Russia is suspected of deploying troops to Libya, but what's Moscow's play in this muddy conflict?
Russian and Western media outlets say Moscow has been deploying troops to Libya for the past several months, reportedly to bolster one group in the country’s civil war. Russia is apparently filling a vacuum: the U.S. has effectively abandoned its efforts to intervene in the situation, and European nations are more concerned with stemming the flow of immigrants from Africa than resolving the conflict. Meduza takes a look at who’s fighting whom in Libya, and what Russia’s interests are in this messy conflict.
What’s going on in Libya? Is Russia really planning to fight a war here?
The current scare in the media began on October 8 with an article published in The Sun, claiming that “Vladimir Putin wants to make the war-torn North African country ‘his new Syria.’” Citing sources in British intelligence, the tabloid claimed that Russia has already embedded “dozens” of GRU agents and Spetsnaz troops in eastern Libya, and established two military bases in the coastal towns of Tobruk and Benghazi, supposedly using the Wagner private military group as “cover.” Russian Kalibr anti-ship missiles and S-300 air-defense systems are also reportedly on the ground in Libya. The tabloid’s sources claimed that the Kremlin has sided with the warlord General Khalifa Haftar in an effort to “seize control of the country’s coastline.” This would allegedly give Russia the power to unleash a “fresh tidal wave of migrants” across the Mediterranean “like a tap.”
While The Sun’s reports are often unreliable and hyperbolic, reporters from the Russian business magazine RBC later verified the story, finding sources who confirm that Moscow has been transferring troops to Libya for several months now. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has denied any participation in the Libyan conflict.
In recent years, rumors have circulated regularly that Russia might intervene more aggressively in Libya. Speculation only intensified in early 2018, when Moscow announced its latest troop withdrawal from Syria, which some analysts viewed as a pivot to Libya. In February, citing “dozens of interviews with current and former European, Libyan, and American officials,” The New York Times reported that Moscow was suspected of “attempted weapons-for-oil deals, attempted bribery, and efforts to influence top government defense appointments, as well as printing money and stamping coinage for the Haftar-allied government.” But journalists still lacked concrete evidence of Russia’s growing intervention.
Who’s fighting whom in Libya? Who’s on Russia’s side?
The simplest answer is that everyone is fighting against everyone. It’s been that way, almost without interruption, since early 2011, at the outset of the nationwide rebellion against Muammar el-Qaddafi, who ruled the country for more than 40 years. After the dictator’s overthrow, Libya witnessed a series of constitutional crises, leading to dueling parliaments: the General National Congress and the House of Representatives.
The General National Congress was elected in 2012 as a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, but it effectively functioned as a parliament. Armed clashes and pressure on voters marred the June 2014 elections for the House of Representatives. In many areas, voting stations were never even opened. Proponents of a secular state (largely represented by figures with ties to the former Qaddafi regime) claimed victory, but Islamists from the General National Congress rejected the election results and refused to disband.
The House of Representatives set up operations in the city of Tobruk, a port city on Libya's eastern Mediterranean coast. General Khalifa Haftar, who later received the rank of field marshal, became the group’s commander-in-chief. A veteran of the Libyan Army, Haftar served under Qaddafi. In the late 1980s, he was captured in the conflict with Chad, fled to the United States, and then joined the opposition against Qaddafi.
In late 2015, Libya’s two warring parliaments reached a political agreement and created a national unity government headed by Fayez al-Sarraj (another former functionary from the Qaddafi era). Today, Sarraj's is the only legitimate government recognized by United Nations members, including Russia, but Field Marshal Haftar and several deputies in the House of Representatives rejected the settlement. Western experts believe that Moscow is secretly supporting Haftar and his insurgents.
In 2016 and 2017, Haftar visited Moscow three times, reportedly to ask for Russian military aid. In January 2017, he also received a full-dress parade aboard Russia’s only aircraft carrier, where he video-conferenced with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu from the ship’s stateroom.
But Haftar’s adversary, Fayez al-Sarraj, has come to Moscow several times, as well. At least until recently, Moscow seemed to be applying the lessons learned in Syria to its actions in Libya, experts say. This meant keeping the Kremlin’s options open and maintaining ties to more than one group.
Haftar’s forces control individual cities and enclaves mainly on Libya's eastern Mediterranean coast, closer to the border with Egypt, which also supports the field marshal. Sarraj’s government occupies Tripoli (the capital) and several territories in the west. Meanwhile, at the high-point of Libya’s armed conflict, most of the country was in the hands of local tribal leaders and field commanders.
Who supports the West?
Unlike the Western consensus in Syria, where Europe and the U.S. uniformly oppose the Assad regime, there’s no comparable Western unity in Libya. When Qaddafi was deposed in 2011, Western nations lost a common enemy. In formal diplomatic relations, everyone recognizes Sarraj’s government, but there’s no single political strategy or tactic.
American armed forces played a significant role in Qaddafi's overthrow, but Washington has since adopted a policy that critics call “leading from behind.” As a presidential candidate and as president, Donald Trump has opposed any large-scale intervention in Libya, with the narrow exception of counter-terrorism operations against ISIS. The Trump administration technically supports Sarraj’s government, but it has yet to send an ambassador to Tripoli, and it still hasn’t replaced Obama’s special envoy for Libya, who resigned after Trump entered the White House.
The Europeans are concerned primarily with reducing immigration from Libya. In March 2018, there were an estimated 180,000 internally displaced people and 662,000 migrants from other African countries residing in Libya (whose total population is just seven million people). Most refugees are concentrated closer to Libya’s west coast, which is controlled by Sarraj’s government. In 2016, roughly 181,000 people came from Libya to Italy by sea. In 2017, the number of arrivals dropped to less than 120,000 people. Experts attribute the decline to the fact that the Italian government pays Sarraj to keep as many migrants from coming to Italy as possible. Conditions for refugees in Libya, however, remain extremely difficult.
In May 2018, the French government brought together Libya’s two warring sides and negotiated elections to be held in December. The agreement hasn’t won the support of all observers, however, given that Paris, like Moscow, is suspected of supporting Khalifa Haftar. Additionally, France’s negotiations did not include representatives from the local authorities who control most of the country, which obviously complicates the feasibility of staging a nationwide election.
Why would Russia get involved in this mess?
In its article, the tabloid The Sun warned that Russia’s troop deployments to Libya are part of a master-plan to unleash immigrant hordes on Europe. Similar theories once abounded about Moscow’s motivations for intervening in Syria. Additionally, experts say that Russia could dramatically expand its influence in the Mediterranean region with another military outpost.
According to another theory, Russia is trying to gain control over Libya’s oil reserves, which rank 10th in the world. While Libyan oil production is only 20th worldwide, the country has steadily expanded its output in recent years.
In February 2017, Rosneft and Libya’s National Oil Corporation signed a cooperation agreement. The corporation is formally headquartered in Tripoli, but the bulk of its oil fields are located in the country’s east, near positions occupied by Field Marshal Haftar’s soldiers — which could explain why Moscow is now apparently doubling down on its partnership with Haftar. At the same time, Russia’s strategic goal might be to slow Libyan production, in order to prevent a collapse in world oil prices.
Additionally, before the start of Libya’s civil war, the Qaddafi regime signed a deal with Russian Railways to build a high-speed railway between Tripoli and Benghazi. Worth roughly 2.2 billion euros ($2.5 billion), the project was put on hold when Qaddafi was deposed. According to The New York Times, then Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin tried to bribe Libyan officials into restarting the construction, in exchange for “a percentage of the contract as a commission.” (Yakunin’s spokespeople deny these allegations.) Also, Russian arms dealers reportedly estimate that Moscow lost nearly $4 billion in weapons sales to the Qaddafi regime. Apparently, the Kremlin would like to return to this market, as well.