As reports come out of the extent of Russia’s involvement in the Libyan conflict, it is worthwhile asking what it is Russia seeks to accomplish, and whether it is succeeding.
As the two sides of the civil war emerged by 2016, various international and regional powers started taking sides – each with their own interests at play. The al-Sarraj’s GNA, who controls Tripoli, received international recognition by default. He maintains relations with the European Union since it is his coast guard that can mitigate the flow of migrants into Europe. And, given the Islamic character of some of the GNA’s allied militias, the GNA also has Qatari funding and Turkish military aid on its side.
On the other side, supporting Marshal Haftar’s LNA forces, who control virtually the rest of the country, including most of the oil fields, are the Egyptians, Saudis, and Emiratis. This rests, in large part, on Haftar positioning himself as a secular force willing to take on radical Islam. The French have also taken to support the LNA, seeking access to Libyan oil resources.
So, where does Russia stand in this conflict? While Russia seeks to officially position itself as an “honest broker” that can influence both sides, behind the scenes it is becoming clear that Putin is betting on Haftar’s LNA. But unlike Russia’s involvement in Syria, where Putin is committed to Assad’s survival, the involvement in Libya is far more pragmatic in nature. Haftar seems to be considerably stronger, at least militarily, and controls the oil resources. Moreover, unlike the Europeans, Russia is unencumbered by the concern from migrants and refugees. Therefore, Russia’s pragmatism allows it to back what it sees to be the winning horse. And still, Haftar has yet to take Tripoli or gain international legitimacy that matches his military advances. And, with Turkey backing the GNA, Russia must tread carefully, as it must maintain cautious relations with Ankara due to its involvement in Syria. This has helped to shape Moscow’s strategy of hedging those same bets. Thus, Moscow continues to maintain diplomatic ties with al-Sarraj and the GNA and even with Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, who seeks a return to power. This strategy currently places Moscow as the only major power with influence, and perhaps credibility with both sides of the conflict.
What does Russia seek to achieve with this involvement? There are a number of goals. Having established itself as a power-broker in the Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean, as the US continues to limit its role, so too does Putin seek to establish himself as the power-broker in North Africa. Having such influence in Libya would also help open the gates for Putin to expand his influence into the Sahel and Central Africa. This is, of course, in addition to Russia seeking a lucrative future role in Libya’s economy when the fighting stops. Russian energy and infrastructure companies seek to earn a hefty profit from their involvement in Libya’s energy sector, but they first have to beat out other actors, like the French and Italians. Russia also hopes it can utilize the Libyan arena to improve its relations with the Egyptians, Saudis and Emiratis, all strained due to Moscow’s support for Assad. Lastly, and much like in the Syrian conflict, Russia seeks to quash the rise of Islamist forces far from its borders if possible.
How is Russia trying to achieve these aims?
Russia is one of a number of actors providing technical and material support to Haftar’s forces. It is also providing crucial diplomatic support, such as when it used its Security Council veto power to block an attempt in April to condemn Haftar’s offensive, along with Egypt and the UAE. Beyond this, it seems that Russian military contractors were involved in the April offensive. In exchange for actual combat support, Russian businesses supposedly received business contracts.
A tweet from September 9 mentioned, for the first time, that 7 operatives of the Wagner Group, Russia’s best-known private military contractor, were killed in the offensive. A later Bloomberg report mentioned that 100 mercenaries from the company were shipped over to fight for Haftar’s forces. Reportedly, Wagner has 300 troops on the ground, and who can supply artillery, armour and drone support for Haftar’s forces.
An investigation conducted by the Russian opposition website Meduza claimed that Wagner and other private contractors were indeed conducting a full range of military operations – from logistical support to actual combat roles, much as it did in Syria. The Meduza report assesses that anywhere from 10-35 Russian contractors have been killed in in the fighting in Libya, who were ostensibly sent to help Haftar secure newly won energy infrastructure.
Russia’s use of private contractors belies its caution in the seemingly intractable conflict. Its clear that Russia does not want to give up on the role it is building for itself as the neutral broker. Thus, mercenaries allow enough plausible deniability to be able to talk to both sides of the conflict simultaneously, even if everyone is aware Moscow is backing one side over the other. But more importantly, unlike Assad, it is not clear Haftar trusts Putin and will become a client of Moscow, or that one party can fully take control over the country. Haftar’s failure to take Tripoli thus far has forced Russia to be cautious. Essentially, this relationship of future business contracts in exchange for military support through contractors suits both sides at the moment.
There are some analysts however that downplay Russia’s efforts and any perception of success in influencing the conflict. Foreign Policy Magazine claims that since the Wagner Group’s blunder in Syria, in which it triggered a bloodying US reprisal against its forces there, wiping out 300 of 600 mercenaries, Putin has sought to distance himself from the group. Wagner, FP claims, is now a shell of its former self, relegated to minor military roles in unimportant conflict zones like Sudan and Central Africa, and that other Russian contractors, like Vega, Shield and Patriot (which has ties to Russia’s Defence Ministry) are now actively competing for bids. Thus, FP and others claim that the Russian contractors’ role in Libya is more a result of business elites in Moscow trying to make money, while Putin tolerates them, rather than any strategic vision from the Kremlin. And yet, if they succeed, everyone wins while if they fail, their connection to Putin can be denied.
Russia’s goals in Libya are clear – continue establishing Moscow’s influence throughout the region as the US limits its own, position itself as a power-broker, gain lucrative contracts for Russia’s defence, energy and infrastructure elites, and ensure ISIS and other radical groups remain checked, while maintaining working relations with all parties involved, domestic, regional and international. It is not at all clear if Russia can achieve these goals, given the complexity on the ground in Libya. However, Russia has certainly become adept at investing limited resources wisely, whether diplomatic or military, and with the right amount of plausible deniability, to avoid too much fallback if things go wrong, and to still reap enough benefits if things go its way.