Russia is moving to expand its military presence in eastern Libya, in a plan that could lead to a naval base, giving it significant access to Europe’s southern doorstep.
It began according to Bloomberg with a defense agreement signed between Putin and Eastern Libyan Marshal Khalifa Haftar in late September in Moscow.
Escalating Russian activity in Libya represents a new challenge for the US and its European allies, who are already locked in a standoff with the Kremlin over the invasion of Ukraine and the country’s potential role in any wider Middle East conflict with occasion of the Israel-Hamas war. Russia has also been heavily active in neighboring Syria throughout the civil war.
The threat is being taken “very seriously” by the US government, former US special envoy to Libya Jonathan Winer told Bloomberg. “Keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean was a key strategic goal – if Russia gets ports there, it gives it the ability to spy on the whole of the European Union.”
Russia had a “covert presence” in Libya through the Wagner mercenary group during the civil war that followed the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Libya is divided between warring administrations in the western capital, Tripoli, and in the east, where Haftar dominates. It is common for each side to oppose foreign policies and other decisions made by its opponent.
Haftar, 79, controls many of the major oil facilities in Libya, an OPEC producer accounting for about 40% of Africa’s reserves. The marshal is looking for air defense systems while he wants his soldiers to receive training from the air force and armed forces. In return, it grants some air bases currently occupied by Wagner paramilitaries will be upgraded to accommodate Russian forces.
Russian warships may also gain permanent docking rights at a Libyan port, most likely Tobruk, located just a few hundred kilometers across the Mediterranean.
Haftar’s deepening ties to Moscow have worried Washington and prompted a series of high-level visits to the country this year in an attempt to persuade him to change course.
US President Joe Biden’s problem is that Russia is offering military aid that the US cannot provide because of Haftar’s failed attempt to topple the internationally recognized government in Tripoli in 2019-2020.
A defense deal with Russia would strengthen the civil war climate of eastern and western Libya, currently run by rival administrations, and make it less likely that the country will be reunited after more than a decade of conflict since the ouster of Gaddafi.
That scenario suits Russia just fine, Kirill Semenov of the Kremlin-founded Russian Center for International Affairs told Bloomberg.