The visit by eastern Libyan warlord, Khalifa Haftar, to a Russian aircraft carrier in 2017 was coordinated by Russia’s military diplomat in Saudi Arabia, leaked documents have revealed.
In January 2017, Haftar visited the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, as it sailed through the Mediterranean from the coast off Syria. He was given a tour there and spoke with Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, via video conference from one of the ship’s wardrooms.
Following that visit for the purpose of discussing “issues of cooperation in the field of fighting terrorist groups in Libya and supplying the Libyan Arab Armed Forces with medical supplies”, around 70 wounded soldiers from Haftar’s forces were then flown via Egypt to Russia for medical treatment.
At the time, it was seen as a major sign of growing Russian support for the figure, who had returned from exile in the United States in 2011 following the ousting of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi from power and had become commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in 2015.
That Russian support was to be a major factor in Haftar’s strength and his subsequent attempt to take the whole of Libya in his offensive on the capital, Tripoli, in 2019 to 2020, before his forces were defeated and pushed back.
According to the London-based news outlet, Middle East Eye, which cited documents reportedly provided by a Libyan source close to Haftar’s circle, the warlord was invited on that visit via the Russian embassy in Saudi Arabia. Haftar then wrote personally to Shoigu on 4 January 2017 to accept the invitation, telling the Russian Defence Minister to “Accept from us our deep gratitude and courageous support of the Libyan people in their struggle against terrorism, in order for security and peace to prevail in Libya and the entire Mediterranean”.
The Russian coordinating the visit and communications between Haftar and Moscow at the time was reportedly Colonel Vladimir Kirichenko, Russia’s military attaché at its embassy in Saudi Arabia, who wrote to Libya’s then-ambassador to the Kingdom, Abdul-Basit Al-Badri, three days later, to warn him to keep the visitation plans secret and “within the framework of bilateral Libyan-Russian relations only”.
Other information provided through the Russian embassy in Riyadh included a maritime satellite phone number for Haftar to call and the notification that he must arrive at the aircraft carrier by boat, as well as a request that the contact person coordinating the visit on the Libyan side either speaks English or Russian.
One day before the visit was scheduled to take place, Kirichenko also reportedly wrote to Badri to notify him of a delay for two days to 11 January, due to poor weather, and also requested that the Libyans submit a list of topics to discuss at the meeting.
The leaked documents – which the outlet says it will later reveal more of – primarily reveal how Russia’s diplomatic mission to Saudi Arabia was used as the point of contact between Haftar and Moscow in the region, along with a host of other communications, such as requests for arms sales and intelligence collection.
It also potentially further sheds light on the extent of Gulf Kingdom’s role in the civil war and ongoing divide in Libya between the North African country’s east and west. While the Tripoli-based government in the west was and is officially recognised by the United Nations and international community, with many western nations at least publicly supporting it, Saudi Arabia joined Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in backing the rival government in the eastern city of Benghazi by providing funds for Haftar’s war efforts and lobbying the US on his behalf.