As we noted earlier this month, Russia is increasingly playing the power broker in Libya as it cozies up to Khalifa Haftar, the general battling the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli. Now, according to diplomatic sources quoted by Reuters, it looks like Russia is matching boots on the ground to its verbal commitments:
Russia appears to have deployed special forces to an airbase in western Egypt near the border with Libya in recent days, U.S., Egyptian and diplomatic sources say, a move that would add to U.S. concerns about Moscow’s deepening role in Libya.
The U.S. and diplomatic officials said any such Russian deployment might be part of a bid to support Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, who suffered a setback with an attack on March 3 by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) on oil ports controlled by his forces.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States has observed what appeared to be Russian special operations forces and drones at Sidi Barrani, about 60 miles (100 km) from the Egypt-Libya border.
Egyptian security sources offered more detail, describing a 22-member Russian special forces unit, but declined to discuss its mission.
Russia is denying that it has special forces in Egypt, or that it is choosing sides in the fractious civil war engulfing Libya, for that matter. But at this point, protestations of this sort are almost to be expected from Moscow. Interventions in Crimea, the Donbas, and even Syria started exactly this way. Russia had already made visible shows of support for Haftar, and there have been rumors circulating about Moscow dispatching military advisers to Libya for some time now.
Egypt’s participation should also come as no surprise. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has openly backed Haftar himself, and if the Russians are willing to do some of the heavy lifting, why not help? Indeed, Cairo has opened its bases to allies willing to intervene in Libya in a way that has suited their interests before: in 2014, recall, they carried out joint airstrikes with the UAE—also, crucially, without telling the United States.
So if Russia intervenes, what will it look like? The fall of Qaddafi was seen as a catastrophe by Putin; he publicly clashed with then-President Dmitry Medvedev over Russia’s acquiescence to Western strikes against Qaddafi’s troops—strikes that ultimately led to Qaddafi’s ouster and execution. The very existence of a government birthed by UN-brokered negotiations, the direct result of foreign meddling, is an affront to Putin’s sensibilities. Thumbing his nose at the multilateralists would be a sweet reward all on its own.
But is it worth putting Russian skin in the game? Putin judges—probably correctly—that the Tripoli “consensus” government is unlikely to keep Libya together. And he sees in Haftar a strongman who can at least keep the eastern parts of the country in reasonable order. Like in Syria, it would be a mistake to think that the Russians are playing for control of the entire country, or that they care if it is ever reconstituted to its previous borders. Having a reliable client presiding over a hefty share of the Libya’s oil riches might be worth some amount of intervention. And again, like in Syria, with a partner willing to do most of the fighting, the Russians could get what they want on the cheap, relatively speaking.
So far, the Trump Administration has been silent on Libya, but if Putin begins intervening more blatantly, we may soon understand how much leeway it is prepared to give Russia in the Middle East.