By Dmitriy Frolovskiy
Recent reports that Russia deployed special forces to an air base in Egypt near the border with Libya highlight the Kremlin’s growing concern with the domestic situation of the long-standing Soviet client.
Strategically located and abundant with oil deposits, Libya since the violent overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi has become a battleground contested by numerous local tribes and militant groups, as well as two rival governments.
The current state of affairs in Libya does not correspond with Moscow’s new role, nor with its vision for the Middle East. A power struggle between governments based in the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Tobruk has left a security vacuum across the country, one that invites and shelters Islamic terrorists from all across the region.
The Kremlin views Fayez al-Sarraj’s government in Tripoli as weak and incapable of ensuring order and stability. Many in Moscow also see it as a puppet regime installed by NATO in order to diminish Russia’s sphere of influence and help the West lay its hands on Libya’s oil fields.
Quite simply, Russia’s goal in its relations with Libya is to install the pro-Kremlin regime. With its predilection for stability and secular strongmen, Russia also sees in Libya an opportunity to expand its greater vision for the Middle East and North Africa.
Moscow has allegedly provided military assistance to Libyan strongman and military commander Khalifa Haftar, and Russia’s major private defense firm, RSB-Group, reportedly carried out a successful mine clearing operation at the Benghazi airport earlier this year.
A former colonel in Gadhafi’s army, Haftar was captured in 1987 by Chadian forces and was eventually forced to flee to the United States. Following Gadhafi’s execution, he returned to Libya and was promoted to the role of general by the National Transitional Council, the de facto governing body in the country following the civil war. Haftar later allied himself with the government in eastern city of Tobruk, which appointed him as a commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA).
Haftar vehemently opposes any shade of Islamism in politics and advocates for a united Libya. Many in Moscow view him as a reincarnation of Gadhafi, and one capable of ending the six-year stretch of anarchy in the war-torn country.
The Libyan strongman has already traveled twice to Moscow over the past year. There he spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other key diplomatic officials. He was also invited on board Russia’s aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. in the Mediterranean, and he spoke by video link to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Earlier in March, Libyan House of Representatives President Aguila Saleh told Russia’s state RIA Novosti news agency that Moscow has “promised assistance in the fight against terrorism”. According to an LNA spokesman, at least 70 of Haftar’s soldiers received medical treatment in Russia over the last year.
Haftar’s troops have suffered a series of defeats in that time, with the latest coming against the Benghazi Defence Brigades. Fearful that an inflow of Gulf weapons and financial aid might tip the balance against their chosen strongman, Russia has made a concerted effort to increase intelligence and training support to ensure that Haftar remains a viable option in Libya.
Few could deny the benefits for Russia if Haftar were to gain power. In addition to solidifying the Kremlin’s already strong presence within the region, it might also revive bilateral economic ties that suffered a serious setback after Gadhafi. Libya has a lengthy record of buying and using Russian weapons, and many in Moscow anxiously wait for the resumption of rail and infrastructure projects that have been postponed by years of war and instability.
Libyan elites are also anxious to get back to business as usual with Russia. Despite the fact that for many the overthrow of Gadhafi happened with Moscow’s silent consent, Russia is still viewed as one of the few nations capable of bringing order to Libya. Order is good for business.
Russian campaigns in Syria and Ukraine, in addition to instability in Nagorno-Karabakh and Afghanistan, do however raise the fear of a military overreach by Moscow. Despite an impressive buildup under Putin’s leadership, the country is too poorly resourced to maintain so many military commitments. Russia’s economy is stagnant, and its military budget is expected to shrink in the years ahead.
The lessons, and failures, of American missteps in the Middle East also remain fresh in the minds of Russian policymakers and military leaders. The costly U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created a political crisis in the states that continues to this day. A rancorous domestic debate over foreign policy is the last thing Putin wants, but it just might be what he’ll get if Russia wades too deeply into the Libyan morass.
Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a Moscow-based writer and analyst of Russian politics. His writings have been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Forbes, and elsewhere. The views expressed here are the author’s own.