conflict as solely between secular generals and Islamists, but rather as a series of tribal feuds and “horrendous crime rates” making Libya unstable.
There is no simple story in Libya. Some see oil as being a principle driver of relations and conflict. Others point out that EU hands in Libya are trying to forestall a migration wave of African migrants, who have attempted to take advantage of the chaos there as a jumping-off point for a sea voyage that has killed thousands in past years.
If the Russians had wanted to intervene more, they could have done so in January when their aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov was off the Libyan coast and Haftar paid a visit, speaking via phone with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Russia is officially devoted to international law, and through that lens it will not intervene except with a veneer of legality. Putin condemned the US-led intervention in 2011 as a “crusade.” In Syria, Russia was invited by Assad to assist in the war. In Libya, the UN stands by the GNA and Haftar is seen as a renegade. Thus arms cannot flow and neither can warplanes support him.
The US is paying close attention. Africa Command Marine General Thomas Waldhauser told Senators on March 10 that the situation was concerning. “Russia is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who becomes and what entity becomes, in charge of the government inside Libya.” It was comparable to Syria.
Support for Haftar dovetails with Russia’s cultivating closer ties in Cairo. Sisi has expressed concern over the 1,000 km. Libyan border with Egypt since he became head of the armed forces in 2012. In the long-term Haftar, who is 73 years old, is not a solution to Libya and Russian interests there may only serve to prod the EU and US to take a new interest in Libya’s problems.