Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Russia’s Air War in Libya: A Diplomatic Gambit?
Russia’s Air War in Libya: A Diplomatic Gambit?

Russia’s Air War in Libya: A Diplomatic Gambit?

On May 27, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) revealed that Russia had flown 14 MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter jets over Libya, in order to support Libya National Army (LNA) chieftain Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). This announcement was the first official confirmation of Russia’s use of air power in Libya, as Moscow’s intervention has hinged on the deployment of Wagner Group private military contractors (PMCs) on Haftar’s behalf. Russia denied the U.S. military’s assertions, and Viktor Bondarev, the Chairman of the Federation Council’s Defense and Security Committee, stated that “if there any airplanes in Libya, they are Soviet, not Russian.”

Russian denials should be taken with a grain of salt, as Moscow denies that Wagner Group PMCs in Libya fight on behalf of the Russian state. Those same MiG-29 fighter jets were spotted in western Syria just days before the U.S. observed them in Libya. The arrival of Russian warplanes comes at a time of crisis for Haftar’s military campaign. Since Haftar’s forces captured large areas of Sirte on January 6, Turkey’s military intervention on the GNA’s behalf has turned the tide of the war against the LNA. On April 14, the GNA announced that it had captured seven towns northwest of Tripoli from Haftar’s forces, erasing the vast majority of the gains that the LNA accrued during its year-long offensive. This setback was swiftly followed by Haftar’s withdrawal from the strategically important al-Wattiyah air base on the outskirts of Tripoli. Russia’s deployments of jets to Libya also follow the reported drawdown of large numbers of Wagner Group mercenaries and the destruction of at least three Russian Pantsir S-1 air defense systems by Turkish airstrikes.

As Russian jets have arrived in Libya during a period of weakness for Haftar, parallels with Russia’s military intervention in Syria have abounded. Brigadier General Gregory Hadfield, the AFRICOM Deputy Director for Intelligence, stated on May 29 that Russia’s campaign in Libya is following the same playbook that was successfully executed in Ukraine and Syria. In spite of Russia’s aircraft deployments, there are reasons to question the accuracy of Hadfield’s assessment. Russia’s force deployments in Libya are unlikely to shift the balance of power in Haftar’s favor, as Turkey’s 13,000 proxies have extensive air cover from Turkish jets. Given this low probability of success, there are signs that Russia is pivoting towards a diplomacy-centered strategy in Libya and is using its air force deployments to stall the GNA’s advance, while it urges Haftar to return to the bargaining table.

The recent intensification of Russia’s diplomatic activities in Libya underscores the significance of diplomacy in Moscow’s strategy towards the North African country. On May 26, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke with Aguila Saleh, the President of the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR), a LNA-aligned parliamentary body, and emphasized that a military solution had “no prospects.” The next day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov consulted with Italian and African Union officials on achieving a peace settlement in Libya. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s shuttle diplomacy builds on prior Russian efforts to de-escalate hostilities in Libya, such as January’s negotiations in Moscow, and if Aguila Saleh is to be believed, Haftar’s truce on April 30.

Russia’s combination of a military escalation with diplomacy is consistent with its strategy in Libya since the start of Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli. On April 7, three days after the start of Haftar’s offensive, Bogdanov spoke with the GNA’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Maiteeq, who called for the expulsion of “aggressor forces” from southern and eastern Libya. Interestingly, the Russian analytical community does not view military escalations and diplomacy to be incompatible. Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Director General Andrei Kortunov and Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Middle East expert, contend that Haftar uses military force as a bargaining chip to bolster his position ahead of forthcoming negotiations. Given the popularity of this viewpoint in Moscow, Russia’s deployment of jets on Haftar’s behalf is compatible, or perhaps even complementary, to its diplomatic ambitions.

A closer examination of Russia’s objectives in Libya reveals that a diplomatic breakthrough, rather than a military triumph, is Moscow’s ultimate prize. Due to its consistent supply of banknotes to eastern Libya and Rosneft’s stake in the GNA-controlled National Oil Company, Russia could profit from economic reconstruction contracts in Libya, if the conflict ended in a de facto partition and sanctions on the LNA were lifted. Mark Katz, a leading expert on Russia-Middle East relations at George Mason University, supports this view, as he noted in a May 30 article that a divided Libya may be the “most desirable solution” from a Russian perspective. A diplomatic settlement in Libya would also eliminate a major prospective source of tensions between Russia and Turkey, at a time when both countries are committed to de-escalation in northern Syria.

While the United Arab Emirates reportedly acted as a spoiler of Russian-led mediation attempts on January 13, France’s unwillingness to repeat a “Syrian scenario” in Libya and Egypt’s trepidations about the viability of Haftar’s offensive could aid Russia’s efforts to pressure the LNA to de-escalate. Russia’s vision for a de facto partition of Libya could be broadly accepted by other stakeholders in Libya as it allows partisan actors, such as Turkey, Egypt and the UAE, to carve out spheres of influence in regions controlled by their respective allies. It also gives countries—such as Italy, China, and most recently, France—that have pursued balancing strategies the opportunity to secure nationwide reconstruction contracts.

Although Russia’s deployments of MiG-29 and Su-35 jets to Libya have inspired predictions of a protracted air war, Moscow’s actions might be aimed at stemming Turkey’s advance and buying Russia time to facilitate a peace settlement, which advances its long-term interests. Instead of focusing purely on the military aspects of Russia’s recent actions, U.S. policymakers should pay closer attention to Russia’s recent assertiveness in the diplomatic sphere and efforts to institutionalize a division of Libya, which enhances its long-term influence in North Africa.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.