By supporting Marshal Haftar, Russia marks its territory in Libya
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen his man in Libya: Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who controls the east of the country. It is a bet that could allow Russia to extend its influence in the Arab world and the Mediterranean.
Russia has laid its cards on the table. Even while the Kremlin -- like the UN and most of the international community -- officially recognises the authority of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), it is now showing explicit and even ostentatious support for Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar, the highly rated military leader who has waged a successful war against jihadist militias in eastern Libya, leads the Libyan National Army, which answers to the government in the eastern city of Tobruk, itself in opposition to the GNA.
Our man in Moscow
Earlier this month, Russia made a very public show of support for Haftar when the Libyan field marshal was invited aboard Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which was on its way back home from Syria.
Russia’s state-owned RT news network broadcast images of Haftar inspecting an honour guard and watching flight operations by the ship's Sukhoi Su-33 fighter jets. While on board, Haftar also took part in a videoconference call with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
It was just the latest display of Russia’s preferential treatment for the 73-year-old soldier, who visited Russia twice in 2016, including a mission to solicit Moscow’s assistance for the lifting of the UN arms embargo against Libya.
These high profile gestures have sparked rumours of significant arms deals for Russia in Libya, as well as the establishment of a Russian naval base near Benghazi.
But while these reports are consistently denied in the Russian media, there’s little doubt that Khalifa’s invitation to board the Admiral Kuznetsov is a symbolic gesture that reinforces the stature of the former military officer who, serving in the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s army, received his military training in the Soviet Union.
For all practical purposes, Haftar looks like he’s Russian President Vladimir Putin’s man in Libya.
"Even if they want to preserve the appearance of supporting the politically weakened GNA, the Russians are pursuing a concrete policy by openly betting on Haftar, who leads the dominant force in Libya," said Arnaud Dubien, director of the France-Russia Observatory, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
"Even if it is a bit risky, because the future is unpredictable, Russia has effectively placed its bet on the winning horse,” he said. “But Moscow is not fooling itself, it knows that Haftar -- who is also in contact with the Emiratis and the French -- will not put all his eggs in one basket."
Dubien wondered whether the measured Russian support for Haftar, in addition to weapons deliveries via Egypt, was a way for Moscow to prepare for a post-Syria scenario – in which, ideally, events on the ground go very much in Russia’s favour.
"It would be effective for the Russians to play the Libyan game after the Syrian one, which is coming to a close, in order to mark their influence in the Mediterranean by saying that as in Syria, so in Libya too: we are unavoidable."
Thus Russia -- which already counts Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sissi as its allies -- can now include Haftar in its club of political Arab strongmen in the Mediterranean.
An old relationship thwarted by the fall of Gaddafi
It’s not surprising that Russia is taking a close interest in Libya, which was historically in the Soviet sphere of influence.
"Russia is not starting from scratch in Libya, and we cannot try to understand what Moscow is trying to put in place without considering it within the context of the bilateral relationship born in the late 1960s, Soviet foreign policy in the Middle East and the [post-Soviet] Russian policy in the Mediterranean,” said Dubien.
Even if the Gaddafi regime had not been in the Soviet inner circle of Arab allies -- as was Baathist Syria -- the Russians have always kept a close eye on Libya.
"After [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev announced a pullback from the Soviet Union’s most distant foreign engagements, Muammar Gaddafi, who was only an opportunist ally of the USSR, was left in the cold," explained Dubien.
Dubien explained that Russia -- which, under President Boris Yeltsin, had all but disappeared from the region until the end of the 1990s -- began once more to take an interest in Libya in the mid-2000s.
“Vladimir Putin sought to reinvest in the African continent, and more generally in former Soviet allies,” he said. “However, this time the framework of the new engagement was less ideological and more concerned with economics.”
With this in mind, Russia offered these countries debt cancellations – on loans Moscow had no chance of recovering -- in exchange for new arms contracts, and investment opportunities for Russian oil or infrastructure projects.
"In the Libyan case especially, oil and gas contracts worth several billion dollars were signed with Tripoli, as well as arms deals and the construction of a high-speed railway line," said Dubien.
Most of these projects and commercial prospects collapsed with the fall of Gaddafi. And in March 2011, Russia, then under President Dmitry Medvedev, shot itself in the foot economically by abstaining from voting on UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that resulted in the violent collapse of the Gaddafi regime.
A symbolic record for Putin
“There is a clear political aspect to Russia’s actions in Libya, and to date this has been largely ignored,” Dubien went on. “One surprising point is that Russia’s Libya policy is one of the rare occasions when Vladimir Putin, when he was prime minister, was not in complete agreement with then-president Dmitri Medvedev, his top political ally.”
Russia felt completely side-lined by the 2011 Franco-British military intervention.
“It was perceived by Putin, in the context of the Arab Spring, as something engineered by the West and a definite threat to Russian influence,” said Dubien. “And preventing the West from repeating their Libyan actions in Syria became one of the principal motivations for allying so closely with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.”
Russia now has very little to lose by playing a bold hand in Libya.
“From a strategic standpoint, the risk is low, but the gains have the potential to be very high indeed,” Dubien concluded.
It is a gamble that the Europeans, while waiting for a new policy direction from the United States's new president Donald Trump, are not in a position to take.