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Is Libya the new route of the US-Russia competition?

October 3, 2023 at 6:00 am

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) meets with Khalifa Haftar eastern Libya-based military commander at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Reception House in Moscow, Russia on 13 January 2020 [Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency]

Libya, which has witnessed political instability and conflicts between rival groups since 2011, when Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, came to the international agenda again with the flood disaster in the city of Derna. A bipolar structure had emerged in the country after the elections, expected to take place in 2021, were postponed. A parallel government was established in the east, and armed groups attempted to create a new balance of power by taking advantage of this atmosphere in search of power sharing. However, the Derna disaster revealed the US-Russia rivalry, as well as the corruption in the country’s politics.

On 26 September, Warlord Khalifa Haftar, along with his delegation, including his son Belqasim Haftar, paid a visit to Moscow. Haftar was welcomed by Russian Deputy Defence Minister, Yunus-bek Yevkurov. Discussions covered mutual support and cooperation, as well as the humanitarian intervention following the floods in Derna. However, Haftar’s visit to Moscow is not coincidental, as it occurred about five days after the visit of General Michael Langley, the Commander of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), to Libya.

READ: In Libya schools reopen in 15 flood-affected municipalities

Langley, along with the US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, visited the country to monitor US humanitarian aid activities regarding the disaster in Derna. During his visit, he first met with Prime Minister, Abdulhamid Dbeibeh, and Chief of General Staff, Muhammad Haddad, of the Government of National Unity (GNU) in the capital, Tripoli. What is striking about Langley’s trip to Libya is that, after visiting Tripoli, he had meetings with Haftar in Benghazi. An official statement from the US Embassy in Libya emphasized the importance of the democratically elected national government, the unification of the army and the evacuation of foreign mercenaries during the meeting between Haftar and Langley.

US-Russia Competition

Back in January, CIA Director, William Burns visited Benghazi and, according to some sources, pressed Haftar to expel the Wagner Group, a private military company (PMC), in Libya. Currently, Wagner PMC personnel are active in eastern Libya, particularly around the country’s oil facilities and strategic locations.

The other development was Yevkurov’s Benghazi visit shortly before the death of the PMC’s leader, Evgeny Prigozhin. Yevkurov’s visit to Benghazi was considered as the onset of the evacuation process of Wagner from Libya.

The visits mentioned above indicate that a new competition and power struggle between the US and Russia is emerging in Libya. The disaster in Derna in September has paved the way for renewed confrontation between these ‘Great Powers’. For a long time, the US has been relatively inactive in Libya, but it has now activated humanitarian diplomacy through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). General Langley’s visit demonstrates that the US aims to balance Russia’s increased influence in the Southern Flanks of NATO. In this regard, the United States aims to prevent Russia from formalising the covert activities it conducts through Wagner in the eastern part of the country, thereby creating a military presence on the eastern coast.

OPINION: Does Libya have the ability to hold accountable those responsible for the Derna disaster?

On the other hand, Russia seeks to protect and maintain its extensive local network and gains in the eastern part of Libya through Wagner. Following Prigozhin’s death, it is uncertain how Russia will continue its presence in various parts of Africa, and whether the approach of “plausible deniability” will continue to provide flexibility for the Putin administration in international politics. Despite the military, political and economic burdens brought about by the Russia-Ukraine war, maintaining and expanding its military engagement in the Mediterranean and strengthening its hand against NATO are seen as indispensable strategies for the Kremlin. In this context, establishing a military base, especially in coastal cities such as Derna, Benghazi or other cities, would be of great importance for Russia, similar to the naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus.

A New ‘Cold War’

The emerging picture suggests that competition between the two superpowers in Libya resembles a new “Cold War” order. In this sense, the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in 2012, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, led to the relocation of the US Embassy in Libya to Tunisia and the transfer of military presence to AFRICOM as a way of remote balancing or “partial intervention”. However, considering Russia’s presence in Libya’s oil production fields and, at the same time, noting Libya’s position in the global oil market, the instability that this situation can create in terms of supply and demand over time has increased US concerns. The visit of Burns in January can be interpreted in this context. Similarly, the disaster in Derna has brought back the issues of unifying the army and, more importantly, evacuating foreign mercenaries, which the US is now addressing through humanitarian diplomacy. Moreover, the possibility of Libya being dragged into a new internal conflict and becoming a gateway for migration to Europe via the Mediterranean can be seen as a card held by Russia. In this scenario, the role that paramilitary groups operating within the country will play highlights the necessity for the US to balance Wagner, according to US decision-makers.

READ: Haftar’s eldest son ‘willing’ to run for Libya’s presidency

In summary, the competition in Libya between the two superpowers implies the emergence of a new “Cold War”, characterised by its military, economic and political dimensions. In this context, Haftar seems to prioritise his maximum interests between the two powers to maintain his position in Libyan politics and increase his legitimacy in the international community. Since emerging as a military actor in Libya in 2014, Haftar, by developing interest-based cooperation and relationships with the United States, Russia (both directly and indirectly, through Wagner), Egypt, the UAE and France, have disrupted Libyan politics, national reconciliation and electoral processes. In this regard, Haftar appears to be quite pragmatic in achieving his goals.

In conclusion, it can be said that Haftar is implementing a similar strategy as before, with the relative approval of the United States and the support of Wagner, which he has adopted since the failed attempt to capture Tripoli in 2019. However, the conflicting interests of the United States and Russia suggest that this strategy may not be long-lasting for Haftar. On the contrary, given the current circumstances, Haftar’s diplomatic initiatives could backfire and, as a US citizen, he may find himself subject to certain sanctions.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.