Russia’s Involvement in Libya and its Consequences
Manpreet Sohanpal

Post-Gaddafi Libya

In the past six month, General Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), supported by the Eastern Parliament in Tobruk, has visited Moscow twice. He also spoke with the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu during his visit to the Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean through a video conference. With its presence in the Syrian crisis, Russia is now seemingly the go-to– person for leaders from war torn regions. Russia, on the other hand, could not be gladder about its growing presence in the region much like during the Soviet era period. Even though Russia has not yet made any formal commitments, recent statements point to its growing fondness for General Haftar. However, increased Russian involvement could potentially tilt the delicate power balance in the country away from the UN- backed government in Tripoli leading to a delay in unity government formation.

Political Instability

The fight inside post-Gaddafi Libya for a unity government has only escalated in the past year. The House of Representative (HoR) in the Eastern part of Libya, Tobruk, is backed by General Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army. Western Libya, on the other hand, houses the UN backed Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, under Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj. Prime Minister Sarraj is also the Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya. The two sides continue to be at loggers’ head on the issue of a legitimate government in Libya. The HoR has sabotaged various attempts made by the Government in Tripoli for a unified government. The President of HoR, Aqailah Saleh, has threated to take the UN to the International Court of Justice if the UN Secretary General does not cease its dealings with the Presidency Council1. While the GNA is back and recognised by the UN, Prime Minister Sarraj does not exert influence beyond Tripoli. The HoR, on the other hand, has enormous popularity and control.


Given Libya’s large oil resources, the battle to control Libya also means controlling the oil reserves. Libyan oil production has recently reached its highest level in the last three years with production going upto 708,000 bpd. This came after a long-drawn battle to control the oil exporting ports in Libya. In September 2016, General Haftar and his Libyan National Army took over the oil ports of Ras Lanuf, Es Sider and Zueitina previously under the control of Petroleum Facilities Guard head Ibrahim Jadhran. Later, control of the ports was handed over to the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and a common ground was found between Haftar and NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla after increased pressure to resume oil exports. Given this tussle, oil export and control will not stabilise till the formation of unity government thereby leading to a disrupted economy for a long time.


Libya has also become the hub of migrants, trying to flee the crisis, taking the Mediterranean route into Europe. In mid-2016, the UN Envoy to Libya said that the official figures of migrants looking for an opportunity to go to Italy stood at 2,35,000.2 Smuggling and human trafficking in this route has only lead to increase of the death toll numbers. Rubber boats that are used to carry 120 are being used to carry 180 individuals increasing the risk of capsizing. This increase in numbers can be attributed to the growing terrorism inside Libya. As a response, the European government has initiated a plan to train Libyan Coast Guards by the Italians to pick migrants before they enter international waters and take them back to Libya instead of Italy, which was previously done3.

Russian Influence

Given the current situation, the internal political struggle for unity government and the leverage General Haftar has in Libya, his repeated visits to Russia to gain its fervors has set off alarm bells among NATO members, the initiators of the military intervention in Libya. During Haftar’s first visit to Moscow in June 2016, he met with Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu, the head of Russia’s National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and senior officials at the Foreign Ministry. The primary agenda of the talks were arms supply and Moscow’s role in the Libyan conflict. However, Russia did not promise any supply of weapons. During Haftar’s second visit, in December 2016, the agenda was to seek Russia’s assistance to fight Islamic terrorism while developing the military and political situation in Russia. Russia on the other hand, indicated its readiness towards the promotion of the political process while it stressed the need for inter-Libyan dialogue, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya. It did not again guarantee supply of arms for Libya4. While these visits failed to gain proactive Russian support, the flying of 70 injured militants from LNA, in February 2017, to Moscow from Benghazi for treatment5 can be viewed as Russia’s growing closeness with General Haftar, much to the dismay of GNA’s western backers.

In the beginning of the Libyan crisis, Russia’s involvement could be characterised as cautious concern. It began with Russia voting in favour of Resolution 1970 while abstaining to vote on the UNSC Resolution 1973 sanctioning a ‘no fly zone’ in Libya on 17 March 2011. However, the resolution did not permit the NATO to start bombing Libya. Russia’s representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, criticized the resolution 1973 stating that the resolution departed from the Arab League proposal thereby allowing for greater military action6. However, after NATO began bombing Libya, Russia and China started to voice concerns about the limits of the UNSC mandate. Russia claimed that the coalition was bombing Gaddafi’s forces on ground thereby leading to high civilian casualties7.

Historically, Russia and Libya were never natural allies till Russia tried to develop close ties after the coup against King Idris. Visits were thereafter made by the then Soviet Union leaders in 1975 with reciprocal visits by Gaddafi in 1976, 1981 and 1985. During this period, the two developed close ties with expanding trade volumes and 90 percent of the country’s arms inventories for which the African state paid in full8. However, the relations soon started to dwindle with the coming of Reagan administration and its increased diplomatic, military and economic pressure on Libya during the 1980s9. Libya’s controversial and notorious involvement in hijacking Pan Am flight 73, bombing of US facilities in Naples, Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 and UTA flight 772 over Niger in 1989 not only strained Libya’s relations with Russia, the latter, under the leadership of West leaning President Yeltsin, also aided in imposition of UNSC sanctions on Libya in 199210. Relations, however, started warming up by the end of 1990s with the lifting of UN and Russian sanctions against Libya. Sanctions, however, had not only shrunk trade between the two, Libya did run up debt to Moscow.

It was during the 2000’s, after Libya’s improved relations with the United States, and its entry into the global market, that Russia started to benefit from Libya with the former receiving tenders from the latter11. In January 2010, Russia sealed 1.8 billion dollars arms deal12. Before the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, Russia had according to newspaper source signed between $4 billion to $10billion in arms deals with Tripoli13. Al Jazeera quoted saying that a Senior Russian arms official who said in March 2011 that Moscow had lost $4 billion in arms deal due to Libyan uprising14. In 2008, during President Putin’s visit to Libya, Russia wrote down $4.5 billion of Libyan debt to secure the accords of multibillion-dollar contracts with Russian de¬fence manufacturers15.

What Does this Mean for Libya?

Recently, Russia’s increasing defence capabilities in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean has been viewed as a cause of concern for the NATO and its Western allies. After the annexation of Crimea, Russia increased its military presence in the Black Sea. In May 2014, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that 68 billion rubles ($957 million) would be diverted from a 20 trillion ruble ($292 billion) military modernization budget to overhaul the fleet in the Black Sea16. Developments in the Black Sea clearly indicates Russia’s wider geopolitical ambition of expanding into the Mediterranean. In 2015, the Russian Federation’s Marine Doctrine, adopted in 2001, was updated looking at what Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin described as the changing international scenario. The provisions of the document, as outlined by Rogozin, states ‘restoring Russia’s naval presence in the Mediterranean’ after Crimea and Sevastopool’s reintegration into Russia17.

The deployment of A2AD (anti-access/ area denied) system deployed by Russia in the Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean and West Asian region to create exclusive zones. It also deployed S- 400 air defence system to Crimea in 2016 and Syria in 2015. The S- 300 and S- 400 air defence systems ‘bubbles’ covers the Baltic States, parts of Ukraine and the Black Sea, northern Poland, Syria and some areas of Turkey18.

At the 2016 NATO’s Warsaw Summit, Russia’s regional ambitions were discussed at length along with the ways to counter its threat. According to the Warsaw Communique, Russia’s support of the Syrian regime, use for military presence in the Black Sea in order to ‘project power in the Eastern Mediterranean’ were viewed as great risks and challenges for the NATO. In response, NATO decided to up its own security deterrence by ‘forward presence in the Eastern part of the Alliance, and by suspending all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia’19.

Thus, Russia’s expanding presence in the Mediterranean region and the void left by the American administration post Gaddafi in Libya proves to be a befitting opportunity for Russia. However, any direct military involvement in Libya would further delay unity government formation. While some analysts speculate Russia’s growing interest in Libya as indicative of Libya being the next Syria for Russia, it has not yet made any official statements suggesting its support for the Haftar regime. Russia has met both sides and has only stressed the need for an inter-Libyan dialogue. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei has also stressed that it will only recognise GNA and Sarraj as its Prime Minister after the HoR approves of it.

On the other hand, however, Russia’s expanding presence in the Mediterranean and its geopolitical ambitions in the region cannot be discounted especially with the US Air Forces in Europe exclaiming that Russians have ‘closed the gap’ and Gen Frank Gorenc lamenting of the shrinking Western air space. It is also worth mentioning that the new administration in the US is still making up its mind about the situation in Libya. If anything, Russia seems to be prepared in advance, in case the situation calls for it. If Russia does get militarily involved in Libya in support of General Haftar, the conflict, as many other analysts estimate, might escalate before it settles down.

End Notes

1. “Saleh will sue UN if its continues to work with the PC and GNA”, at (Accessed on February 15, 2017).

2. ‘235,000 migrants, refugees waiting to leave for Italy will succeed – UN envoy to Libya’, RT News, Moscow, September 16, 2016 at

3. Gaia Pianigiani and Declan Walsh, ‘Can E.U. Shift Migrant Crisis to the Source? In Libya, the Odds Are Long’, NY Times, New York, February 17, 2017 at

4. “Haftar’s 2nd. visit to Moscow: Will Russia intervene in Libya?” at on February 15, 2017).

5. Agence France Presse , ‘Wounded Libya fighters flown to Russia as Haftar ties grow’, Arab News, Saudi Arabia, February 2, 2017 at

6. “Russia on the military intervention in Libya” at on February 10, 2017).

7. ‘The coalition is going too far in Libya” - Russian envoy to NATO’, RT News, Russia, March 29, 2011 at

8. Mark N Katz, “The Russia- Libyan Rapprochement: What has Moscow gained?”, Middle East Policy Council, No 13, Fall 2008.

9. Ronald Bruce St John, “Redefining the Libyan revolution: the changing ideology of Muammar al – Qaddafi”, The Journal of North African Studies, Vol 13, No 1, March 2008, 91-106.

10. Mark N Katz, “The Russia- Libyan Rapprochement: What has Moscow gained?”, Middle East Policy Council, No 13, Fall 2008.

11. Ibid.

12. ‘Libya, Russia agree $1.8 billion arms deal: Putin’, Reuters, US, January 30, 2010 at

13. ‘Will Russian arms soon start flowing to Libya?’, Al Monitor, Washington, June 1, 2016 at

14. ‘Russia bans arms sales to Libya’, Al Jazeera, Doha, Qatar, March 10, 2011 at

15. Lamine Ghanmi, ‘Libya’s Haftar seeks Russian support’, The Arab Weekly, London , UK, June 3, 2016 at and

16. Matthew Bodner, ‘Black Sea Rising: Rebirth of a Russian Fleet’, The Moscow Times, Moscow, March 17, 2016 at

17. “Russian Federation Marine Doctrine” at on February 25, 2017).

18. Kathleen Weinberger, “Russian anti-access and area denial (A2AD) range” Institute for the Study of War, August 29, 2016 at

19. “Warsaw Summit Communiqué”, at on February 27, 2017).

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