On April 8, Russia blocked a resolution in the UN Security Council that would have called upon Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Haftar to halt his offensive in Tripoli, which began on April 4. Russia’s decision reaffirmed its position as one of Haftar’s leading allies, alongside Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and highlighted Moscow’s continued willingness to shield Haftar from international criticism. Three days later, Haftar made a surprise visit to Moscow as his offensive against Tripoli intensified in a bid to secure military assistance from Russian Ministry of Defense officials.
Russia’s recent diplomatic conduct and strategic interests in Libya underline its support for Haftar’s offensive. Russia views his growing hegemony over Libya’s oil reserves as a valuable strategic asset, as Russian companies seek to profit from Libya’s expanded oil production. Moscow also views Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in Libya.
More significantly, in order to secure these economic and security interests, Russia is seeking to bolster Haftar’s influence over a future UN-brokered diplomatic settlement on Libya. From Russia’s vantage point, supporting Haftar’s offensive is the most effective way for it to strengthen its future bargaining position in Libya. While the Russian foreign policy community largely agrees that Haftar’s military offensive suits Russia’s diplomatic goals, Moscow is also trying to keep a channel open with the Government of National Accord (GNA) by regularly engaging in dialogue with GNA officials on the conflict. Russia’s overtures toward the GNA reflect its pragmatism, as it wants to remain influential even if Haftar fails to unite Libya under his rule, and underscore Moscow’s mediation ambitions in Libya.
Although Haftar has expanded his influence in Libya over the past year through successful military campaigns in Derna, Sabha, and the Murzuq basin’s oil fields, he has struggled to convert these military victories into progress at the diplomatic bargaining table. These failures are linked to perceptions within much of the international community that UN-recognized GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, not Haftar, is Libya’s legitimate leader. Andrei Kortunov, the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, argued on April 9 that Russia has backed Haftar’s offensive because it wants the LNA to use its military successes as a bargaining chip to bolster its leverage in a diplomatic settlement.
In order to expedite the progression of its Libya strategy, the Russian Ministry of Defense has allegedly supplied small-scale military assistance to the LNA. In March, it was reported that the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-aligned security company, had allegedly deployed 300 Russian troops to Benghazi and provided Haftar with artillery, drones, tanks, and ammunition that the LNA could use in a military offensive. This was after an initial meeting in November 2018 between Haftar, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, and Wagner Group chairman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Similar weapons deliveries from Russia to the LNA are likely to continue, as Haftar’s access to Libya’s oil fields will allow him to purchase Russian weaponry on a more consistent basis.
In spite of these arms provisions, the inconsistent advance of LNA forces on Tripoli has sparked concerns in Moscow that Haftar’s momentum could stall. Grigory Lukyanov, an expert on Libya at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, believes that Haftar lacks the manpower to exert lasting control over Tripoli, and the proximity of GNA stronghold Misrata to Tripoli poses an existential threat to any LNA occupation of the city. Fierce clashes with GNA-aligned forces in Tripoli’s southern suburbs on April 11, which left 56 dead and 200 LNA soldiers captured, and the outbreak of demonstrations in Tripoli against Haftar’s offensive have elicited greater concerns in Moscow.
Haftar’s current position will not likely cause Russia’s Libya strategy to change, however. Moscow-based Middle East expert Elena Suponina contends that Haftar’s improved position on the ground will allow the LNA to restart negotiations from a position of strength. To establish itself as a major contributor to a diplomatic settlement once Haftar’s position on the ground has peaked, Russia has maintained regular backchannel communications with the GNA.
On April 7, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov had a telephone conversation with Ahmed Maiteeq, the GNA’s deputy prime minister, in which Maiteeq called for the departure of Haftar’s forces from the western and southern regions of Libya. Ongoing dialogue with the GNA appeared to bear fruit, as Bogdanov stated on April 12 that GNA Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Siala had promised to attend the Russian–Arab Cooperation Forum on April 16. While Russia’s GNA outreach might ultimately unravel as Moscow’s alliance with Haftar strengthens, Moscow hopes to sustain its line of communication to Serraj’s government for as long as possible.
By entrenching itself as a critical ally of Haftar but at the same time engaging with the GNA, Russia hopes to present itself as a more powerful mediator in Libya that can negotiate with all relevant political factions. Advancing Haftar’s interests in a diplomatic settlement could also strengthen Moscow’s relationships with Egypt and the UAE, at a time when both countries are supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s return from diplomatic isolation,1 and give Haftar the legitimacy he needs to attract more foreign investment in eastern Libya.
To achieve these ambitious goals, Russia has established an intra-Libyan contact group headed by businessman Lev Dengov that has attempted to facilitate dialogue between various political factions. On February 16, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova announced the Kremlin had decided to host a comprehensive Libyan dialogue forum in Moscow, though the date of this event has yet to confirmed. Russia has also invited the president of Libya’s State Council, Khaled al-Meshri, to Moscow—despite his past links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Moscow has designated a terrorist organization—and engaged with the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous Operation, an umbrella force comprised of GNA-aligned militias, to highlight its openness to facilitating dialogue between various actors in Libya.
Although the only request for Russian mediation thus far has come from Aguila Saleh, speaker of the Haftar-aligned, Tobruk-based parliament, Russian policymakers hope that their sustained outreach to the GNA will make Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj more open to Kremlin-backed mediation efforts. The UAE’s facilitation of dialogue between Serraj and Haftar in February, despite Abu Dhabi’s pro-LNA stance, provides an encouraging precedent for Russia’s mediation initiatives.
Even though the outcome of Haftar’s offensive is still unclear, Russia’s alliance with the LNA leader and its ongoing diplomatic relations with the GNA ensure that it is well placed to stake out a prominent conflict mediation role in Libya. A Russian mediation role in Libya would add credibility to Lavrov’s goal of highlighting Moscow’s contributions to stability in the Mediterranean, which has been central to his outreach efforts to Italy and the Maghreb, and further bolster Moscow’s emerging status as a great power in the Middle East.
Samuel Ramani is a PhD candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, researching Russia’s relationship with the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @samramani2.
1. Interview with Kirill Semenov, April 11, 2019.