Main Image Credit Courtesy of Kremlin.ru
The world’s attention may be focused on the coronavirus pandemic. But Russia continues its complicated game in Libya.
In early March 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised their shared commitment to a ceasefire in Libya after both leaders arranged a phone call to discuss the conflict. Russia’s endorsement of a political solution in Libya reaffirmed its longstanding official position. The Russian Foreign Ministry expounded on this view on 25 March when it listed Libya as a conflict that needed to be suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Russia’s rhetorical support for a peace settlement in Libya has been greeted with skepticism, as the Kremlin-aligned Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organisation, has deployed between 1,400 to 2,000 private military contractors (PMCs) to support the Libya National Army (LNA) chieftain Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli. Yet it is an oversimplification to claim that Russia’s rhetoric about peace in Libya is mere obfuscation, as Moscow’s strategy towards the Libyan conflict is multifaceted in nature. Russia is militarily supporting Haftar in order to increase its geopolitical influence in LNA-controlled areas, but it is also trying to present itself as a diplomatic arbiter in order to burnish its regional status and secure lucrative nationwide reconstruction contracts.
Although Russia balanced positive relations with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and LNA from 2016 to 2018, Moscow provided material support for Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli in April 2019. Unlike the UAE and Egypt, Russia did not support Haftar because it believed that the LNA possessed the capabilities to unite Libya under his rule. Instead, Russia backed Haftar’s offensive to help the LNA achieve enough military success to bolster its stature in diplomatic negotiations. As Russia had assisted the LNA with PMCs and supplied banknotes to eastern Libya in order to ease the region’s liquidity crisis, Moscow hoped that the legitimisation of LNA control over eastern and southern Libya would ensure that it gained preferential access to oil reserves held by Haftar’s forces and revive Gaddafi-era basing agreements on Libya’s Mediterranean coast.
Due to Russia’s preference for a finite LNA offensive and uncertainties about Haftar’s leadership capabilities, Moscow has maintained a diplomatic backchannel with the GNA. As Haftar’s offensive continued, Russia maintained positive relations with the LNA through PMC deployments, which are reportedly financed by Saudi Arabia, and stepped up its arbitration role in Libya. On 13 January, Russia hosted diplomatic negotiations on Libya, but these talks failed, as Haftar left Moscow without signing a ceasefire agreement. In spite of this setback, Russia has regularly engaged with European leaders on the Libyan peace process, as it seeks to extend its leadership on conflict resolution initiatives in Syria to a new theatre. Russia also hopes that its contributions to the peace process will appease GNA officials, such as Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, who accused Moscow of fomenting instability in Libya, and allow it to secure lucrative nation-wide reconstruction contracts, such as the $2 billion Benghazi-to-Sirte railway line.
Although Haftar’s refusal to accept a ceasefire and countervailing pressure from the UAE’s embassy in Moscow have undermined Russia’s diplomatic efforts, the Kremlin’s strategy in Libya has also been complicated by Turkey’s growing assertiveness in the conflict. On 2 January, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey rubber-stamped troop deployments to Libya for a one-year mandate, in order to enforce Ankara’s maritime security deal with the GNA and derail the momentum of Haftar’s offensive. Russia strongly opposed Turkey’s military intervention in Libya. On 3 January, Russian State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Leonid Slutsky expressed concern about Turkey’s actions, and warned that Ankara’s troop deployments ‘may deepen the crisis and deteriorate the situation’.
Russia’s concerns about Turkey’s military intervention in Libya featured prominently during Putin’s meeting with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 8 January. After that meeting, Turkey and Russia helped broker a temporary ceasefire in Libya on 12 January, which culminated in the aborted negotiations in Moscow one day later. In spite of this episode of Russia–Turkey cooperation, escalating tensions between the two countries over Idlib spilt over to Libya. On 17 February, Erdogan accused Russia of ‘managing the war in Libya at the highest level’, and claimed that the Russian government was behind the Wagner Group’s PMC deployments. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov immediately dismissed Erdogan’s assertions, and Moscow’s close ally, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, formally aligned with Haftar against Turkey on 2 March.
Old Rival, Potential Friends
After Russia–Turkey tensions dissipated over Syria due to the 5 March ceasefire in Idlib, the public war of words between Russian and Turkish officials on Libya ground to a halt. Despite this de-escalation, the short-term prospects of Russia–Turkey cooperation in Libya are remote, as both countries disagree on Haftar’s place in Libya’s political future. In Turkey, Haftar is widely viewed as a rogue warlord who lacks popular legitimacy and depends on external military support. Senior Russian officials, such as Russian ambassador to Turkey Alexei Yerkhov, dispute this Turkish narrative by arguing that Haftar controls too large a portion of Libya to be ignored and that the GNA has lost its legitimacy by aligning with Islamist militias.
In spite of the intransigence of both sides, the current state of cold peace between Russia and Turkey could morph into renewed cooperation. If the US remains detached from the Libyan conflict and European powers continue to advance conflicting agendas in Libya, Russia and Turkey could see an opportunity to marginalise Western powers through cooperation on a Libyan peace settlement. The persistence of the Astana talks, in spite of continued strategic competition between Russia and Turkey in Syria, provides a model for this form of diplomatic cooperation, and Turkish officials viewed the 8 January Putin–Erdogan ceasefire negotiations on Libya as a noteworthy display of Turkey’s international status. As 58% of Turks polled in February oppose Erdogan’s decision to deploy Turkish forces to Libya and Russian public’s focus has been redirected to socioeconomic challenges, Erdogan and Putin could exert pressure on the GNA and LNA to de-escalate the war in Libya. Due to the wide array of external players involved in Libya and the independent agency of Libya’s warring factions, this de-escalation effort may not succeed, but it could cause Russia and Turkey to agree to deconfliction mechanisms in Libya.
A return to confrontation between Russia and Turkey over Idlib remains the most serious impediment to bilateral cooperation in Libya. As Russia regards Turkey’s military overextension at a time of economic weakness as a major vulnerability, Moscow could encourage Haftar to retaliate against Turkish forces in Libya when Ankara strikes military targets in Syria. The LNA’s downing of a Turkish drone and strike on Turkey’s Mitiga air base in Tripoli on 3 March during Ankara’s Operation Spring Shield intervention in Syria reveals Russia’s potential to carry out an asymmetric retaliation, which could derail Russia–Turkey cooperation on Libya.
Although Russia continues to deploy PMCs on Haftar’s behalf, Moscow’s economic interests in Libya and long-term geostrategic ambitions in the Middle East are best furthered by a swift de-escalation of Libya’s protracted conflict. While Libya’s internal factions and their primary external sponsors will ultimately decide the country’s future, Russia’s hopes for de-escalation in Libya are closely intertwined with the state of its bilateral relationship with Turkey.
Continued cooperation with Ankara would advance Russia’s strategy in Libya, but renewed confrontation with Turkey over Syria could reluctantly drag Russia into a prolonged military intervention in Libya.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.