Russia’s interests in Libya
The conflict in Libya has just entered a new phase as General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army, launched an offensive to seize the capital Tripoli and extend its control over the whole country. The General has received the more or less explicit support of various external powers; including France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia. In this video, we will examine the latter’s case, notably why it is backing Haftar and what goals it is trying to reach in Libya.
The Situation in Libya
Libya plunged into political fragmentation and civil war since the so-called “Arab Spring” uprising of 2011. A wave of anti-government protests demanding better economic conditions and a more democratic governance erupted all over the Middle East and North Africa. The movement was largely a bottom-up popular phenomenon at the beginning, with no clear leadership and simply asking for better socio-economic conditions.
However, it soon lost its cohesion and fragmented in a series of factions and armed groups, including Jihadi militias, each one pursuing their own goals and receiving assistance from foreign powers seeking to preserve their interests.
In Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi had been in power since 1969, the events soon turned into a civil war; with rebel forces trying to topple the regime. Gaddafi was firm in refusing to leave power and did not hesitate to launch a brutal repression. However, this decision would soon cause his downfall.
Western powers, spearheaded by France, decided to intervene with the pretext of stopping an imminent bloodbath. The real extend of their goodwill is debated, but what is certain is that they all had important interests in Libya’s energy sector; and the country’s sovereign fund, officially called the Libyan Investment Authority, held shares of Western companies like ENI, Finmeccanica, Unicredit, FIAT, Pearson, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Rusal and even the football club Juventus.
Thanks to the airstrikes conducted by the Western coalition, the rebels managed to prevail and bring down Gaddafi, who was captured and killed by the militiamen. But this did not stop the civil war; on the contrary, it made things even more chaotic.
As various armed groups proliferated all over Libya, the provisional rebel government transferred its powers to the General National Congress, or GNC, elected in 2012. Fighting with separatist groups continued in the oil-rich regions of the East and South, and the situation degenerated following the 2014 elections.
Two parallel governments were established: the pre-existing and pro-Islamist GNC who refused to disband after the elections; and the newly-elected and laic House of Representatives, or HoR.
The militias favourable to the GNC launched a military operation named Libya Dawn against the forces loyal to the HoR, who fled the capital and established its headquarters in Tobruk. This is when General Haftar started playing an important role, since he launched attacks on Islamist groups in Benghazi affiliated with the GNC.
In the meanwhile, militants affiliated with the Islamic State seized part of Libya, but the territory they controlled was retaken by 2018 largely thanks to Haftar’s forces. In 2016, a new internationally-backed Government of National Accord arrived in Tripoli, but Haftar continued to rule the eastern part of Libya.
This division, which persists today, reflects the historical repartition between Cyrenaica to the East and Tripolitania to the West. In April 2019, Haftar launched a military offensive in a bid to take the capital and reunite the country, but his forces have been stopped and now the situation is in a stalemate, with the international community calling for a negotiated settlement.
Russia’s links with Haftar
Russia is among the countries that are backing General Haftar. Apart from political support, which has become clear with the General’s multiple visits to Moscow and his contacts with Russian officials, the Kremlin is offering more practical forms of assistance. Russia has delivered food supplies, has printed money to be used in the territories he controls, and finally has provided limited military support. This mainly came in the form of arms supplies and of Russian private military companies operating in Libya, whose ties with the Kremlin are virtually certain. It has also been reported that a 22-member special forces unit has been dispatched in the country, even though this remains debated.
All in all, this shows that Russia has been reluctant in directly getting involved in Libya, even though it has some material interests in the country that help to explain why it is supporting Haftar, who is considered the only Libyan leader that is powerful enough to counter both Jihadi groups and the West-backed government. However, it is important to underline since now that the outcome of the Civil War is not a vital aspect for Russia’s foreign policy, and the Kremlin has shown flexibility in dealing with the various factions involved in the conflict.
First, Russia is involved in Libya’s energy sector. Major Russian oil & gas companies such as Gazprom, Lukoil and Tatneft, which are close to the government, had either invested or were planning to do so when the Civil War broke out in 2011. The demise of such contract resulted in the loss of billions of dollars.
A similar situation exists in the arms sector: for instance, the Russian weapon exporter Rosoboronexport lost an estimated $6.5 billion dollars due to the cancelling of supply contracts. But neither the losses in the energy industry nor in the armaments one compromised Russia’s core interests. Moreover, Moscow is trying to come back in Libya: in February 2017, Rosneft and Libya’s National Oil Corporation signed a memorandum of understanding on oil & gas, even though the difficult situation on the ground still makes it difficult to implement it; and other projects have been discussed with various factions.
Second, Russia wants to maintain a presence in Libya is to have another base in the Mediterranean apart from Syria. Having access to the Mediterranean has been one of Russia’s main geopolitical objectives since the Imperial period, but it always had to struggle to realize it. Yet, even this goal is not essential. Apart from the fact that having a safe naval base will be extremely difficult as long as the conflict continues; even a peaceful and pro-friendly Libya will bring only marginal benefits to Russia, since its ships will still have to cross the chokepoints of the Turkish Straits to reach the Mediterranean. As such, a naval base in Libya would be certainly useful asset, but also a rather isolated one.
Third, there are diplomatic considerations as well, notably keeping good relations with Egypt. In the broader context of Russia’s Middle East policy, due to its strategic location and its control over the Suez Canal, this country is way more important than Libya. Now, The Egyptian leader al-Sisi has been one of the main supporters of General Haftar. As such, Moscow is also backing him in order to preserve its positive relations with Cairo. A similar logic applies with another important partner, namely the United Arab Emirates.
However, these factors alone are not sufficient to explain Moscow’s commitment towards Haftar. The main reason why it is supporting him is simply prestige and perception. By assisting the General, Russia became an active part in the Libyan conflict, thus appearing as a great power able to project its influence far from its territory and as major player in the geopolitics of the Middle East & North Africa. This policy also obliges the Western powers to take Russia’s interest into consideration, allowing it to gain more diplomatic leverage on other theatres like Syria.
However, at least in recent years, Moscow has adopted a diversification strategy by keeping contacts with factions other than Haftar’s. In fact, it has accepted to dialogue with the West and with the al-Sarraj government in Tripoli. This policy comes as a backup plan for Russia, meant to have other solutions to preserve its interests in Libya in case Haftar fails and the Western-backed government ultimately prevails. This explains Moscow’s stance in the wake of the recent offensive on Tripoli by Haftar’s forces: even though it did not endorse a joint statement by the US, several European powers and the United Arab Emirates, Russia still called all parties to restrain in order to avoid an escalation and find a negotiated solution.
The previous overview shows that, while Russia has some material interests to preserve in Libya, these are relatively secondary and do not justify a full commitment on behalf of Haftar’s cause. Moscow is backing him mostly to gain prestige and create the perception of being a more influent power that it actually is, especially in the complicated Middle East & North Africa scenario. In doing so, it has followed a cautious approach and has been careful to preserve its ties with all the relevant stakeholders.
In the wake of Haftar’s recent offensive on the capital, Moscow has not endorsed the General, adopting instead a moderate posture and inviting the parties to dialogue.
As a matter of fact, what Russia wants to avoid is an escalation that may prompt the Western powers to intervene against Haftar, as this would create a dilemma: either risking a confrontation with the West or backing down and losing prestige.
Given the risks, the difficulty in projecting power to Libya and the country’s limited geostrategic importance for Russia, the latter option would be the most likely to be chosen; but this would inevitably damage the image and the credibility in the region that Moscow has struggled to build in recent years. As such, it consequently it surely prefers to avoid this scenario, but how things will ultimately unfold remains highly uncertain.