Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar seeks cooperation with Russia to train special forces in exchange for Russian reinforcements

Western fears over Russia's role in Libyan politics

Viceministro de Defensa ruso, Yunus-bek Yevkurov (izq.) y el hombre fuerte del ejército libio, Khalifa Haftar (der.), reunidos en Bengasi, Libia. Oficiales militares rusos llegaron tras recibir una invitación de Haftar, que respalda la administración oriental de Libia y es cercano al Grupo Wagner, cuyas tropas custodian infraestructuras militares y petrolíferas en el dividido país - Foto de la oficina de prensa de Khalifa Haftar / AF
Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov (L) and Libyan army strongman Khalifa Haftar (R) meet in Benghazi, Libya. Russian military officials arrived at the invitation of Haftar, who backs Libya's eastern administration and is close to the Wagner Group, whose troops guard military and oil infrastructure in the divided country - Photo by Khalifa Haftar's press office / AF

Russia has become a real player in Libyan political life, not only through the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries and support for army commander Khalifa Haftar, but also by building bridges of communication with various parties, including the government of Abdul Hamid Dbeibe. Libya is the Russian link in Africa. 

  1. What influence does Haftar have on the Kremlin's intentions? 
  2. Is Russia as important to Libyan citizens as it is to Haftar? 

The Libyan cause has returned to the Western discussion tables due to US concerns about Moscow increasing its influence in the North African country, with a clear appeal to accept UN Representative Abdullah Batelli's proposal, announced in early November, and to question the viability of this effort. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Libya's parliament speaker Aguila Saleh during their talks in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020 - PHOTO/ Servicio de Prensa del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Rusia vía AP

As reported by Al-Arab, Libyan sources point out that current US and European moves and positions are often carried out under the pretext of supporting UN initiatives and that their main aim is to block any steps towards a political solution that would benefit Moscow over the role of Russia and its allies inside Libya. Al-Arab adds that a possible solution to the crisis is still a long way off, as the situation has escalated due to regional and international tensions. 

The West is concerned about the influence that could be achieved over Libya, as demonstrated by the 2021 elections, the date of which was deliberately postponed due to the non-acceptance, mainly by Washington and London, of two parties close to the Kremlin. 

In a context very similar to that of 2021, the West's intentions are to hinder any possible solution or linkage of the Libyan interim forces with Russian interests, as they did three years ago with the international 5-party initiative, which in the end turned out not to be a proposal by and for Libyans, but a proposal by and for Europe.

At the same time, as Moscow's influence expands in the Sahel and Sahara regions, especially in countries witnessing revolutions, the West is increasingly concerned about Russia's growing role in Libya, especially in the east and south of the Libyan country, as shown by the movement to free the nation from French influence at various political levels, including economic, security and military.

What influence does Haftar have on the Kremlin's intentions? 

Haftar's forces attempted to take control of the capital, Tripoli, but most of the Russian fighters lacked combat experience, leading to tensions with Haftar. The US-based think tank Soufan reaffirmed Western thinking that Russia is using its relationship with Haftar to expand its influence in Africa.

This is because regional and international powers are cooperating with Libya's rival governments to promote their own interests and are deploying 800 Muscovite fighters. The Kremlin has three Libyan air bases under its control in Sirte, Al-Jufra and Barak, Al Shati, and the presence of Russian fighter jets has increased Haftar's military influence, which has been strengthened and could be used against his rivals in Tripoli, he noted.

REUTERS/ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI - El general Jalifa Haftar, al mando del Ejército Nacional Libio
General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army- REUTERS/ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI

For its part, the US-based Jamestown Foundation, in its report, believes Haftar is working to build ties with Russia to train special forces to strengthen the position in the east of the North African country, despite US warnings, and outlined a detailed military strategic plan prepared by the Russian army general. 

The document confirms that it would be a key launching point for Russian operations in a new military alliance in Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Sahel countries of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso and added that the ceasefire agreement signed in May 2020 allowed Russian and Syrian mercenaries to return to Mali and Ukraine. 

REUTERS – El Grupo Wagner en Rostov
The Wagner Group in Rostov - REUTERS

Is Russia as important to Libyan citizens as it is to Haftar? 

According to Al-Arab, demographic experts in Libya note that, in day-to-day affairs, citizens have not lodged any complaints against Muscovite policies, but rather see their involvement as a guarantee to balance direct Western intervention as in the events of 2011. They highlight the Libyans' rejection of NATO interventions, which a part of society continues to blame for the crisis and for unleashing the civil war.

Russia's Ambassador to Libya, Haider Aganin, tried to convince Libyans of his country's role. In an interview with state-run Arte TV, he said Russia's policy is not based on favouring one side over the other and stressed that the division of power centres puts pressure on Moscow to negotiate with all sides. 

FOTO/AFP / Mahmud Turkia - Una pancarta en el centro de la capital libia, Trípoli, el 16 de febrero de 2021, en la que se puede leer en árabe "17 de febrero, de la revolución al Estado", un día antes de las conmemoraciones del décimo aniversario del levantamiento contra Muammar Gadafi
A banner in the centre of the Libyan capital Tripoli on 16 February 2021, reading in Arabic "17 February, from revolution to state", one day before commemorations of the tenth anniversary of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi - FOTO/AFP / Mahmud Turkia

The ambassador explained to Libyan officials that the message he was delivering at the meeting was one of motivation and encouragement, refusing to interfere or dictate instructions, and described the positions of the Libyan parties as "contradictory". Aganen went on to state that the international community is aware of the need to put in place measures to end the conflict and stabilise Libya and stressed the importance of supporting economic stability and cooperation in the oil field and rebuilding affected areas. 

With a view to resolving the conflict, Moscow initiated the 'Libyan-Libyan dialogue'. Under this slogan, Russian policy called for the unification of the country and its institutions, stressing the need to hold parliamentary presidential elections that would serve to establish a strong and legitimate government.