Russia Hedges Its Bets in Libya

Neil Hauer

AFP Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry

Reality seems to take longer to hit some states than others. For Russia’s ambitions in Libya, the gravity of the situation on the ground appears finally to be sinking in.

For the last two years, Moscow has been investing more and more in Libya, particularly on one of the warring sides. General Khalifa Haftar, the would-be military leader of the country, first came to notice as the Kremlin’s favorite when he made a couple of visits to the Russian capital in 2016. Haftar requested Moscow’s aid in “fighting Islamic terrorists,” attempting to add another foreign backer to his burgeoning coalition that already included the UAE and Egypt.

At that point, Russia was more focused on the still-raging war in Syria, but decisive victories there by Kremlin-backed regime forces enabled Moscow to dream bigger. The first reports of Russian Wagner mercenaries, who had played such a key role in Syria, sighted on the ground in Libya emerged in March 2019. By later that year, they were fighting on the frontlines, providing a much-needed professionalized backbone to stiffen Haftar’s militias in his assault on the capital, Tripoli, which is held by the rival Government of National Accord (GNA).

Russian mercenaries alone, however, were not sufficient to give Haftar a decisive edge. Dozens of Wagner casualties were confirmed as the offensive on the capital stalled, making little to no progress for months. Russian attempts to recruit Syrian former fighters to further reinforce the hapless Libyan National Army (LNA) ended in debacle, as those recruited largely deserted before reaching the frontlines. There is even some evidence on social mediator indicate that servicemen from Russia’s Chechnya region may have participated.

The GNA’s main foreign military backer, Turkey, meanwhile began a drone campaign against LNA targets. By mid-2020, LNA forces were in full retreat, leaving Libya more entrenched than ever in an east-west division between the two sides.

Despite a years-long general stalemate and increasingly diminishing returns on military support, Moscow appears to have continued believing there was potential for a Haftar victory well into this spring. For the better part of a year, Russia continued to invest more resources into Haftar’s campaign. It was not until Turkey’s aerial campaign in April and May that Moscow apparently finally abandoned these efforts, although not without humiliation – numerous Russian Pantsir-S1 missile systems, which may even have been served by Russian crews, were destroyed by Turkish drones.

Russia’s approach since has been governed by caution and an understanding that a cessation of hostilities, at least temporarily, was inevitable. On August 20, in a call with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, laid aside all doubts, confirming that Moscow was committed to a ceasefire in the country. He also affirmed support for GNA/LNA constitutional negotiations in Geneva.

Having failed to enable its ally to achieve a battlefield victory, the question then is what path Russia follows going forward in the country. The most likely course of action will be to wait and see how the political and international situation develops. Moscow has retained ties with both of Libya’s main players, despite clearly favoring one side.

As Carnegie Moscow analyst Marianna Belenkaya explained in a recent article, there has been a division of labor in this respect between different Russian government ministries. While the ministry of defense – in many respects the most influential institution on Russia’s foreign policy – has been the primary liaison with Haftar, Russia’s economic ministries have kept in touch with the GNA and its leader, Fayez Al-Sarraj. The Russian foreign ministry has meanwhile played a negotiating role between the two Libyan sides, as it did recently in conjunction with Turkey in Geneva.

And it is Turkey that may hold the key to what Russia does next. Libya increasingly is a key foreign policy focus for Ankara, especially given the role the GNA’s maritime agreements play in the growing row between Turkey and Greece over economic zones in the Mediterranean. While Turkey is often presented as the junior partner to Russia in many areas of the Middle East, it currently holds the initiative in Libya, at least for now.

Russia’s “return to the Middle East” has been much-heralded in recent years, but savvier observers have accurately noted that the Kremlin is merely able to take advantage of openings provided by the absence of activity by other major international players; it cannot drive the course of events alone. Without a massive recommitment of military and political capital to the country, the benefits of which would be unclear and unassured in any event, Moscow currently has little choice but to watch and wait for its next opening to affect the situation in Libya.

Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict, particularly Russia’s role; politics and minorities in the South Caucasus; and violence and politics in the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya and Ingushetia.