Libya: Why the Russia-Ukraine war threatens the fragile balance of power

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Tuesday, 8 March 2022 18:38, updated on Monday, 2 May 2022 10:59

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush in Moscow
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush attend a news conference following their meeting in Moscow, Russia August 19, 2021. Maxim Shipenkov/Pool via REUTERS

The war in Ukraine could upset the fragile balance of power in Libya, where Russia remains one of the key players.

The shockwaves of the Russian offensive in Ukraine are being felt in Libya, where Moscow is one of the principal foreign players in the conflict tearing the country apart. There, the Kremlin supports, among others, Khalifa Haftar – the strongman of the East who was also supported during the offensive of his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) against Tripoli in 2019.

This support took several forms: the arrival of snipers, artillery and air control. For its part, the Russian state’s printing house Goznak has run printed money several times to help bail out the banks of Cyrenaica, which were deprived of cash from the Libyan Central Bank in Tripoli.

Will Moscow recall its mercenary forces engaged in Libya through the Russian private paramilitary company Wagner? According to The Times, Russia has sent more than 400 men to Kyiv to apprehend Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. They are affiliated with the Wagner firm, whose members have been operating in the Donbass region since the outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict in 2014.

Territorial strategy

Wagner made its arrival in Libya in 2018, in the east. Led by Dmitri Outkin and financed by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is close to Vladimir Putin, the paramilitary group now holds several positions in different areas of the country, including in the highly strategic oil crescent. Some of its men are camped in Sirte and are trying to deploy an axis to Fezzan.

Wagner’s troop movements have been recorded in recent days in Al Sukna, near the Al Jufrah airbase. However, a withdrawal of the firm remains unlikely. According to Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher specialising on Libya, “since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, apart from a lot of unfounded speculation, there has been no tangible or reliable evidence suggesting a departure of Russian fighters from Libya”.

[Russia’s] entrenchment in the country allows Putin to pursue his strategy of a ‘pincer grasp’ of Europe. This is obvious in the energy field.

He agrees that a withdrawal of the firm would favour an offensive of the forces of the West towards the East because it would open a breach allowing the fighters of Tripoli and Misrata to seize the positions of Wagner. “If the Russians left, the whole political balance and dynamics would be completely upset. Haftar would lose a lot of his aura and war in Cyrenaica would become much more likely.”

Another private Russian paramilitary firm has also been active in Libya: the RSB Group. This company, owned by Oleg Krinitsyn, was responsible in 2016 for a mine clearance operation on behalf of the Libyan Cement Company in Benghazi. It also supported Khalifa Haftar in the maintenance and repair of a military aircraft, according to a United Nations report.

Russia’s presence in Libya remains highly strategic. “Its entrenchment in the country allows Putin to pursue his strategy of a ‘pincer grasp’ of Europe. This is obvious in the energy field. Today, we should not expect a spontaneous withdrawal of the Russian mini-army from a territory that is so neuralgic and, in many ways, so precious for Moscow,” says Harchaoui.

Polarisation

Wagner, the armed wing of Russia on the continent, is active in several theatres of operation in Africa. The firm reinforced its presence in Mali with the arrival of some 600 mercenaries towards the end of 2021.

It is also active in the Central African Republic, where President Faustin Archange Touadéra asked Russia for military support in December. Wagner also operated in Mozambique and Sudan in 2019 to help suppress protests against Omar al-Bashir.

READ MORE From Russia to Africa: The trail of Wagner

Russia’s polarisation on the world stage could reshuffle the cards on the Libyan political terrain, especially as the failure to hold elections in December has led to a further division of the country.

Russia’s attack is a flagrant violation of international law and the sovereignty of a democratic Ukraine.

Abdulhamid Dbeibeh, the Prime Minister who was elected in March 2021 to lead the transition sponsored by the UN mission in Libya, refuses to hand over power to his rival, Fathi Bashagha, who was elected on February 11 in a controversial vote by the Tobruk parliament.

However, Abdulhamid Dbeibeh is still waiting for the international community to give him its full support, yet the latter is cautiously holding back to avoid an outbreak of armed conflict since both prime ministers have strong militia roots.

While the rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk have condemned the war in Ukraine, this position will be less clear for Bashagha who said: “Russia’s attack is a flagrant violation of international law and the sovereignty of a democratic Ukraine.”

Even so, Bashagha was elected through an alliance with the Speaker of Parliament, Aguila Salah Issa, and the camp of Khalifa Haftar, a Moscow ally. Russia was quick to welcome the election of Fathi Bashagha. On February 14, the Russian foreign ministry said “the choice of […] parliament should be respected”.

Stephanie Williams raises her voice

In the international scene, Russian support in Libya is a handicap for Bashagha. Until now, the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, Stéphane Dujarric, had not disavowed the appointment of Bashagha, “acknowledging the vote” and calling on “all parties and institutions to continue to ensure that these crucial decisions are taken in a transparent and consensual manner”.

However, since the start of the war in Ukraine, the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on Libya, Stephanie Williams of the US, said on 4 March that “the solution to the Libyan crisis does not lie in the formation of rival administrations”. This was the first attack on Bashagha.

However, the joint communiqué issued on March 4 by the United Kingdom, France, the United States and Germany maintains the ambiguity. It calls on “all actors to refrain from any action that could undermine stability in Libya”, but does not address the question of the legitimacy of Dbeibeh or Bashagha.

Even so, this political crisis is fuelling a resurgence of insecurity in Tripoli, illustrated by the kidnapping of Bashagha’s ministers of foreign affairs and education – Hafed Gaddur and Salha Al Darawqui – as well as the recent murder of a militant blogger, Tayib al-Shariri, in the streets of the capital. The climate of insecurity is linked to clashes between militias from the Dbeibeh and Bashagha camps.

It depicts a picture that the international context could darken further. Jalel Harchaoui believes that “the revitalisation of Turkey’s pro-NATO attitude in Ukraine could, as early as this year, pulverise the Turkish-Russian agreement which is the basis of the Libyan lull since June 2020”.

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