Putin’s move to secure Libya bases is new regional challenge for US, European allies

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Russia is moving to expand its military presence in eastern Libya, a plan that could lead to a naval base, giving it a significant foothold on Europe’s southern doorstep.

A defense accord is being hammered out between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Libya’s eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar following their meeting in Moscow in late September, according to people briefed on the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive issues.

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The escalation of Russian activity in Libya represents a fresh challenge to the US and its European allies, which are already locked in a standoff with the Kremlin over its invasion of Ukraine and the country’s potential role in any wider Middle East conflict stemming from the Israel-Hamas war. Russia has been heavily active in neighboring Syria throughout that country’s decade-long civil war.

The threat is being taken “very seriously by the US administration,” said Jonathan Winer, a former US special envoy to Libya. “Keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean has been a key strategic objective — if Russia gets ports there, that gives it the ability to spy on all of the European Union.”

Covert presence

Russia has had a covert presence in the North African oil exporter for several years via the Wagner mercenary group, which moved in during the power vacuum and civil war that followed the NATO-backed removal of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The Russian defense ministry has been systematically taking control of Wagner’s activities since its mutinous leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his top aides died in a mysterious plane crash in August.

The groundwork done by Wagner to advance the Kremlin’s interests in Africa and the Middle East has allowed Moscow to quickly ramp up its foreign military assets. It’s also seeking a naval base on the Red Sea in Sudan, which would give it permanent access to the Suez Canal, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Peninsula, though a civil conflict in that country may put back those plans.

Libya is divided between dueling administrations in the western capital, Tripoli, and the east, where Haftar holds sway. It’s common for each side to oppose foreign policies and other decisions made by its rival.

Haftar, 79, controls many of the major oil facilities in Libya, an OPEC producer that’s home to some 40 percent of Africa’s reserves. He’s looking for air-defense systems to protect him against rival forces in Tripoli, who have been backed by Turkey’s military, according to people close to his Libyan National Army.

He also wants training for his air force pilots and special forces, they said. In return, a handful of air bases currently occupied by Wagner paramilitaries will be upgraded to host Russian forces.

Russian warships may also get permanent docking rights at a Libyan port, most likely Tobruk, located just a few hundred kilometers across the Mediterranean from Greece and Italy, according to other people with knowledge of the talks. However, that is a longer-term prospect because it will require substantial upgrading of port facilities, they said. Russia so far has only one naval base in the Mediterranean, at Syria’s Tartus.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, didn’t reply to questions on the potential military deal. The Defense Ministry in Moscow didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Libyan National Army, Ahmed al-Mismari, didn’t pick up calls to his phone.

The Tripoli-based Libyan government didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Breakthrough meeting

Haftar’s September 28 audience with Putin marked a breakthrough for the Libyan commander in his relations with Russia. During his previous visit to Moscow in 2020, Putin declined to meet him while lower-ranking officials pressed him to sign a cease-fire with Tripoli. He left the country abruptly without accepting a deal.

Haftar’s deepening ties with Moscow have raised concern in Washington and prompted a series of high-level visits to the country this year in a bid to persuade him to change course.

A week before his talks with Putin, the commander of US forces in Africa, General Michael Langley, and the current US special envoy to Libya, Richard Norland, met Haftar in Benghazi. They pressed him to remove foreign forces, according to US Africa Command.

Libya should be in a position to “choose from a range of security cooperation partners,” Norland told reporters in a conference call last month. He denounced the Russian military role in Libya as “destabilizing.”

Biden’s problem

US President Joe Biden’s problem is that Russia is offering military assistance that the US cannot provide because of Haftar’s failed attempt to overthrow the internationally recognized government in Tripoli in 2019-2020, according to Winer, the former US envoy. At the same time, it hasn’t been prepared to discuss sanctions, he said, so there’s little obvious cost for Haftar in turning to Putin.

Nevertheless, a defense deal with Russia will reinforce divisions between the east and west of Libya, currently governed by rival administrations, and make it less likely the country can reunite after more than a decade of strife since the overthrow of Gaddafi, said Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group.

That scenario suits Russia just fine, said Kirill Semenov from the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Center.

“For Haftar, the key is to maintain his armed forces and the US isn’t giving him any other option but to stick with Russia as his main partner.”

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