Russia hedges its bets in Libya as Khalifa Haftar pushes for Tripoli

Analysis: The Kremlin is a staunch backer of the Libyan National Army, but Moscow hasn’t put all its eggs in one basket

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 29, 2016 Libyan Marshal Khalifa Haftar, chief of the so-called Libyan National Army,  leaves the main building of Russia's Foreign Ministry after a meeting with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. Russia has said it is not taking sides in the fighting in Libya but behind the scenes, experts say, Moscow is firmly backing strongman Khalifa Haftar. Haftar, whose forces launched a surprise assault on the capital Tripoli last week, has visited Moscow several times, met with senior officials and even speaks some Russian. / AFP / Vasily MAXIMOV

After years of positioning itself as one of Khalifa Haftar’s most loyal patrons, the Kremlin appears to be putting the brakes on its overt support the Libyan commander.

Just days after Gen Haftar, whose Libyan National army controls the east and south of the country, launched an operation to capture the capital Tripoli, Russian officials telephoned the field marshal to remind him that only a political solution could end fighting in the North African nation.

The Kremlin appeared eager distance itself from Gen Haftar in the eyes of the international community, too. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson called on both sides to avoid bloodshed, adding that “Moscow is not participating in this in any way.”

Now that rivalry between his eastern government based in Tobruk and the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is coming to a head, analysts say that the Kremlin is hedging its bets.

“The endgame for Russia is to stay in the game and remain a pivotal player in any settlement to enjoy the economic and security spoils,” says Vladimir Frolov, a Russian political analyst.

Ultimately, the Kremlin wants to "gain leverage with Europe and to use this leverage for gaining concessions from the EU on things more central to Russia's interests," like lifting Ukraine sanctions, Mr Frolov told The National.

The goal for Russia is to be an essential mediator, according to Max Suchkov, a Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, a Kremlin-sponsored think tank. “In all of this, Moscow will stick to the golden rule of Russian diplomacy: Position yourself in a way that makes you the go-to for all the parties regardless of your own engagement with each of them,” he wrote in a recent column.

Since the dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 after more than 40 years ruling Libya, the rival governments and assorted Islamist militants have battled for control of the oil-rich.

Gen Haftar’s fight to take the capital, launched earlier this month to the surprise of western diplomats, flared on Sunday when an eastern Libyan warplane crashed in southern Tripoli during a renewed push for the capital.

The assault on the capital would represent the culmination of Gen Haftar's consolidation of power in Libya, which he has done under the aegis of defeating terrorism.

Once close to Gaddafi, Gen Haftar fell out with the Libyan leader after being captured by Chadian forces in 1987. He then devoted the next two decades to toppling his former boss.

Gen Hafter returned from exile in the US in 2011, and soon gained both military and political stature as he solidified his hold over the east and much of the country’s oil infrastructure, while attracting the support of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, alongside Russia.

The most theatrical display of Moscow’s support for Gen Haftar came in 2017. As Russia’s flagship piece of military hardware, the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, was departing Syria, officials gave a tour to Gen Haftar before he spoke to Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu via video link about fighting international terrorism.

But the Kremlin has also offered hands-on assistance. To the dismay of western diplomats and officials in the Tripoli government, Russia has printed banknotes for the Tobruk government.

And although the Kremlin has stopped short of intervening militarily on behalf of Gen Haftar, his regular visits with defence and foreign ministry officials in Moscow have raised eyebrows. In November, he was seen at a meeting in the Russian capital alongside Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-connected businessman alleged to run a private military company whose fighters are reported to be deployed in eastern Libya.

But Russia analysts are keen to point out that Russia hasn’t put all its eggs in one basket in Libya. Fayez Al Serraj, the prime minister of the GNA is also a regular in Moscow, and in 2016 Russia’s state-run oil giant Rosneft signed a deal to buy oil from Libya’s National Oil Corporation in Tripoli.

Whether the Kremlin’s investment in Gen Haftar pays off remains to be seen but Moscow is positioned to seek out the next best actor if the commander’s star wanes, says Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian political columnist.

“If Haftar fails to win control of Tripoli,” he wrote in Bloomberg recently, “and his hold on much of Libya’s natural wealth weakens as a consequence, the Kremlin will be actively seeking others to empower so it can get back into the country’s oil and gas sector and seek opportunities for a naval presence.”

One potential alternative the Kremlin has considered is Qaddafi’s son Saif, with whom Russian officials have deepened ties, in case he should emerge as a unifying figure.

For the time being, Moscow is watching Libya with caution.

“Moscow backs Haftar in his latest offensive only rhetorically only for reasons of not spoiling relations with him were he to come up on top,” Mr Frolov said. The Kremlin is holding back on tangible support, he said, “so as to leave open the channels of communications and influence with the government in Tripoli.”