Russia is not involved in the Libyan civil war merely with the aim of supporting one side against another. It is there to stay.
Moscow’s attempts to try and impose redlines on the UN-recognised government tells you all you need to know about its rocketing influence in Libya. But unlike its role in Syria’s civil war, its intervention in Libya comes at little cost to itself.
Russia’s ally, General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the self-proclaimed National Libyan Army, has lost his 14-month military campaign to capture the capital Tripoli. His rivals at the helm of the Government of National Accord (GNA) forces, backed by -extremist militias, managed to chase his troops deep into the east of the country.
On Monday, its military gains stalled around the strategic coastal city of Sirte and al-Jufra airbase, where 14 MiG 29 and SU-24 Russian jets are positioned, according to the US army.
The GNA, however, is backed by Turkey, and has only recently received the US’s full military blessing.
The political initiative for peace talks, declared by the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday and supported by Washington, Moscow and other EU countries, has put a spoke in the GNA’s wheel, created more of an appetite for a peace deal and opened the door to Haftar’s exit . After turning the tide on Haftar, due to generous military aid from Turkey, the GNA is facing a dead end.
Haftar’s backers, including Russia, Egypt and the UAE, are clear: Any attempt by the GNA for a military push past Sirte will backfire. The US – and the UK – see a window of opportunity for negotiations that would potentially end years of conflict.
Russia’s narrative is simple: Nato and the west’s intervention to topple Muammar Ghaddafi in 2011 destroyed Libya, and it is there to fix it. President Vladimir Putin, therefore, wants to position himself as the only arbiter of peace. This would allow Russia to extend its influence over the Mediterranean and Nato’s southern flank. It’d also help Moscow to influence the oil industry still further and secure lucrative infrastructure contracts in Libya.
But Russia’s leader faces three dilemmas. First, the recent setbacks have exposed significant concerns about Haftar’s military and leadership tact.
Second, comes the issue of legitimacy. While the UN recognises the GNA and the parliament in the east – which praises Haftar – loyalties on the ground are based on different and more complicated tribal, ideological and political interests.
For Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Haftar is a unifying power against what the newly-appointed US Ambassador Richard Norland calls the three M’s: the militias, the money distribution across the country and the Muslim Brotherhood.
For Russia, the bigger the portion of Libya Hafta controls, the more legitimacy he will get from his foreign backers and tribal cheerleaders. And as long as Haftar maintains his control on the energy resources and a large piece of land, Russia can claim significant power in Libya.
The third dilemma facing Russia is the US’s belated action in Libya. American and British diplomats are encouraging the GNA to thwart Russia’s push to build a military base on the Libyan Mediterranean coast for the first time since dismantling the Soviet bases in Tobruk and Tripoli. Achieving this would mark a significant strategic victory in both Washington and London.
The latest developments, coupled with Norland’s seemingly aggressive diplomatic approach, means Russia is facing its biggest test yet. It comes after the West had quickly realised that Wagner Russian mercenaries backing Haftar “are not exceptional fighters and didn’t achieve much”, As Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, told me.
President Donald Trump’s administration is currently focusing on domestic issues such as the recent Black Lives Matter protests as well as the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallouts in the US. So, Norland may find himself hindered when it comes to facing up to Moscow’s efforts.
This explains why Turkey has been given the green light to represent Nato’s interests in Libya.
The West is repeating the very same mistakes of the proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Back then, the US, Saudi Arabia and their allies allowed thousands of fighters into Afghanistan as part of a bid to drive the “infidel communists” out. When the Soviets finally decided to back up and leave, Afghanistan was then riddled with radical groups, among them was al-Qaeda, which would later wreak havoc on western societies and help give birth to Isis.
The US is looking the other way as fighters from Syria flood into Libya. One can’t help it but think the US is effectively taking the risk of creating a hotbed for another Isis to emerge some 200 miles away from Europe’s coast. This is not to suggest the Syrian mercenaries fighting for Haftar are not dangerous for Libya and the region. Stability in Libya will only come if all foreign fighters are expelled.
For this to happen, Libyans will have first to stop fighting and start talking. Opportunities for peace don’t come round every day in the region.