Butting horns over Libya

Kamel Abdallah , Tuesday 11 Jun 2024

Butting horns over Libya
Russia deploying troops under the banner of the African Corps in Southern LIbya


Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus Bek Yevkurov paid a weekend working visit to Benghazi on 31 May, meeting with Libyan National Army (LNA) Commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and Haftar’s son Khaled, who serves as commander of the LNA’s Security Units, on 1 June to discuss the future of cooperation between the two sides. The visit, Yevkurov’s fifth since August 2023, occurred as Western diplomats intensified their tours of Libya to muster support for the UN-facilitated political process and to dissuade Libyan leaders from drawing closer to Russia.

Haftar, in his meeting with the Russian deputy defence minister, underscored the friendship between Libya and Russia and the importance of developing their military and economic cooperation. Yevkurov responded that Moscow remained committed to helping develop the capacities of the forces under the LNA general command through training and efficacy enhancement. He also stressed the importance of mutual cooperation in the fight against terrorism and extremism, according to a press release by the LNA general command’s media office in Benghazi on 1 June.

Western powers take Yevkurov’s visit as further evidence of Moscow’s intent to increase its military, political, and economic influence in Libya in order to threaten NATO’s southern flank. They also charge that Moscow is using Libya as a platform to strengthen Russian intervention in Africa through the Wagner PMC’s successor, the “Africa Corps,” which Moscow plans to deploy in several Sahel countries. It has set its sights above all on Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, which had recently undergone regime changes that delivered a stunning blow to France’s long dominant economic, political and military influence in its former West African colonies, opening a window to other world powers seeking to strengthen their influence in the region.

According to the Washington DC-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Russia has already significantly reinforced its military presence in Libya with around 1,800 new Africa Corps recruits and thousands of tons of military equipment since March. It adds that according to the institute’s “Critical Threats Project” (CTP), Russia is also seeking to secure a naval base on the Libyan coast facing Europe.

Beneath the headline, “Russian Diplomatic Blitz,” the ISW writes, “Russia’s growing military presence in Africa enables the Kremlin to use its limited resources to threaten NATO’s southern flank and degrade Western influence, advancing the narrative that Russia is a revitalised great power. A Russian naval base in Libya would threaten Europe and NATO’s southern flank by helping support Russian activity in the Mediterranean Sea and potentially positioning a standing Russian force able to threaten NATO critical infrastructure with long-range cruise missile strikes from the sea.”

With regard to Niger, which had expelled the French forces in December 2023 and which had struck an agreement with the US in which the latter committed to completing the withdrawal of its forces from the former French colony by mid-September, the ISW writes, “Russian occupation of the US drone base in northern Niger would create the opportunity for Russia to threaten NATO operations in the Mediterranean Sea with versions of the mass-produced Shahed-136 attack drone. CTP has also previously assessed that the Kremlin will likely use its growing military footprint along key trans-Saharan migrant routes to weaponise migrant flows that risk destabilising Europe.”

The US and European countries are also uncomfortable with Russian political contacts with Libyan officials and politicians, whether affiliated with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), the Tripoli-based High Council of State (HCS) or Libyan political parties and civil society organisations. Moscow hosted HCS Chairman Mohamed Takla some weeks ago and it will host HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh in the near future preparatory to creating a Russian-Libyan parliamentary friendship committee as part of Russia’s efforts to strengthen its bilateral relations with Libya.

At the economic level, the Russian Embassy in Libya announced on 5 June that Moscow had assigned Energy Minister Sergey Tsivilyov to lead the Russian side of the Russian-Libyan Intergovernmental Committee for Trade, Economic, Scientific, and Technical Cooperation

Russia has also proposed a new initiative to promote Libyan dialogue. Towards this end, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with Major General Khaled Haftar, commander of the LNA Security Units, on 7 May, and with the Russian Ambassador to Libya Mohamed Al-Maghrawi on 29 May. At the Libyan end, Russia’s Ambassador to Libya Aydar Aganin, has been meeting with Libyan political leaders and officials in Tripoli, Benghazi, and Tobruk to promote Libyan reconciliation and national reunification to facilitate the search for solutions to the country’s political and military crises.

Simultaneously, from Congo-Brazzaville, which chairs the African Union’s High Level Committee on Libya, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed his government’s support for African-led efforts to promote the Libyan reconciliation process. Speaking to reporters in the Congolese capital, he said that Moscow will use its relations with Libyan parties to support the initiative of the Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso to organise an inter-Libyan conference. The African Union sponsored conference was scheduled to be held in Sirte on 28 April but was postponed indefinitely due to disagreement between Libyan parties over its details.

Russia has presented itself as a trustworthy partner for Libyan parties as well as for African countries that have grown frustrated with Western powers’ failure to help them overcome their severe economic, social and security problems.  Such anti-Western sentiments combined with conflicting interests between the US and European powers opened room for manoeuvre to Russia.

Drawing on its history as a supporter of the African liberation movements and its attractiveness as a reliable alternative to Western powers, Moscow has made considerable inroads towards the development of anti-Western alliances, a process that Russia admits to, citing the need to offset the West’s offensive against it since Russia launched the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine in February 2022.

In response, the US-led West is ratcheting up its diplomatic drive in Tripoli to keep Libyan stakeholders on board with the UN-sponsored Geneva process and block any alternate initiatives by Russia or other regional or international parties, even though the UN-sponsored process, always a rocky one, has run aground.

In addition to the many visits Western officials have been making to Libya to boost their countries’ bilateral relations at the political, economic, and security levels, various economic events have been organised for visiting Western businessmen. One such event was held last week for a delegation of the French business community who visited Benghazi and Derna in search of reconstruction contracts. France plans to host a meeting of the Libyan-French business forum later this summer.

At the security/military level, a high-level delegation from the French Interior Ministry paid a working visit to Tripoli two weeks ago to discuss with their counterparts in the Tripoli-based Interior Ministry security cooperation and sign memorandums of understanding (MoUs) to develop cooperation in this field.

Meanwhile, the US military attaché at the US Embassy in Libya visited the commanders of several paramilitary formations and militia groups in Tripoli, Misrata and Khoms. There have also been reports of talks between a private US security firm and the Tripoli based Government of National Unity (GNU) over cooperation in incorporating the militia groups into a unified force to counter Russia’s African Corps.

Meanwhile, in late May, France hosted a technical meeting of representatives of the defence ministries of the US, France, Britain, and Italy to discuss the progress of the Libyan Joint Military Committee (5+5). The JMC, which consists of five military representatives from eastern Libya and five counterparts from western Libya, is the military track of the UN-sponsored Libyan political process and aims to reunite the divided Libyan armed forces. The Western powers now appear to be reevaluating that process in light of their desire to offset Russian influence in western Libya.

Libyans, for their part, are struck by the curiosity of Western powers accusing Russia of intervening in their country while those same powers are manoeuvring to muster Libyan militias in western Libya. Some fear that Western anti-Russian accusations may escalate into a spiralling clash of opposing proxy forces on Libyan territory before Libyans get a chance to reunify and rebuild their country.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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