The ongoing war in Libya took a dramatic turn recently exposing the extent of foreign involvement in the conflict, notably by Russia. Hundreds of Russian "military contractors" — aka mercenaries —were evacuated from the country last Monday after retreating from the fighting on the front lines near Tripoli. Following the announcement of this withdrawal, the US released photographs confirming earlier reports that Russia had dispatched eight warplanes to central Libya, apparently in a bid to support the Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Russia continues to deny the reports.
In fact, though, the reports of Russia's involvement in Libya are neither new nor surprising. The Russian army's conventional "hybrid warfare" stems from what is called the Gerasimov Doctrine expounded in 2013 by General Valery Gerasimov, Russia's Chief of the General Staff, in a relatively obscure Russian military policy journal. His article outlined his observations on a new, whole-of-government style of warfare, one that blurs the line between war and peace. Since then it has become known in the West as the Gerasimov Doctrine. This tactic has been applied to Russia's annexation of Ukraine, intervention in Syria and now more recently in Libya.
It is clear that Russia will remain in the North African state. While Moscow is withdrawing its mercenaries from the war-torn country, the deployment of the aircraft to central Libya has brought to light Russia's tactics on the ground.
The Russian Federation which succeeded the USSR is not a new actor in Africa. However, longstanding relations with many countries on the continent deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. It's clear that Moscow sees its presence in Africa in very broad terms, building upon ties from the Soviet era. In an interview during the 2019 Africa Summit in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin said that the gathering was meant to open a new chapter in relations between the Russian Federation and African countries. He announced that this would entail political and diplomatic support, defence and security assistance, economic aid, disease-control counselling, humanitarian relief and educational and vocational training. In that sense, Russia's return to Africa, especially in Libya, demonstrates that it seeks to create a new sphere of influence across the continent.
Russia's ambitions have prompted concerns in the West, especially in those countries with close ties to the continent, which see themselves as being outplayed by Moscow. For example, in 2018, former US National Security Advisor John Bolton explained: "Russia is seeking to increase its influence in the region through corrupt economic dealings. Across the continent, Russia advances its political and economic relationships with little regard for the rule of law or accountable and transparent governance. It continues to sell arms and energy in exchange for votes at the United Nations — votes that keep strongmen in power, undermine peace and security, and run counter to the best interests of the African people."
In short, the US view is that Russia will stunt economic growth in Africa; threaten the financial independence of African nations; inhibit opportunities for US investment; interfere with US military operations; and pose a significant threat to US national security interests.
Moscow is a powerful player in the global energy market with mega companies like Rosneft and Gazprom. They have declared their interest in oil and gas exploration in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Mozambique and Nigeria. However, it is in the area of nuclear energy and technology in Africa that Russia has been gradually building up partnerships.
At the 2019 Sochi Summit, Russia and 43 African countries agreed to promote energy security cooperation, including the diversification of energy resources, the use of renewable energy sources and implementation of joint projects in civil nuclear energy. They also pledged to continue mutually beneficial cooperation in the oil and gas industries.
Undoubtedly, the strengthening of Russia's military position in North Africa will constitute a direct challenge to NATO and Europe and their own deep-rooted influence and control of the wider Middle East-North Africa region. How Russia and, indeed, Turkey, find a balance in Libya will almost certainly have an impact on the region's future. While supporting opposing sides in the civil war in Syria, both countries seem to be on the brink of a similar confrontation in Libya. In January, the Turkish parliament authorised the deployment of troops to Libya in support of the UN-backed Government of National Accord led by Fayez Al-Sarraj; Russia backs Haftar, who was forced on the defensive.
Last week, Turkey's reaction to the deployment of the Russian warplanes was immediate. Several cargo aircraft left Istanbul for Misrata, including Turkish Air Force Hercules C-130 and Airbus A400 transports, as well as a C-17 Globemaster III reportedly provided by Qatar.
Future relations between Russia and Turkey now prompt several questions. How long, for example, will they stay in Libya, and will the newly-deployed warplanes from both countries clash in unforeseen circumstances? Given that Moscow and Ankara are both opposed to Western hegemony in the region, it seems that their face off in Libya will not destroy their mutual relations, but they will manage them carefully based on their stance against such hegemony. In this light, it is important to understand Moscow's foreign policy and warfare guided by the Gerasimov Doctrine, which is probably going to help Russia in Libya, where it stands to gain more than it bargained in terms of energy and other investments. The same is true for its role in Syria.
Moreover, Putin's aim is not to bring peace in either country. He wants to exploit Libya's natural resources for Russia's own benefit. That's why he shakes hands with local dictators rather than internationally-recognised actors like Sarraj.
Khalifa Haftar has a lot of local support, very much like Bashar Al-Assad does in Syria, and it has grown over the years. His supporters are loyal and Putin is smart enough to know that. He also knows that he can use Haftar's supporters, resources and business networks in Libya for investment purposes. The bottom line is that only corrupt local despots will grant him a piece of Libya's (or Syria's) immensely valuable cake. Any hint of a democratic government emerging in Libya, and the deal is off. That is why Turkey's involvement is so important, and why blurring the edges between war and peace is Moscow's preferred option.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.