What is Russia’s interest in Libya? From regional influence to hunting NATO submarines

Rod Thornton and Marina Miron, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

Late last month, a Pentagon report accused the UAE of providing financial support to Wagner, the Russian private military company (PMC) operating in Libya. For such a public denunciation to be made by the United States of an ally – the UAE – speaks of a growing concern in Washington about the Russian presence in Libya. Wagner, which has about 2,000 personnel in the country, is clearly acting as an arm of the Russian state – no matter how much this might be denied by the Kremlin. The Russian Air Force also has a presence in the country. But why does Moscow have this degree of commitment to what is happening in the civil war in Libya? The reasons for its interest can certainly be seen in the political, diplomatic and economic realms but, from a NATO perspective, perhaps the most significant aspect is in the military sphere: in particular, the fact that Russia appears to want to be in a position to secure ‘permanent’ military bases in Libya. This article, using – as we like to do in these blogs – predominantly Russia sources, sets out the basic rationales as to why Russia is so keen to influence events in Libya and, more specifically, why it ultimately seeks a permanent and at-scale military presence in the country.

Some recent history is first necessary in order to set the scene. For many years during the Cold War, the Soviet Union supported the regime of Muamar Ghaddafi in Libya. He was a close ally. This Moscow-Tripoli link was re-established during the early 2000s by the administration of Vladimir Putin after something of a gap during the Boris Yeltsin years when foreign policy was not high on the Kremlin agenda. But Moscow was then taken aback by the forced removal of Ghaddafi in 2011 in a coup backed by certain NATO countries. In this intervention, the US held a watching brief and it was left largely to the European powers and their forces to do much of the spade work. The Western powers’ commitment, however, to creating a new, democratic Libya proved limited and events took their own course. Two rival administrations came to be formed within the country – that of the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli in the west, and that led ostensibly by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in the east and based in Tobruk.

The GNA has the backing of the UN and, most significantly, Turkey. Ankara, with its geostrategic and economic interests in mind, wants to prevent Libya falling under the influence of its main rivals in the Middle East – the UAE and Egypt. In the east, Haftar receives support from a variety of Arab counties (the UAE, Egypt and also from Saudi Arabia). These are opposed principally to what they see as the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (seen as a fundamental threat to their states) within the area governed by Tripoli. France and Italy – the two European powers most involved – may also be seen as supporting Haftar, but in a very limited way. The interest of France and Italy seems clear: it is basically a bet on Hafter being the better provider of security in the country. A ‘secure’ Libya can help prevent a spillover of terrorism and a flood of immigrants across the Mediterranean. Having Haftar’s forces protecting the oil and gas facilities owned by French and Italian companies in Libya also plays a part in their degree of interest. However, while it seems fairly clear why all the above foreign actors would want to take an interest in the future course of events in Libya, the rationale for the Russian backing of Hafter is more difficult to pin down. It needs to be said firstly, though, that Moscow’s commitment to Haftar is nothing like its degree of support for Assad in Syria; but it is there, low-key as it is.

There is a series of motivations that are drawing Russian attention to Libya.  As one Russian academic has put it, Moscow’s interests there, ‘although not obvious, are still made up of a number of factors, albeit insignificant individually, but very significant in aggregate.’ We can begin, of course, with the fact that, as is often pointed out in Russian sources, ‘Libya is a traditional partner of our country’. Russia also wants a say in Libya in order, by supporting Haftar, to balance out Turkish backing for the government in Tripoli. This competition for regional influence between Ankara and Moscow was discussed in our last Russian blogpost. The specific concern here in Libya for Moscow is that Turkey might come to ‘master the expanses of the Mediterranean Sea’ gaining, in particular, too much influence over regional hydrocarbon extraction – both onshore in Libya and offshore. When it comes to any interest in oil and gas production, it should be pointed out that, from the Russian perspective and as one Russian oil and gas analyst expresses it, Moscow’s interest is ‘not in order to start extracting [oil and gas] for ourselves, but in order to prevent others from doing so’. For ‘others’, read Turkey. Overall, though, and in regard to Turkey specifically, Russia does not want conflict over Libya. Rather, it is perceived as seeking to squeeze Ankara in Libya so that it might give more concessions to Russia in Syria – which is generally perceived as  being of much more concern to Russian interests.  

A further rationale for Russian involvement in Libya is to curry favour in Arab capitals. A Russian physical presence in Libya (albeit mostly in the form of the Wagner forces) shows that Moscow is taking a serious role in the future of the Middle East. This plays well with important regional players such as the Haftar-supporting UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Russia is seen by them as a reliable partner in Libya and this can have significant downstream benefits for Moscow in terms of establishing future diplomatic influence across the wider Middle East. It also balances out the fact that Russia is in general bad odour with these (Sunni) Arab states because of its support for Assad (an Alawite Shia).

Another positive for Russia through involvement in Libya comes from the fact that the UN and those EU countries with interests in Libya have, because Russia is a significant player, to negotiate with Moscow. Russia thus has diplomatic leverage and an enhanced international profile. Moreover, French and Italian oil and gas companies operating in Libya rely to a significant degree on Wagner to provide for extra security in the areas where their installations are situated. Again, this helps create a degree of Kremlin influence in both Paris and Rome.

Moscow, it needs to be said, is operating in Libya under a doctrine that is being operationalised more and more within Russian diplomatic and military milieux – that of ‘plausible deniability’. It is trying to keep as low a profile as possible (in order not to be accused of taking sides or interfering in Libya) while still wishing to have a great deal of influence in the outcome of the civil war – including holding some sway with Tripoli: Moscow does not want to completely burn its bridges with the GNA. To this end, any Russian military presence in Libya is thus ‘denied’ and any link between the Kremlin and the Wagner PMC likewise contested.

The actual activities of Wagner in Libya, however, largely give the lie to the ‘plausible deniability’ line. Its forces have been very busy patently serving Moscow’s interests. It should be remembered, of course, how Wagner was formed. Rather than being set up by ‘Putin’s chef’ – Yevgeny Prigozhin – as most media outlets have it, Wagner is recognised in knowledgeable circles as being more of an offshoot of Russian military intelligence – the GRU. Wagner operations have included providing support last year to Haftar’s forces who seized, and among other notable targets, the strategic airbase of Al Jufra in central Libya.

In late June this year, moreover, Wagner personnel also took control of the Esh-Shahara oil field and followed up in July by seizing the Es-Sider oil port. It seems clear that these acts were actually in line with Moscow’s wishes and not those of Haftar and his LNA. As one Russian source puts it in regard to the Es-Sider incident, ‘The mercenaries made this decision arbitrarily, without the consent of the LNA.’ Oil then began being exported from Es-Sider in October and did so with the actual agreement of the GNA in Tripoli. Such exports now benefit the whole of Libya and Moscow gains considerable kudos on both sides of the civil war divide – and it was all, it seems, the work of Wagner.

Russia also now, though, does appear to have a genuine armed forces presence in Libya. In June this year, aircraft from the Russian Air Force were sent to provide air support for Haftar’s troops. Twelve aircraft (Mig-29s, Su-24s and Su-35s) are now operating from the Al-Jufra airfield. The Russian government says, of course, that these are Libyan planes (their markings are painted over). There is not, though, the capacity among Haftar’s forces to keep these sophisticated modern aircraft operational: Russian ground crews must be accompanying them. Indeed, a video of a pilot who had survived one of the two crashes experienced by this squadron does appear to show a Russian national. It thus does seem clear that the Russian military now has a definitive presence in Libya.

This is no surprise. The link between the Russian military and Haftar seems strong. It is important to note who Haftar is liaising with when he makes his frequent visits to Moscow. He very rarely sees Putin or the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Instead, he goes into the Ministry of Defence building and talks directly to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

This Russian military commitment, moreover, could soon grow yet further. One of the least discussed aspects – in Russian sources – of the reasons for having a Russian presence in Libya is that related to the securing of base facilities far nearer the coast than the small and isolated Al-Jufra airfield. The first requirement is for a naval base. For several years now, since Russia first established a post-Soviet ‘permanent’ naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, there has been a stated military need for basing rights on the Mediterranean coast. Moscow signed a 50-year lease with Syria in 2019 to allow Russian naval vessels to use Tartus port and Russia will apparently invest some $500m there to upgrade its facilities. Access to other ports in the Middle East is also being secured. Last month, Russia announced that a complete new port extension would be built at Port Sudan on the Red Sea capable of accommodating and repairing even Russian nuclear submarines.

The next target appears to be the port of Tobruk in Libya. This is only small but, given recent evidence, there should be considerable Russian finances available to upgrade it if it was acquired. In terms of establishing a greater Russian capacity to operate vessels in the Mediterranean, Tobruk is seen by Russian ‘military experts’ to be ‘much more convenient than Tartus’. One Russian outlet makes the point, and echoing Western sources, that the actual ‘main reason’ for the Wagner presence in Libya is ultimately to secure for Russia a naval base such as at Tobruk

While ports can serve a useful strategic purpose, perhaps what is most useful to the Russian military in strategic terms is the acquisition of a large airfield near the coast. The one that the Russians appear to have their eye on is that at Benin, near Benghazi. It can serve as what the Russians call a ‘jump airfield’ [aerodrom podskoka]. That is, it can operate as a vital transit facility for aircraft flying from Russia or Syria to South America or elsewhere in Africa. More importantly, though, and only really mentioned in military publications, is the fact that this base could accommodate Russian anti-submarine warfare aircraft (notably the Il-38). Based at Benin, these could operate for long periods over the central Mediterranean. They would, as one Russian source points out, be hunting ‘stealthy’ NATO submarines such as the Virginia-class (US) and Astute-class (UK) SSNs. It is what these boats can carry that truly alarms Moscow – UGM 109-E Tomahawk Block IV cruise missiles. It tends to be forgotten in the West that the Kremlin’s greatest strategic fear appears to be that of a surprise NATO attack on the Russian homeland using the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) system. Such an attack would consist of a mass launch of Tomahawk missiles from NATO naval vessels, both surface and sub-surface. Any NATO vessel carrying Tomahawks thus, from Moscow’s perspective, needs to be, at the very least, observed. As the authoritative journal, Military Observer [Voennoe Obozrenie] sees it, Russia needs the base at Benin in order to be able to ‘permanently monitor the underwater space of the central part of the Mediterranean’.

If the Russian military were to establish bases at both Tobruk and Benin and begin to upgrade them then it will inevitably set off alarm bells within NATO. Indeed, the moves Moscow has already been making in Libya have created a reaction. For where once the United States stood on the sidelines of the Libyan imbroglio it is now having to become more involved, specifically because of the latest Russian activity (a fact noted in Russia). Washington’s recent warning to the UAE about providing financial support to Wagner can be seen as a way of the US raising its Libya profile. Moreover, and more significantly, General Jeffrey Harrigan, the commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa, recently warned that, ‘should Russia gain a more permanent foothold [in Libya], as they have demonstrated in Syria, that’s going to be a significant security concern to our European flank to the south.’ The growing Russian involvement in Libya, whether plausibly deniable or not, is running the risk of raising tensions on a much wider scale.

One thought on “What is Russia’s interest in Libya? From regional influence to hunting NATO submarines

  1. The best idea is to sanction Turkey instead of helping them to decrease Russian influence. And let’s sell F35 to the UAE, because those planes will help Russia to destabilize South Europe, this is what the US apparently wants.

    Like

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