Main Image Credit Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh at a meeting on 15 April. Courtesy of Government of the Russian Federation/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0
Russia is seeking to preserve its influence in Libya through a number of innovative approaches.
On 15 April, Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah travelled to Moscow for the first time. During his trip, Dbeibah engaged with senior Russian officials, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Secretary of the Security Council Nikolay Patrushev, on intra-Libyan dialogue and energy sector investments. After meeting Dbeibah, Shoigu extolled the Libyan people as ‘Russia-friendly’ and called for a resumption of ‘full-scale cooperation’ between Russia and Libya’s defence ministries. Dbeibah vowed to ‘build new bridges’ with Russia and emphasised Moscow’s ability to play a ‘key role’ in Libya’s economy.
At first glance, the cordial nature of Dbeibah’s meeting with Russian officials is surprising. Russia provided extensive material support for Libyan National Army (LNA) chieftain Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which was the predecessor of the Dbeibah-led Government of National Unity (GNU). On 12 March, Dbeibah described foreign mercenaries, which included Russian Wagner Group private military contractors, as a ‘stab in our back and a threat to Libyan sovereignty’. Since the GNU’s establishment on 9 March, Russia has embraced Libya’s interim government and supports Libya’s plans to hold national elections in December 2021. However, Russia also maintains residual links with anti-systemic actors, such as Khalifa Haftar, the al-Kaniyat armed group and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, in case the GNU’s authority weakens. This balancing strategy could allow Russia’s influence in Libya to remain impervious to political changes on the ground and yield lucrative reconstruction contracts for Russian state-owned companies.
Much like other international actors involved in Libya, the Russian Foreign Ministry immediately endorsed the GNU’s legitimacy. On 15 March, Russia’s chargé d’affaires in Libya, Jamshed Boltaev, held talks with members of the Libyan parliament and announced plans to reopen a Russian embassy in Tripoli. This is noteworthy, as Russia relocated its diplomatic presence to Tunisia in October 2013 after its embassy in Tripoli was attacked by protesters. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also emphasised Russia’s support for Libya’s December 2021 parliamentary elections and its desire to promote political inclusivity in Libya. These diplomatic gestures were reinforced by the shipment of 100,000 Sputnik V vaccine doses to Libya on 4 April. These vaccines were the first to arrive in Libya, and Dbeibah showed his appreciation to Russia by calling the shipment the ‘first drop of rain’.
In tandem with its establishment of closer ties with the GNU, Russia has also preserved its relations with anti-systemic partners in Libya. In recent weeks, the LNA has faced dissension within its ranks, which was exemplified by the outbreak of clashes between Haftar-aligned militias in Benghazi on 21 April. To demonstrate Russia’s solidarity with Haftar at a moment of vulnerability, the Wagner Group will dispatch 300 new Syrian mercenaries to Libya at the end of April. Russia also blocked the UN blacklisting of Mohammed al-Kani, the head of the al-Kaniyat armed group, on the grounds that there is insufficient evidence of his involvement in civilian casualties. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin has also emphasised the need for Khalifa Haftar and Gaddafi loyalists, who support the rehabilitation of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, to influence Libya’s future political system and electoral process. As Haftar and other anti-systemic actors could see their influence rebound if the Libyan election process falters, Russia is ensuring that its wartime partnerships persist into the post-conflict reconstruction phase.
Russia’s diverse array of local partnerships in Libya might also help it secure nationwide reconstruction contracts. Due to Muammar al-Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, Russia lost $4 billion in extant arms contracts and hundreds of millions of dollars in gas exploration revenues, and abandoned a $3 billion national railway contract operated by Russian Railways. Since 2017, Russia has taken preparatory steps to establish a major foothold in Libya’s reconstruction process. Russian oil giant Rosneft signed an oil offtake deal with Libya’s National Oil Corporation in February 2017, and in October 2018, Libya’s Minister of Economy and Industry Nasser Shaglan held talks with Russian officials about reviving the Benghazi–Sirte railway project. The Wagner Group’s seizure of El-Sharara oil field in western Libya’s Murzuq Desert in June 2020 further ensconces its presence in the country’s oil sector. If the UN arms embargo on Libya is eventually lifted, Russia could also receive fighter jet and missile defence contracts.
Taking a long-term perspective, Russia’s influence in Libya is challenged by competition from external stakeholders and soft power limitations. Although the UAE allegedly paid the Wagner Group’s salaries and Egypt’s logistical assistance facilitated Russia’s entry into Libya, this cooperation might not extend to the post-conflict period. The UAE’s orchestration of Haftar’s walk-out from the January 2020 Moscow peace conference and its blockage of Kremlin-aligned Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra’s appointment as UN Special Envoy to Libya reveal divergent diplomatic interests. Egypt’s Trans-African railroad project, which seeks to link Benghazi to Congo, could stymie the return of Russian Railways to Libya. Russia also faces stiff competition from Turkey, which has $16 billion in backlogged contracts with Libya; France and Italy, which have substantial stakes in Libya’s oil industry via Total and Eni; and China, which sees Libya as an important vector in its Belt and Road Initiative.
Russia also suffers from a soft power deficit in Libya. The erosion of Russia’s image in Libya began with Gaddafi’s death in October 2011, as the newly empowered National Transitional Council eschewed commercial contracts with countries that opposed the NATO-led regime change, such as Russia and China. The Wagner Group’s use of landmines in the Sirte-Jufra region, which still claim civilian lives on a frequent basis, and Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha’s accusations of chemical weapons use by Wagner Group forces have tarnished Russia’s image. The perception that Russia supports authoritarianism in Libya, which was crystallised by the July 2019 arrest of two Yevgeny Prigozhin-aligned Fabrika Trollei operatives for political interference, has further sullied Moscow’s reputation in western Libya.
To overcome these headwinds, Russia could establish a military base in Libya and empower pro-Kremlin candidates in the Libyan elections. Since Muammar al-Gaddafi offered Russia a naval base in Benghazi in November 2008, Moscow has viewed Libya’s eastern Mediterranean coast as a strategically significant location. If Russia could leverage its local ties in eastern Libya to establish an air base in Tobruk or a naval base in Benghazi, it would be able to legitimise its military presence and constrain Western influence in Libya. While Russia’s failed intervention in the 2018 Madagascar presidential elections and the December 2020 crackdown on Russian social media accounts in the Central African Republic highlight the limits of Kremlin election interference efforts, RT Arabic’s standing as one of Libya’s most-viewed media networks could help Moscow influence public opinion ahead of the elections. Given that Khalifa Haftar might launch a presidential bid or back a sympathetic figure in Libya’s December 2021 elections, Russia could rally its disinformation machinery behind candidates that are most amenable to its interests.
As the GNU’s domestic and international legitimacy strengthens, Russia’s strategy in Libya is undergoing a drastic transformation. Russia wishes to preserve a diverse array of local partnerships and leverage its standing as a Mediterranean power to secure lucrative reconstruction contracts. The success of Russia’s strategy hinges on its ability to rebuild its depleted soft power and outbid stiff competition from rival international stakeholders in Libya.
Samuel Ramani recently completed his doctorate in International Relations at the University of Oxford and is writing a book on Russian foreign and security policy towards Africa, which will be published in 2022.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.