Analysis

Libya's Civil War: The Real Reason Putin Is Playing Both Sides

Russia's moves have awakened Washington, but it's not clear what it has to offer

The aftermath of a reported air strike on a factory south of the Libyan capital Tripoli, November 2019.
Mahmud TURKIA / AFP

In February 2018, it seemed as if Yevgeny Prigozhin had lost his standing in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s court. The Wagner Group, a private army of mercenaries that the Russian oligarch is funding according to Western reports, had then begun an assault on Kurdish militia positions in the Deir-el-Zour area of northern Syria, aimed at taking control of the oil fields that the Kurds had captured, with American assistance, from ISIS' grasp.

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Over a period of four hours, the forces engaged in heavy fighting. Ultimately, the U.S. Air Force intervened, bombing the Russians, who were forced to retreat after sustaining between 300 and 500 fatalities. It was the first direct confrontation between Russian and American forces since the Vietnam War. But beyond the historical precedent, the United States drew a red line beyond which it would not permit Russia or any other force to harm its interests or those of its allies.

According to Russian reports, at the time President Putin ordered that the Wagner Group reduce its involvement in Syria, allowing competing organizations to operate on the ground. But the Wagner Group re-emerged elsewhere around the world, notably in Africa and South America – and now, notably, in Libya.

The Leningrad-born Prigozhin, who was jailed during the Soviet era for nine years on criminal charges that included robbery, began his career as a successful hot dog vendor. He ultimately opened a fancy restaurant that in 2001 hosted the country’s new president, Putin, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

This connection, which earned Prigozhin the moniker of "Putin’s chef," deepened, as did the flow of cash to the restauranteur’s pockets. A catering business that he opened landed contracts to supply food and arrange banquets for the Kremlin, and he even had the privilege of organizing Putin’s birthday party in 2003.

Later he “won” the bid to supply food for schools and the army. From that point, it was a short leap to establish the Wagner Group, which became an army for hire with thousands of fighters, armored forces and aircraft. The special investigator’s probe into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election indicates that the Wagner Group also engaged in widespread cyber activity.

Sanctions were imposed on the group's chiefs, including Prigozhin. Although Russia denies any connection to the Wagner Group, and Prigozhin himself has said that he doesn’t own it or fund it, documentation indicates otherwise.

A friend to two governments

The extent of the group’s involvement in Libya, where it operates alongside General Khalifa Hifter (whose title is commander of the Libyan National Army), has become clear. Hifter is seeking to take power and drive out the country's recognized government, along with its leader, Fayyez al-Sarraj.

Libya has developed into another target in Russia’s campaign of diplomatic and military conquests in the Middle East and Africa, which includes contracts to supply aircraft and a nuclear power plant to Egypt, oil supply agreements with Turkey and then onto Europe and assistance to the Maduro regime in Venezuela, via Russia’s Rosneft Oil Company – in violation of American sanctions. In Africa, it has also signed contracts to supply arms to more than 20 countries, including some in which it has enlisted the Wagner Group to assist their regimes to fight rebel forces and subversive groups, including fighting in Mozambique against ISIS forces.

The Russian strategy is to not only consolidate a presence in countries and regions from which the United States has decided to withdraw, such as Syria, but to try to halt the spread of Chinese influence, which is creating economic dependence in addition to diplomatic dependence.

Russia’s involvement in Libya relies on the same foundations that serve it in Syria and Africa. Libya is an oil-rich country that isn’t managing to exploit its production potential due to its compromised security and political situation. It’s looking for an international patron to agree to help it rebuild in return for a stake in the profits.

The United States has long steered clear of Libya, which is among the countries that President Trump has called “shithole countries” or where there is nothing but sand and death, as he once said of Syria. The American role as mediator of the political and military conflict has been assumed by the United Nations and several European countries, notably France and Italy, but the diplomatic effort has not had much to show for itself.

Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Serbian counterpart in Sochi on December 4, 2019.
SHAMIL ZHUMATOV / POOL / AFP

In July 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron convened a meeting between Hifter and his rival, Fayyez al-Sarraj. The two agreed to a cease-fire, but it collapsed within a short time. In May 2018, the two again convened in France, when the possibility of holding elections was discussed.

For its part, Italy convened two gatherings, in November 2018 and February 2019, sparking the ire of Paris, which viewed the move as undermining French efforts and as an attempt to garner economic and diplomatic advantages that agreement would be expected to generate. Up to now, none of the gatherings have produced results. UN envoy Ghassan Salame is planning to convene another meeting in January.

In April, Hifter, whose Libyan National Army is not the country’s armed forces, launched a military campaign to capture Tripoli, the capital, with the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Recently they were joined by the Russian mercenaries, turning Libya in to a theater for a proxy war between Qatar and Turkey on one side and Egypt and the UAE on the other.

Russia is having it both ways. President Putin has in fact met with Sarraj, thereby purportedly positioning himself on the side of Libya's internationally recognized government.

But he also shook hands and chatted cordially with Benghazi's foreign minister, demonstrating his support for Hifter, who frequently visits Moscow and enjoys the assistance of mercenaries from the Wagner Group. Russia has an interesting explanation for these peculiar relations. Libya has two governments. One, recognized by the international community, was established following an agreement signed in 2015 in the Moroccan seaside town Skhirat. Above it is a presidential council. Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj heads these two institutions. This government first won the recognition of the Libyan House of Representatives seated in Tobruk.

The second government, which doesn’t recognize al-Sarraj’s, also sits in this region and sponsors General Hifter. Later, the House of Representatives revoked its recognition of the government and now supports Hifter. So when Putin meets a-Sarraj, it’s a meeting with a recognized prime minister, and when he meets the Tobruk government’s foreign minister he explains that he’s meeting a representative of the government recognized by the House of Representatives.

As far as Russia is concerned, there couldn’t be a more convenient arrangement in which to wield influence than this impossible division into two governments.

Now that Russia is extending its arms to Libya, Washington, which has been in a coma so far, is also awakening. American officials met Hifter and asked him to desist from trying to take over Tripoli and to reconcile with al-Sarraj’s government.

It’s not clear what the American administration can offer Hifter in exchange, when his military forces are stronger than the Libyan administration’s and while he has Russia’s backing as well. In addition to the American persuasion attempts, the U.S. Congress is advancing several sanctions against the Wagner Group mercenaries, and the administration is discussing an aid program for al-Sarraj’s government. But it is doubtful whether these moves can change Hifter’s position or scale back the Russian presence.

Ankara joins the game

Turkey has also recently joined the fray in Libya. It supports al-Sarraj and signed an arms sale agreement with him last week. More importantly, the two states agreed to demarcate the economic maritime borders between them. This agreement will enable Turkey to drill and produce oil and gas in a huge area and charge passage fees for any amount of oil or gas moving through it. The agreement infringes on the interests of Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus. They will have to negotiate with Turkey, which they see as a hostile state, over royalty payments for the gas pipes passing through its territory.

Greece and Egypt have already stated that for their part, the agreement is illegal and they don’t intend to honor it. But legally it seems that Turkey is standing on firm ground. The agreement, however – mainly the part about selling weapons to Libya – is stepping on Russia’s toes. From now on Russia will see Turkey as a rival for influence in Libya.

Russia appears to have diplomatic leverage against Turkey in Syria. Theoretically Russia can object to the continued Turkish presence in Syria and even act to make it remove its forces and stop fighting the Kurds. But Russia needs Turkey’s cooperation in Syria to get rid of the armed militias in the Idlib area without having to launch an all-out war against them. Russia also doesn’t want to confront Turkey after the latter openly flouted Trump’s warnings and obtained the S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems.

These power struggles between Libya’s governments and their cooperation with other states are going on while the battlefields are burning and exacting a bloody price. Libya is a state of trained armed militias, some of which support the government while some are acting to crush it. The regime’s own army is weaker and less equipped than some of these militias. The general staff relies on the government supporting mercenary militias, in addition to the regular army, to fight against rival militias and against Hifter’s army. In each of the large cities like Tripoli, Misrata, Zawiyah and Garyan in the Nafusa mountains, there are also local armies subordinate to the municipal leadership, but not necessarily to the general staff.

Anyone who wants to create a miracle and unite this state and set up a national army will have to negotiate with those militias or to defeat them in war. Since Libya currently has no leadership or force that can cope with these threats, any foreign state that can assure military support to one of the parties will win a hefty chunk of the profits. Russia, which has identified the potential in Libya, is already galloping toward the fertile oil fields.