President Vladimir Putin has aligned Russia with Libya’s most powerful warlord, providing him with heavy weapons and other military support.
In July, according to the Washington Times, Russia began moving assets into the bitterly divided North African nation which is still reeling from years of internal conflict following the fall and death of the country’s long-time leader, Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, which the Obama administration backed. Since then, the military assistance has increased and Moscow has moved closer to retired Maj. Gen. Khalifah Haftar, whose Libyan National Army militia forces control most of Libya’s east.
The paper reported that militarized private Russian security companies (mercenaries) including the Wagner Group and the RSB Group have been operating in Libya at least since March 2017, U.S. intelligence has said. The Wagner Group is believed to have established an intelligence network for Haftar and his forces.
The Sun, meanwhile, is reporting that the most recent military assistance provided Libya by Moscow includes S-300 air defense systems and Kalibr anti-ship missiles. In addition, the British paper claims that Russia now has two bases in Libya, one in Benghazi and another in Tobruk. In addition, Russia GRU (spy agency) officers along with Spetnaz special forces personnel are also reportedly on the ground in Libya.
Analysis: One British analyst told The Sun that one of Putin’s objectives was to dramatically increase the flow of African migrants into Europe “like a tap,” since where Libya is situated in North Africa is just 250 miles from Italy and the European continent.
In addition, British and U.S. intelligence believe that Putin is angling to control Libya’s oil, which is vital to the Europeans. Said the British source: “What Putin is doing in Libya is straight out of his playbook for Syria and Crimea before that. He sees ungoverned space and is taking it to exact maximum influence over the West. The fact is we are extremely vulnerable to both immigration flows and oil shock from Libya. It is a potentially catastrophic move to allow him to undermine Western democracy, but again we are doing nothing about it.”
Putin likely has a strategic interest in Libya as well. A port in North Africa would provide the Russian navy with access to the western Mediterranean Sea for the first time in decades, allowing Moscow to potentially threaten the Strait of Gibraltar.
British Parliament Commons Foreign Affairs committee chairman Tom Tugendhat said he believes Russia “will without a doubt try to exploit migration routes across Africa,” and at a time when several European Union countries are already struggling with mass migration from Syria, North Africa, and elsewhere.
Since about 2014, Libya became a failed state. The official government does not control much outside the capital of Tripoli. And the country’s oil industry is in tatters. That said, the government is looking to bring major oil companies back into the country to invest and help shore up production, which reached its highest level since 2013 in August. Italian firm Eni just signed an agreement with BP and Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC) to acquire 50 percent of BP’s stake.
For its part, the Russian government has denied that it has any military assets in Libya. Chinese state newswire service Xinhua cited a statement from Alexei Kondratyev, the deputy chair of the Russian upper house’s defense committee, who was quoted by Sputnik news agency as saying, “There are no(ne of) our military servicemen in Libya and their presence is not planned. How could they be there without official request by the country’s authorities?” He added that the British media report was nothing more than an attempt to “discredit Russia in its fight against terrorism.”
His statement conflicts with a Foreign Policy report in September 2017 noting that the Russian government has already “invested in Haftar” and has received him in Moscow as it would the leader of a foreign country, “arranging meetings with high-ranking ministers as well as security officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev.”
However, since the Russians have sided with the country’s most powerful warlord, who also controls much of the Libyan oil crescent, whatever else happens in Libya in terms of government and the oil industry may be a moot point.
As for Putin, his government has also engaged the official Libyan government as a way to hedge his gamble on Haftar. In the end, Putin seeks favored nation status from whomever eventually governs the entire country not simply to serve as a regional powerbroker but also to gain a strategic advantage over the U.S. and Europe in another Middle East country.