Russia’s Libyan strategy has been rather contradictory since the 2011 February revolution in the country. Yet the Kremlin’s refusal to back any one party to the conflict, its constant manoeuvring and zigzagging on the Libyan field ultimately brought Russia unexpected dividends, as this strategy allowed the country, together with Turkey, to lead the settlement of the Libyan crisis. Significantly, the decisions that the Russian leadership openly calls mistakes today (then President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev refusing to veto UN Security Council Resolution 1973 about a no-fly zone over Libya) have in fact boosted Russia’s image in the eyes of every single Libyan political force in power since the February revolution and the first civil war. Consequently, the parties to today’s Libyan conflict hold no bias or resentment against Russia, unlike, for instance, the Syrian opposition. This makes it far easier to maintain contacts with Libyans, even though they do not understand Russia’s repeated statements condemning the destruction of the Jamahiriya and the overthrowing of Muammar Gaddafi.
The Kremlin rather quickly and unconditionally recognized the legitimacy of both the National Transitional Council in September 2011 and the elections to the General National Congress (GNC) in July 2012. This allowed Moscow to launch a constructive dialogue with the new authorities of the post-Gaddafi Libya. At that time, Russia was primarily concerned with the prospects of implementing the large economic projects that had been agreed upon with Muammar Gaddafi. These included, for instance, the construction of the Sirte–Benghazi railway at a total cost of €2.5 billion (Russian Railways had already spent RUB 10 billion on preliminary work under the contract when the civil war broke out). MTC contracts between the two countries that could not be implemented because of the war were estimated at USD 4 billion, while unfulfilled oil and gas contracts were said to be worth USD 3.5 billion. Consequently, Russia’s military-industrial complex was interested in the restrictions on arms deliveries to Libya being lifted as soon as possible, while Russia’s Gazprom and Tatneft were interested in resuming their work in the country. In turn, Tripoli assured Moscow that all agreements would be honoured. Still, the new domestic political storms battering Libya prevented these assurances from becoming a reality.
The Islamists and the Military: Russia Banks on the Military
Despite the constructive nature of the dialogue between Moscow and Tripoli, the background of their interaction was negatively affected by the Kremlin’s attitude to the events of the Arab Spring as a whole. The Russian authorities had an emphatically negative attitude to all manifestations of Islamism and to the revolutionary events that resulted in the strengthening of the Islamist component of the Arab world. In addition, Moscow became increasingly suspicious of the new Libyan authorities, since they adhered to the ideas of political Islam and systematically introduced Islamic principles into the Libyan political agenda. Curiously, Moscow’s antagonism against Islamism often prompted Russian media and experts to falsely represent the late Muammar Gaddafi as a secular leader and contrast him with the new Libyan authorities dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in Russia as a terrorist organization). Muammar Gaddafi had instituted Sharia law in Libya, and many scholars defined his ideology as “Islamic socialism”. When the GNC adopted a resolution in late 2013 enshrining Sharia as the foundation of Libyan legislation, the Council was merely demonstrating continuity with the country’s previously established legal system. However, this step could hardly be taken well in Russia.
Consequently, when General Khalifa Haftar (who attempted to assume dictatorship during the February revolution, but found himself rejected as the commander of the revolutionary forces) incited another mutiny against the GNC in May 2014, Moscow was sympathetic towards his cause. Like the majority of the global community, Russia recognized the elections to the House of Representatives, a new legislature that was to replace the General National Congress.
The elections themselves prompted many questions. For instance, they were essentially carried out at the point of the “bayonets” of Haftar’s forces and took place against the backdrop of continued fighting between Haftar’s forces and GNC supporters. As a result, voter turnout was only 18 per cent (compared to 65 per cent in 2012), and the Libyan Supreme Court declared the elections invalid. However, that did not prevent the UN and the global community from recognizing the elections and declaring the House of Representatives a legitimate legislature. Consequently, the international community put the GNC (that refused to dissolve itself) outside the legal framework. At that point, a duality of power emerged in Libya and the second civil continued between the Libya Dawn coalition supporting the GNC and Operation Dignity launched by General Haftar and the Libyan National Army he had formed, which acted on behalf of the newly elected House of Representatives. The situation was exacerbated by the many hotbeds of terrorist activity in the country led, for instance, by Al-Qaeda (banned in Russia as a terrorist organization), Islamic State (IS, banned in Russia as a terrorist organization) and other groups fighting against both Libya Dawn and the LNA.
Libya’s Nasser or Libya’s Sadat?
The Kremlin was particularly sympathetic towards the LNA and its commander. They were secular Arab forces led by military people who had been educated in the Soviet Frunze Military Academy. Moscow could understand these people and had grown accustomed to interacting with them since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Consequently, Russia unequivocally supported Operation Dignity. However, the LNA’s initial drive was fizzling, while most objectives still remained unrealized, and it was becoming clear that at the present stage Khalifa Haftar would not become “Libya’s el-Sisi.” This prompted increased pessimism on the part of Moscow’s and mistrust towards the self-legitimized rebel commander.
There were several reasons for this. Unlike Bashar al-Assad, Khalifa Haftar had never severed his ties with the United States and the West. On the contrary, he had attempted to gain their support and always received it. The American, French and British special operations units aided Haftar in his operations against al-Qaeda and radical IS Islamists in Benghazi. Russia was fully aware that Haftar had American citizenship and had lived in the United States for a long time while at the same time being a member of the Libyan opposition to Gaddafi’s regime. His ties to the CIA thus appeared obvious. These factors probably prevented Moscow from giving practical aid to the LNA, despite the latter’s repeated requests.
Additionally, the second civil war in Libya reflected the global trends in the Arab world, where the Turkey–Qatar duo (and the Muslim Brotherhood they supported) was locked in a fight against the “triple alliance” of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that had initially spearheaded Haftar’s mutiny and was the LNA’s chief sponsor. At this stage, it appeared too risky for Moscow to become enmeshed in these convoluted coalitions. Consequently, Moscow supported the Libyan Political Agreement that the UN developed in December 2015 and which was signed in Skhirat (Morocco). The agreement was finally adopted by the parties to the conflict on the night of April 5–6, 2016, when the General National Congress in Tripoli transferred power to the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj. The GNA committed to hold elections in Libya within a year of the signing of the agreement. The start of the peace process that put an end to the second civil war opened many more opportunities for Russia to boost its standing in Libya without directly or indirectly participating in the conflict. Additionally, Moscow was occupied with its military operation in Syria that at that point was far from being a success.
Islamists in Moscow
In the post-Skhirat period, Russia was able to largely move away from unconditional support for the LNA and started to develop ties with the Fayez al-Sarraj-led GNA. Soon after entrenching himself in Tripoli and gaining recognition from most groups within Libya Dawn, al-Sarraj came into conflict with the House of Representatives in Tobruk. Having failed to obtain guarantees that he would be given a high-ranking office in the new government, Haftar pressured its deputies to not give their vote of confidence to the GNA. Tellingly, Moscow was able to establish contacts at that time with various Islamist groups that had previously been parts of the Libya Dawn coalition and now supported al-Sarraj. Their role in the counter-terrorist activities was conducive to such developments. In particular, Misrata brigades conducted a successful operation to eliminate the Libyan branch of IS, which chose the city of Sirte as its “capital,” which was captured in 2016. In April 2017, the leaders of the Misrata’s Islamist command, Al-Bunyan Al-Marsoos, who had led the operation in Sirte, visited Russia and met with Russian diplomats and deputies. In April, Special Presidential Envoy for the Middle East and North Africa Mikhail Bogdanov met with al-Sarraj in Tripoli.
While the GNA’s forces were distracted by fighting IS, Haftar, seized the opportunity and in October 2016 captured the ports of the so-called “oil crescent.” The lion’s share of Libya’s hydrocarbon exports went through those ports. Thus, Haftar once again established himself as the key figure on the Libyan field. After capturing the ports, the House of Representatives conferred on him the rank of field marshal. His standing was further bolstered after the Battle of Benghazi (that had drawn out for years) finally ended. Haftar presented it as the decisive contribution to the defeat of radical Islamism in Libya. Moscow had previously steered a very balanced course, maintaining equidistant relations with the authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk. But this course began to change, with Moscow working to accommodate Haftar’s interests. The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation and the LNA leadership established good relations. RSB- Group was the first to go to Libya (at that stage, they carried out “classical” PMC missions such as clearing minefields). Russian lobbyists probably began working with the field marshal, and consequently, the Russian media depicted him as “Gaddafi’s successor” (omitting his entire career in the opposition, starting from his surrender in Chad to his participation in the February revolution), which was supposed to create a positive image of him in the eyes of Russians. Haftar was also positioned as a guarantor of the preservation of the secular state in Libya which, as we have already mentioned, did not exist before. At the same time, the media purposefully omitted the field marshal’s ties to Libya’s radical Salafists, who constituted large parts of the LNA’s units and committed various crimes, including lynching their opponents and destroying Sufi mausoleums. Salafi sheiks led all the religions institutions affiliated with Haftar: the fatwa committee proclaimed Ramadan the “month of Jihad” (against the GNA), while Ibadi Muslims (who had long lived in Libya) were labelled “ infidels without dignity”.
Moscow and the Field Marshal’s “Waterloo”
When the LNA launched its Tripoli offensive in April 2019, Moscow intensified its involvement in Libyan affairs, gradually increasing its support for Haftar. This step was taken because Moscow had become less interested in the Syrian settlement. Moscow had succeeded in making a “comeback” in the Middle East and becoming a key player in the region. However, in order to confirm this status, Moscow needed to move beyond Syrian case, which had not brought Russia any significant economic dividends anyway. Moscow continues to play a double role in the Syrian conflict (as both a participant in the conflict and a mediator in its settlement), but has largely exhausted itself in terms of new foreign political dividends. Moscow’s interest in the Libyan settlement increased accordingly, and Libya began to eclipse Syria in Russia’s foreign policy.
During the battle for Tripoli, Moscow did attempt to maintain relations with all the parties to the Libyan conflict, but it was particularly interested in ensuring that Haftar and forces loyal to him remained the leading players on the Libyan field. Although Russia was not pleased with the prospects of a military leader whom it could not entirely trust establishing a personal dictatorship, the Kremlin expected Haftar and his supporters to have the final say in the post-conflict Libya, even if a certain balance remained and the field marshal’s opponents kept their places as legal political forces.
Turkey stepping up its military aid to Tripoli prevented this scenario from materializing. Ankara’s limited support for the GNA (including small shipments of weapons and sending several drones to the battle ground starting in May 2019) helped Libya’s governmental forces take Gharyan, the LNA’s principal base in the vicinity of Tripoli.
Unlike Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, Russia boosted its standing in Libya, in spite of the field marshal’s failures. First, Haftar’s military weakness and defeats made the LNA more dependent on Russian support. In January 2020, a phone call from Cairo or Abu Dhabi was enough to convince the field marshal to leave Moscow without signing the ceasefire agreement drafted by Russian and Turkish diplomats. But he could hardly afford such escapades four months later. While President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is making threatening statements, PMCs (which the West believes to have arrived from Russia) remain the only buffer keeping the GNA’s forces from capturing Sirte and Jufra on the route to Tobruk and Benghazi. Russia–Turkey consultations are preventing the GNA from launching an offensive against these key areas. Second, Moscow had never banked on the field marshal as the unconditional winner in the civil war. Moreover, Haftar was not Russia’s only point of contact even within the East Libyan camp. In late April, Russia assisted Aguila Saleh, the Chairman of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, in drafting peace initiatives for resolving the conflict, as it simultaneously opposed Haftar’s attempts to usurp power and withdraw from the Skhirat Agreement in early May.
Libya was a main topic during the telephone conversation that took place between the presidents of Russia and Turkey on May 18. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan noted “the need to immediately resume the permanent truce and the intra-Libyan dialogue based on the resolutions of the Berlin International Conference on January 19, 2020.” Soon afterwards, Russian-speaking mercenaries began to leave the frontlines in the vicinity of Tripoli. The PMCs were withdrawn from Tarhuna and Bani Walid and sent to Jufra and Sirte, where the GNA’s offensive was stopped. By taking this step, Moscow could make Haftar more receptive to further peace initiatives, depriving him of support and showing the futility of further attempts to capture Tripoli. Without Russia’s support on the frontlines, the LNA was forced to retreat from many of its key positions near the Libyan capital. The possibility of this being intended to partially satisfy the demands of the GNA’s leader Fayez al-Sarraj cannot be ruled out. At the talks in Moscow Back in January 2020, al-Sarraj made the withdrawal of the LNA’s forces to their original position a condition of agreeing to the ceasefire and engaging in talks with the opponents.
In the final analysis, Russia has succeeded in beating both Cairo and Abu Dhabi in the game they played on the Libyan field and pushing them out of their central positions. The experience of working together that Moscow and Ankara gained during the Syrian settlement was rather successfully transferred into Libya and certainly played a positive role for Russia. This is why experts even talked for a while about Russia and Turkey pushing for an “Astana format” for Libya. Today, all signs point to Russia and Turkey further strengthening their standing in Libya, while el-Sisi’s demarches will hardly be able to diminish their role. Egypt’s unsuccessful attempts to act as a guarantor of the so-called “Cairo Declaration” have forced it to switch to a policy of direct threats against Ankara and Tripoli. Nevertheless, we should take into account the fact that the only thing holding up the frontlines in Sirte and Jufra is the mutual understanding between Russia and Turkey, and not the ultimatums made by Egypt after the GNA had suspended its offensive. Consequently, no matter what moves Cairo makes from here on in, Russia and Turkey are most likely to hold the keys to resolving the Libyan problem, and their efforts will apparently result in freezing the conflict. The political division of the country and the sluggish peace process will be preserved, while hydrocarbon resources will be managed jointly and the revenues distributed between Tripoli and Tobruk.
From our partner RIAC