Russia’s Ambitions in Libya

On Sunday, February 18, The Egyptian newspaper Youm 7 published an interview with Lev Dengov, the Head of the Russian Contact Group for Settlement in Libya, who was quoted as saying that the leader of the Libyan National Army in Eastern Libya, Khalifa Hafter had requested the setting up of a Russian military base in eastern Libya. However, Dengove did not give further details stating that the request had been made to the Russian Ministery of Defense.

However, Libya's eastern based army has denied the reports that Gen Khalifa Haftar has requested for a Russian military base in eastern Libya. The army's official spokesman, Brig. General Ahmad Mismari issued a statement on Sunday to refute the report that was published in the Egyptian Newspaper. Haftar, who developed close ties with Russian authorities, made several official visits to Russia over the past few years to discuss Moscow's support for the Libyan army in the war on terrorism.

The Statement by Russia’s Dengov, comes after reports emerged in January, about an increasing Russian interest in Cyrenaica is growing stronger by the day. In the same month, representatives of PM Sarraj reportedly referred to satellite data provided by French intelligence suggesting Russians are constructing a military base in Tobruk

There is no doubt, that Libya is increasingly a key target for Moscow’s growing ambitions to influence developments in the Middle East and North Africa in the post Arab uprisings era, but it is unclear if the Kremlin has a plan on how to handle the Libyan case. The conventional wisdom is that that the Kremlin supports Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in Eastern Libya, against Islamist groups and the Western-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). However, the extent to which Moscow leans towards Haftar is disputable.  Certainly, the Kremlin is reaching out to other Libyan stakeholders. Putin is keeping his options open for Libya by widening Moscow’s contact base in Libya to also include Haftar’s opponents.

Working with All Parties Is the Constant Principle of Russian Diplomacy in the Middle East Club Events
On February 19, 2018, the conference of the Valdai Discussion Club and the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences was opened in Moscow, titled "Russia in the Middle East: Playing on All Fields". The first session was attended by high-ranking guests – Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, his Iranian colleague Javad Zarif, as well as Bouthaina Shaaban, Advisor to the President of the Syrian Arab Republic, and Nabil Fahmy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Arab Republic of Egypt. 

In June 2016, GNA deputy Ahmed Mitig visited Moscow and met with Russian officials to discuss cooperation opportunities and support for the Libyan Political Agreement as well as the UN-backed GNA. In March 2017, the head of the UN-backed GNA Faiez Serraj visited Moscow with the same agenda. Then in April 2017, Moscow received a delegation from the powerful city of Misrata to get the perspective of Haftar’s opposition on the ground. Meanwhile Moscow has limited engagement with Haftar on counter-terrorism issues which involves technical assistance and limited hardware support that is being channeled through Egypt.

That said, Moscow did airlift in February 2017 approximately seventy of Haftar’s wounded fighters and flew them to Moscow for treatment, something it had not done for any other actor in the country. Regardless of the true extent for Moscow’s support for Haftar, these actions show that the Kremlin is comfortable operating in Libya militarily.

Moscow’s strategy in Libya is likely to revolve around some key issues including economic interests, where Russia lost billions of dollars in contracts signed with the Qaddafi regime in the energy, construction, infrastructure and weapons markets. The regime in Moscow will be looking to safeguard those economic interests going forward. On February 20, Russia’s energy giant Rosneft signed a deal with Libya’s state oil company for investments in Libya’s energy sector. The move serves as an indication that Moscow could use Rosneft as one of its foreign policy tools in a geopolitically shaped southern Mediterranean region. After Moscow’s military success in Syria, Putin might be interested in bolstering his diplomatic credentials and facilitating his role as a peace-maker in Libya as well as fixer of the West’s mistakes and failures. Needless to say that this presents an opportunity for constructive engagement with Russia. Russian officials expect to be involved in international discussions on Libya.

Moscow also has military and geopolitical interests in Libya and the Kremlin would like to have a naval base on the country’s eastern coast. In 2008, Moscow discussed the possibility of setting up a naval base in Benghazi with the Qaddafi regime to counter-balance U.S. interests in Africa.  In 2009, a Russian military official told media outlets that Russia had decided to establish naval bases in Libya, Syria and Yemen within a few years; a clear indication of Russia’s interest and ambitions in projecting its power in the Middle East and North Africa region. However, given the current security situation and the ongoing struggle for power between various stakeholders in Libya, the idea of setting up a naval base in Libya right now is less attractive than it was in 2008.

Nevertheless, Libya presents a valuable geopolitical bargaining chip for Russia against the West in general and Europe in particular.  In its standoff with the West, Moscow could opt for confrontation in Libya, and could use the insecurity inside the country and mass migration from Libya as leverage against Europe. Russia’s game in this regard could be to just keep the country in the current unstable state in order to ensure a continuous flow of high numbers of migrants into Europe.

Disclaimer – parts of this analysis were featured in a Mediterranean Strategy Group Report – Co-authored by Mohamed Eljarh.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.