Russia appears to be upping the ante in Libya. Russian mercenaries supporting General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) forces fighting the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), have now been augmented by Russian MIG-29s and SU-24 fighter jets.
According to western intelligence sources, 14 of the advanced warplanes stopped in Syria to have their Russian markings changed and then flew on to Libya where their purpose is not clear. They could be used in support of ground troops or be used to bomb GNA infrastructure. It’s a significant escalation in the Libyan civil war that started in 2011 with a revolt against the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
A private military company, the Wagner Group, with close ties to the Kremlin, has been assisting Haftar, along with forces from Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.
Wagner troops—who have reportedly suffered casualties in recent days as GNA forces push into LNA-held areas—have been withdrawing from the front lines south of the capital Tripoli, according to the GNA. Fighting has intensified since Haftar launched an offensive to take Tripoli in April 2019.
Russia has denied direct involvement in the Libyan conflict, but Wagner forces are often sent to areas in support of Russian interests. As ostensibly private troops, they give the Kremlin deniability even though they are largely backing Russian goals.
Those goals appear to be a desire to tip the scales in Russia’s favor. Libya is strategically located on the Mediterranean Sea and has the most oil reserves in Africa. While oil production has been severely reduced during the conflict, a few years of relative peace will prove bountiful to whoever is able to exploit the resources.
But Putin has apparently given up pushing the fiction that Russia isn’t involved.
The deployment of Russian jets marks a new stage in the conflict, and a new willingness from Haftar’s backers to show they mean business. Claudia Gazzini, a Libya expert at the Crisis Group, told Newsweek their appearance “is a big development” and goes beyond the violations of the 2011 UN arms embargo and drone deployments reported on both sides to date.
Rather than an offensive, the Russian jets—as many as 14, according to the Pentagon—appear to have been deployed to discourage GNA forces from continuing their counter-attack into central Libya. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday the time is right for a ceasefire and some form of power-sharing to end the conflict.
Indeed, 14 jets will not turn the tide of the war in Haftar’s favor. But it might convince western powers to come to the bargaining table. Libya is our mess — the “Responsibility to Protect” civilians from a brutal government directly led to U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Gadafi. Since then, the violence, the suffering, the bloodshed is all on us and western Europe.
Handing power back to a tyrant like Haftar would be a massive repudiation of the RTP doctrine and a blow to NATO’s disappearing prestige.
But what really does Putin get out of the intervention?
Anton Mardasov of the Middle East Institute suggested that it is premature to suggest Russia is planning to a Syria-style intervention in Libya. Nonetheless, he said Moscow would like to “make up for the investments it lost as a result of the Gaddafi regime’s downfall in 2011” and retain leverage over what comes next for the country.
Libya—which Gazzini described as a “free-for-all”—offers the opportunistic Putin a chance to frustrate U.S. strategy, and exploit a key foreign policy failing of President Barack Obama’s administration.
A friendly Libya that would grant Russians access to ports on the Mediterranean would be a dagger pointed at the soft underbelly of Europe. That’s why this conflict is not going to end anytime soon.