Henry Meyer, Samer Al-Atrush and Stepan Kravchenko
Vladimir Putin is working to fill voids left around the world as Donald Trump puts America first.
Russia has a new potential leader for Libya. His name is Qaddafi.
The former dictator’s son, Saif al-Islam, this month became the latest in a long line of Libyans to seek Moscow’s support as President Vladimir Putin steps up Russia’s role in the energy-rich North African state.
With the U.S. all but absent, the Kremlin sees an opening to become the key power broker in Libya, rudderless and divided since Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow and death in 2011. Russia is likely to be emboldened in that aim by U.S. plans to pull out of Syria.
Moscow has until now been seen as throwing in its lot with Khalifa Haftar, a military strongman who controls most of the oil-producing east of Libya. Yet Russia has been quietly building ties with all the competing factions, according to two European diplomats who study the Kremlin’s strategy. That puts it in a position to benefit more than other outside powers that support one side or another.
While there are major issues facing a bid for power by Saif al-Islam, for the Russians, “their best-case scenario is to back someone from the former regime, because they know each other well and have had decades of dealings during Qaddafi’s rule,” said Mohamed Eljarh, co-founder of Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting, a Tobruk-based think thank.
For Putin, who angrily condemned the NATO-led military campaign that overthrew Qaddafi’s four-decade rule as a “crusade,” restoring Russia as a key player in Libya after his successful intervention in Syria would bolster his country’s heft at U.S. expense. It also opens up the path to reconstruction contracts worth billions of dollars, a share of Africa’s largest oil resources and a possible new naval base on the Mediterranean.
“The West did everything it could to plunge this country into chaos,” said Alexander Dynkin, head of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a state-run research group that advises the Kremlin. “Now all parties to the conflict trust Moscow.”
Libyan Power Play
Russia switched strategy on Libya last year, according to the diplomats. As well as supporting Haftar, Moscow put a lot of effort into courting the rival UN-backed government in Tripoli and other power centers, including the western region of Misrata, they said. Haftar has been a frequent visitor to Moscow since 2016, but Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and other top Libyan officials are also regularly in the Russian capital.
The Kremlin’s strategy appears to be paying off. Russia is in talks with Libya on restarting a 2.2 billion euro ($2.5 billion) contract to build a high-speed rail line from Benghazi to Sirte, suspended since Qaddafi’s demise. Russian defense manufacturers that lost $4 billion in arms deals in Libya also stand to gain. Libya is meanwhile buying 1 million tons of Russian wheat for $700 million.
Russian energy interests are also advancing. Libyan National Oil Corp. CEO Mustafa Sanalla was in Moscow in October for talks with Gazprom PJSC and Tatneft PJSC on relaunching Libyan projects that date from the Qaddafi era. Rosneft PJSC has agreed to invest in exploration and production in Libya and to buy crude. All deal exclusively with Tripoli-based NOC, in spite of Moscow’s Haftar ties, because it alone has the right to strike foreign agreements.
“The support shown for NOC by Russian political and commercial leaders demonstrates the strength of our future prospects,” Sanalla told Bloomberg.
As Russia deepens its engagement, President Donald Trump’s global pullback, most recently in Syria, risks leaving the U.S. adrift. Neither Russia nor the U.S. has functioning embassies in Libya – U.S. operations were suspended after the American ambassador was killed in 2012 during an armed attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Yet last month, even as the Trump administration worked on a new strategy for Africa, the U.S. sent Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield to a conference on Libya hosted by Italy’s government; Russia dispatched Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Russia’s involvement in Libya goes back to 1969, when Qaddafi came to power as a 27-year-old military officer in a bloodless coup against the Western-backed monarchy. The Soviet Union and its Russian successor state armed Qaddafi’s regime, but after his overthrow Libya disintegrated into rival factions with the central government unable to control even the capital.
During the bloodletting, Saif al-Islam, 46, who studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science, was captured, put on trial and then freed in mid-2017 by the rebels who toppled and killed his father.
“Neither side can afford antagonizing or refusing to speak with Russia”
Russian representatives entered into contact with the one-time heir apparent soon after his release and talk by video-link, with him speaking from an undisclosed location, said a person in Moscow with knowledge of Libya policy. The Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
A representative of Qaddafi’s son met Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in early December, delivering a letter on his behalf with greetings to Putin and the Russian government, explaining his political vision for Libya and asking for political support.
The visit by his emissary was not the first. Qaddafi’s son is looking to Russia for financial help and mediation with other Libyan power centers to back his bid to become president, the person said.
Saif al-Islam could choose to stand in national elections the United Nations wants to hold next year under its latest plan to unify the country, even though he’s wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges from 2011 including two counts of crimes against humanity. Haftar also has his own presidential ambitions as do other Libyan politicians, and Russia hasn’t yet decided on supporting one particular candidate, said the person.
Given the legal constraints, with prosecutors in Tripoli also seeking his arrest, “it’s difficult to see how Saif al-Islam can make a comeback” unless the issue is resolved through a wider national reconciliation process, said Eljarh of Libya Outlook. The Russians though are “keeping their options open,” he said.
With Haftar aged 75 and in ill health, Qaddafi’s son could win Russian support if there is a consensus among Libyans, said Maria Al Makahleh, a Middle East expert at the Kremlin-backed Valdai Club. Lev Dengov, a Russian envoy to Libya, said in November that his government was in touch with Saif al-Islam, describing him as “a participant in the political process” who is now “very optimistic” about his prospects.
Another hopeful, Aref Ali Nayed, a Libyan politician seen as close to Haftar who’s declared his candidacy for president, has visited Moscow twice since September for talks with top officials. The aim was “to encourage the Russians to play an active role,” Nayed, a former Libyan ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, said by phone from London. “I truly feel that we are at an impasse in the political process. I believe I can be a unifying figure.”
Inside Libya, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s mainly Muslim Chechnya region, has been promoting unofficial contacts since he secured the release of Russian seamen held in the country in 2015. He’s in touch with both Tripoli and important tribal forces elsewhere in Libya.
In the east, where Haftar’s Libyan National Army holds sway, Russian military personnel are providing training and weapons maintenance, while there are indications Russian special forces were dispatched and took part in operations there, two Western officials said. In the competition for the country’s future, “Russia has one main advantage – Haftar,” said Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian businessman and Putin ally with contacts in Libya.
Russia still faces significant hurdles in dealing with armed Libyan factions unable to agree on how to share power. The picture is further muddied by other outside actors, with Italy and Qatar seen to be betting on Tripoli, and the U.A.E., Egypt and France siding with Haftar.
By hedging its bets and keeping channels of communication open to all parties, Russia is ensuring it will benefit “regardless of the winner of the conflict or the peace deal in place,” said Riccardo Fabiani, a Middle East and North Africa expert at Energy Aspects. In Libya, “neither side can afford antagonizing or refusing to speak with Russia,” he said.