Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Moscow’s Hand in Libya
Moscow’s Hand in Libya

Moscow’s Hand in Libya

Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), has charged Tripoli to topple Fayez al-Sarraj, the Prime Minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Since early April 2019, fighting has killed more than 300, wounded 1,600, and displaced approximately 40,000 Libyans. Now Libya is back in U.S. headlines; the last time it was this prominent was when the 2011 Arab Spring sparked a U.S.-sponsored NATO intervention that helped bring down the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Afterward, in 2012, members of Ansar al-Sharia attacked a U.S. government compound in Benghazi, Libya, and killed John Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans. Currently, the culmination of eight years of instability and unrest has the world watching regime change unfold in Libya for the second time in a decade. Russia saw the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in 2011 as a blow to its political and economic interests. Today, the Kremlin will look to capitalize on the instability in Libya to strengthen its image as a power broker in the Middle East and North Africa, and to benefit economically from oil and government contracts.

In 2011, the U.S. assumed an integral role in the NATO-led intervention to oust Gaddafi, which prevented mass civilian murder but helped spiral the country into chaos. Russia could have vetoed the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which NATO used to justify its intervention, but chose not to. For years, the U.S. has officially recognized the GNA as Libya’s official governing body. However, President Trump’s April 15th phone call to Haftar signals the White House’s public shift to expressing support for the LNA. Understanding the true dynamics of the playing field in Libya is difficult since it is rarely obvious who each country supports at any given time. Nevertheless, Russia has an interest in ensuring an agreeable end-state for itself.

Russia remains invested in Libya’s future because it views Libya as instrumental in supporting Russian interests. These interests primarily include the economic benefits of the so-called “guns for oil” trade, government contracts, bargaining power against the EU, deep-sea port access on the Mediterranean, extinguishing extremist Islamic threats abroad rather than inside its borders, and the optics of Soviet-era influence in the Middle East and Africa. Russian government officials have met with various Libyan contacts to ensure that whoever controls the country will support Russia’s goals. 

Despite being members of the UN Security Council, which backs Sarraj, Russia and the U.S. have been friendly toward the authoritarian leader Khalifa Haftar. But Russia has been careful not to overcommit. According to Vasily Nebenyza, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, the Kremlin has avoided picking winners and losers. Instead, Russia has presented itself as calling for peace and stability in Libya. Haftar has travelled to Moscow more than three times since 2016 for meetings predominantly with Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The General was also aboard Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean in 2017, where he spoke with Sergei Shoigu via video conference. The Kremlin has not fully endorsed Haftar publicly, despite providing material support for his coup. In March 2019, U.S. General Waldhauser stated to the House Committee on Armed Services that “behind the scenes there is no doubt about the fact they’ve [the Russians] supported the LNA with all kinds of equipment, people, training and the like. And they’ve supported Haftar.” Russia has not only reportedly strengthened Haftar’s military with training but also printed Libyan dinars to finance his cause. And Russia is forging ties with Egypt, which shares an interest in Haftar for a different reason: he may be a solution to Egypt’s western border security problem. Ultimately, the Kremlin cares about Haftar as long he supports Russian interests.

The stakes are high for Russia. It lost billions when NATO overran Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, and now it wants its money back. Semyon Bagdasarov, a representative in Russia’s State Duma, explained in an interview with Pravda that Haftar gives Russia the potential to recover, and even triple, the $4 billion in oil and military contracts, which Russia lost when Gaddafi was killed. “Libya has a long history of good relations with Russia,” Haftar stated, “I went to Moscow because I wanted to renew several contracts that were interrupted in 2011.” Oil production is a leading economic consideration for Russia, primarily in eastern Libya. Russian firms Tatneft, Gazprom, and Rosneft view the region as a source of lucrative contracts. Ultimately, the Kremlin will diversify its bets until it becomes clear who will control Libya’s resources.

The U.S. and the international community must once again decide what to do in Libya. This time, Russia will be more disruptive to protect its interests. By publicly pushing for a political solution while quietly backing Haftar, the Kremlin hopes to look like it is cleaning up the United States’ post-2011 mess in Libya. If Russia helps restore some semblance of order, it can appear like a peace broker in the region, adding credibility to its critiques of U.S. foreign policy, and delegitimizing international institutions like NATO and the UN. In the near-term, the U.S. and the international community must apply pressure for a cease-fire and political negotiations.