Libya’s General Haftar arrived in Moscow last week on his second visit to Russia this year, and met with senior political and military officials, including the Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Boosted by the notion that the recent electoral victory of Donald Trump would lead to a common understanding and new alliance between Trump, Putin and Sisi of Egypt – all of whom would be more inclined towards supporting him – Haftar intended to ask the Russians for military support in the form of arms supplies and training.
Unlike in Syria, Russia has refrained so far from direct involvement in the Libyan conflict and has not used its veto power to block any UN Security Council resolutions on Libya. However, if Russia were to change its policy now and become directly involved by offering military and logistical support to Haftar, then this could conceivably be a game-changer in the prolonged Libyan conflict.
So how likely is this? And what will it mean for Libya and the regional dynamics?
The start of Russian involvement and its close relationship with Libya can be traced back to the mid-1970s when Gaddafi, anxious that the US was hostile towards him and out to undermine his rule, visited Moscow.
He began a very close cooperation that included signing contracts to purchase heavy Russian arms and bring “thousands of Soviet engineers and military instructors to Libya” in order to train the Libyan army and build advanced air defences and missile bases.
Russia was the main supplier of all types of weapons including fighter jets and tanks for the Gaddafi regime, resulting in billions of dollars of debt owed to Russia by Libya.
The bilateral relations between Russia and Libya subsequently went through an almost two decade lull, until 2008, when Putin – then prime minister of Russia – indicated that he would cancel some of Libya’s debts in return for new business deals between the two countries.
These deals were estimated at around $10 billion and included new weapons and constructing a new 600km rail track between the cities of Benghazi and Sirte. However, Russia was never granted any lease to set up naval bases on the Libyan coast similar to the extensive naval facilities it was granted by Syria.
After the outbreak of the Libyan revolution in 2011, Russia was critical of the NATO led military intervention in Libya; although it has never vetoed any UN resolution, including the Security Council resolution 1973 which was the basis for the international military intervention to protect civilian lives in Libya.
Over the last two years, Russia has officially maintained that it supports the Libyan political dialogue and the agreement that emerged from it, including its recognition and support of the Government of National Accord (GNA).
Nevertheless, in reality it has shown greater sympathy for and inclination towards General Haftar and the Tobruk-based camp supporting him.
Russia’s stance on the Libyan conflict is closer to that of Egypt, the UAE and France. Haftar would ideally want Russia to break the UN imposed embargo on the export of weapons to Libya, and give him full military backing, including advanced weapons, military advisors and training support.
There is no doubt that if Russia were to flaunt the arms sanctions on Libya and provide Haftar with the active logistical support he is seeking, then such intervention could plausibly be a game changer in Libya. It would make Haftar even more influential, thus hastening the total grip and control of Libya he is seeking; a goal openly supported by Egypt and the UAE.
In his meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, Haftar is reported to have told him that “We hope we will eliminate terrorism with your help in the nearest future”, in a clear request for military and logistical support.
However, the official spokesman for the Kremlin, Dimitry Peskov has declined to confirm whether such military support was forthcoming, and told reporters instead that “Moscow is in touch with various Libyan representatives and contacts with Haftar take place as part of this process”.
Lavrov is also reported, by the official Russian News Agency TASS, to have stressed to Haftar that Russia is “committed to searching for ways of national reconciliation in Libya in accordance with the decisions made by the UN Security Council”.
Throughout his electoral campaign, Donald Trump criticised the policies of the Obama administration in Libya, for which his rival Hilary Clinton was the architect. Trump has also praised Russian president Putin and indicated that once elected he will seek a policy of cooperation rather than confrontation with him, especially with foreign policy in the MENA region.
Haftar supporters have celebrated and hailed the election of Donald Trump as good news for them, using the rationale and assumption that Trump will cooperate with both Putin, and Sisi of Egypt vis-a-vis Libya, and will tolerate an active role for Russia in the Libyan conflict.
Haftar supporters assume that such an active role will result in direct military and political support for Haftar and his “Dignity” campaign. However, key EU countries such as UK and Italy who support the political process and the GNA based in Tripoli, are likely to make it clear to Russia that an intervention that supports one side over another other in the Libyan conflict will only lead to further entrenchment the existing divisions. This would, in turn, jeopardise the fragile consensus-building, and further hinder the difficult implementation of the UN backed political agreement in place.
Another question that arises, is whether Trump is likely to stick to his campaign rhetoric in foreign policy. Or will the realities and facts facing him once he assumes power make him moderate some of his ideas, especially when it comes to well established American strategies and interests in the MENA region?
Many analysts support the latter and “some observers believe that Trump will face a strong opposition from his military and intelligence officials” when it comes to making major shifts in foreign policy.
Based on Russia’s official statements on Libya, it is clear that it does not want to appear to be against international and UN efforts to forge a consensus or a political solution that preserves the unity and sovereignty of the country.
Russia may very well realise that General Haftar, who is in his late seventies, may not be in the Libyan political arena for many years to come and cannot possibly impose his authority and potential military rule on the whole of Libya, especially the capital Tripoli.
Russian leaders may conclude that it is in their best interests to maintain a balanced approach and contacts with all the main Libyan political and regional players, as the real strategic prize for Russia is to have a key role in the reconstruction of Libya once stability is achieved.
Its natural wealth and the richest oil and gas reserves in Africa, mean Libya will need a complete re-build and re-development in all sectors, including the army, energy and transport in which Russian companies could gain a reasonable share of business.
As a result, Russia may not be quick to take definite sides in a constantly evolving situation in Libya.