Russia has taken a central role in resolving the crisis in Libya. Sensing the loss of respect for the U.N. and Western powers given the failure of the Libyan Political Agreement and the U.S.’s absence from involvement, they have courted both parallel Libyan governments as well as independent players. Russia has much to gain from returning its former ally to stability, from lost military contracts to infrastructure and oil contracts. At the same time, its leadership in the crisis helps project its image as the one world power willing to take on ISIS and other extremists and promote stability in the region.
On one side, Russia has supported the self-claimed Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, which is based on the eastern side of the country from its capital in Benghazi. He has visited Moscow several times in the past years. It is believed that Russian mercenaries are participating in the conflict and that Russia printed the LNA billions of counterfeit dinars to finance their war effort. The LNA has spread rapidly across the country and has advertised itself as the most capable government in battling extremism and limiting immigration to Europe. It has the backing of most of the autocratic Arab countries such as the UAE and Egypt as they feel Haftar is a hedge against the Arab Spring and extremist activity. However, the LNA’s claims to be a front against extremism should be taken skeptically as it has incorporated Salafist militias into its forces. Most recently, the LNA has been pushing through southern Libya to battle Chadian opposition groups and ISIS. Their goal is to capture essential oil revenues and border tariffs and secure more international support.
While it seemed for a couple years that Russia had solely backed Haftar, it has recently played to the western parallel government as well. They have kept up talks with the Libya National Council (LNC), led by Fayez al-Sirraj and based in the more populated west in Tobruk. While many observers have viewed the government as weak and rudderless, especially given its failure in executing the Libyan Political Agreement, it stills retains significant backing, both monetary and political, from the U.N. and Western powers. Recently, Russian businessmen with close ties to the Kremlin have worked with them to discuss building economic relations again, with a $2.5 billion rail line between Benghazi and Sirte in talks. The Tobruk government also purchased $700 million worth of Russian wheat. These contracts are crucial to supporting the legitimacy of LNC in the eyes of the people under its control, as the country risks fragmenting further if it cannot prove it can improve the economy.
Russia has also kept contact with potential political players in a unity government, including Moammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. Captured by a militia and kept in prison for several years, he was released and has found an ear in the Russian government and has held secret meetings with them. While Russia has not committed to him or any other candidate publicly, these talks show that Moscow is heavily invested in ensuring a stable president that backs Russian interests.
Why Russia pivoted away from a Haftar-centric strategy to balancing between all players remains an item of speculation. The long-term stability of Haftar’s coalition is questionable, which means that Russia must play to both sides to have a guaranteed outcome. Haftar’s old age and questionable health makes the unity of the eastern government after his death debatable, because it’s a coalition of local militias and tribal favorites. Also the blatant favoritism of certain tribes or regions in each government’s makeup may aggravate tensions between groups towards further division within the country. If hope for a political solution and economic progress collapses, then the strength of both the LNA and LNC may suffer.
Haftar and Sirraj recently agreed to have elections in less than a year, but with a lack of concrete plans it is difficult to see how that will be executed. Russia has encouraged for delays in the election process in order that both sides can agree on terms. The longer this stalemate continues, the Libyan people may choose Haftar or another autocrat or civil war over the uncertainty of waiting for democracy. One has to wonder if Russia will encourage elections at all or if there is an election, whether the winner of such an election would be handpicked by them.
Marson, James. “After Military Push in Syria, Russia Plays Both Sides in Libya.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 7 June 2018, www.wsj.com/articles/after-military-push-in-syria-russia-plays-both-sides-in-libya-1528372802.
Meyer, Henry, et al. “Russia Has a Plan for Libya—Another Qaddafi.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 19 Dec. 2018, 7:00PM PST, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-12-20/russia-has-a-plan-for-libya-another-qaddafi.
“The Libyan Political Agreement: Time for a Reset.” Crisis Group, 18 Nov. 2016, www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/libya/libyan-political-agreement-time-reset.
The National. “First Fatalities as Khalifa Haftar's Fighters Push South Libya Offensive.” The National, The National, 2 Feb. 2019, www.thenational.ae/world/mena/first-fatalities-as-khalifa-haftar-s-fighters-push-south-libya-offensive-1.820741.