Just over twenty years ago, Vladimir Putin became Russia’s leader. At that point, Moscow wielded little influence in the Arab region. Russia was not an actor that even came up in most discussions about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Indeed, given the extent to which Moscow is currently proving capable of heavily influencing developments in Arab states, it is remarkable that only two decades ago Russia was so irrelevant to the region. Today, as doubts grow in Arab states over the wisdom of defense and security strategies that are so reliant on Washington, especially during Donald Trump’s presidency, there is a widespread perception that Russia is the country to fall back on.
Libya is one of several Arab states where Russia has managed to skillfully take advantage of a power vacuum against the backdrop of a relative decline of US/European influence.
Libya is one of several Arab states where Russia has managed to skillfully take advantage of a power vacuum against the backdrop of a relative decline of US/European influence. Last month, Frederic Wehrey, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote an article titled “With the Help of Russian Fighters, Libya’s Haftar Could Take Tripoli.”
Indeed, with General Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) benefitting from Russian anti-tank missiles and snipers—on top of backing from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—Haftar’s gains on the grounds in recent months have indeed been significant. Meanwhile the Government of National Accord (GNA) remains weak and supported only by Turkey militarily.
As Wehrey explained, the LNA, which is receiving a major boost from the Wagner Group (a Russian paramilitary organization described by some as a mercenary outfit serving as a Kremlin proxy), “could conceivably take Tripoli.” Underscored by the LNA’s capture of Sirte on January 6, Haftar’s forces have gained somewhat of an upper-hand in late 2019 and early 2020.
The Wagner Group’s activities in Libya have created a new source of tension in Moscow’s relationship with Turkey. Predictably, Ankara did not welcome the Wagner Group’s entry into the Libyan conflict as the force was doing much to help Haftar’s westward offensive. Turkey’s leadership views the idea of the eastern commander’s forces capturing Tripoli and toppling the GNA as a grave threat to vital Turkish interests concerning geopolitics, energy, refugee issues, and more.
Turkey’s leadership views the idea of the eastern commander’s forces capturing Tripoli and toppling the GNA as a grave threat to vital Turkish interests concerning geopolitics, energy, refugee issues, and more.
Similarly, Russia objected to Turkey’s deployment of military forces to Libya earlier this month. Criticizing Ankara’s moves in the war-torn North African country, a spokesman for the Kremlin stated, “We believe that foreign interference will hardly help settle the situation.” Meanwhile, Putin has said that Russian fighters engaged in operations in Libya are freelancers. “If there are Russians there, they do not represent the interests of the Russian state and do not receive money from it.”
Scores of Arab states have joined the Kremlin in opposing the deployment of Turkish forces to Libya, ultimately viewing Ankara’s actions in Libya as further proof that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy agenda is “neo-Ottoman” and driven by Turkish expansionism.
Despite their tensions vis-à-vis Libya, Russian and Turkish officials have constructively and pragmatically engaged each other in relation to the crisis. On January 8, Putin paid Erdogan a visit in Istanbul, officially for the TurkStream natural gas pipeline’s launch. With the two leaders in Istanbul, they announced their call for a ceasefire in Libya which went into effect on January 12 at midnight. Ankara and Moscow’s joint statement said Libya needs a truce “supported by the necessary measures to be taken for stabilizing the situation on the ground.”
As Russia and Turkey prove to be the two most influential foreign actors on the ground in Libya, it is positive that both are making efforts to halt the country’s violence, even if such efforts have thus far failed to resolve the civil war.
As Russia and Turkey prove to be the two most influential foreign actors on the ground in Libya, it is positive that both are making efforts to halt the country’s violence, even if such efforts have thus far failed to resolve the civil war. Whereas actors such as the European Union, United States, United Kingdom, and France have previously called for cease-fires in Libya, it is more impactful to have Russia and Turkey making this demand jointly.
Shortly after the cease-fire went into effect Reuters reported on both sides accusing the other of breaching the fragile truce, yet by mid-day on January 12 the violence had lulled. The Turkish defense ministry stated that both sides in Libya had attempted to comply with the ceasefire and that Libya’s situation became mostly calm save “one or two separate incidents”.
On January 13, both the GNA’s head, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and Haftar travelled to Moscow. Their communications in the Russian capital occurred via intermediaries with Sarraj refusing to meet Haftar face-to-face. Although no major ceasefire agreement was completed, Moscow’s chief diplomat stated that both sides made “progress” in terms of moving closer to that desired outcome.
Many analysts have attributed Haftar leaving Moscow without signing the cease-fire agreement — even as al-Sarraj did — as an indication of the eastern commander’s ambitious agenda.
Many analysts saw Haftar leaving Moscow without signing the cease-fire agreement — even as al-Sarraj did — as an indication of the eastern commander’s ambitious agenda. His westward offensive has been in motion for more than nine months and Haftar envisions himself becoming a Libyan leader who controls the entire country. Thus, cutting down his ambitions could prove challenging so long as his external backers continue sponsoring his assault on Tripoli. His view of the GNA is that it is an illegitimate government filled with “terrorists” and “extremists”.
Within this context, it seems unlikely that the eastern commander will pull back much from “Operation to Liberate Tripoli”, especially considering that on January 12 the LNA’s official Facebook page posted that Haftar’s forces are “ready and determined” to achieve victory.
Moscow and Ankara have not only been working to broker cease-fires in Libya, but in Syria too. During Putin’s recent visit to Istanbul, Russia and Turkey’s chief diplomats also vowed to pursue a successful ceasefire in Idlib province. Yet in northwestern Syria it also remains to be seen how effective such efforts can be given the Damascus regime’s momentum and determination to take back every inch of Syrian territory by force if necessary.
Although it is extremely difficult to imagine Moscow and Ankara seeing eye-to-eye on sensitive Libyan and Syrian issues at any point in the foreseeable future, Russia and Turkey continue to prove that they are capable of pursuing deep engagement even as opposing stakeholders in multisided conflicts.
As Jalel Harchaoui, a leading expert on Libya, explained, “Turkey and Russia aren’t allies, but they are too shrewd and too realistic to make the mistake of undermining each other or acting like full-blown enemies.”
Haftar’s Arab sponsors—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, which have extremely tense relations with Ankara—can be expected to make moves aimed at ejecting Turkey out of Libya.
Looking ahead, Russia and Turkey are set to remain the most influential outside actors in Libya. Yet other powers have their own cards to play in order to try and push the conflict in a direction of their liking. Haftar’s Arab sponsors—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, which have extremely tense relations with Ankara—can be expected to make moves aimed at ejecting Turkey out of Libya. Thus, the Russians will not be the only players on the opposing side of the Libyan crisis that Ankara must deal with.
Now that the pro-Haftar Tobruk-based government — and House of Representatives (HoR) –announced that it will not abide by the cease-fire, which Moscow and Ankara urged, and the LNA campaign to “liberate” Tripoli has resumed, there are doubts about what can come out of the Berlin Conference set to begin on January 19.
Although the truce failed to uphold, the fact that Sarraj and Haftar both went to Moscow at the same time this month speaks volumes about Russia’s growing role in Libya. This point underscores the extent to which Putin has masterfully strengthened perceptions of him in the Arab world as a rising world leader who serves as a power broker and perhaps even a peacemaker in the MENA region.
As the war rages on, it is clear that the lack of focus from the Trump administration, which has failed to establish a coherent Libyan foreign policy, as well as France and Italy’s competition in relation to the North African crisis are providing Moscow opportunities to gain greater influence in Libya.