Russia's plans to establish military bases in Libya worry Washington.

Russia is preparing to expand its military presence in eastern Libya, a plan that could lead to a naval base, which would give it an important foothold at the gates of southern Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and the military commander of eastern Libya, Khalifa Haftar, are negotiating a defense agreement after meeting in Moscow in late September, according to people briefed on the matter who asked not to be identified because they are delicate matters.

The escalation of Russian activity in Libya represents a new challenge for the United States and its European allies, which are already locked in a fight with the Kremlin over its invasion of Ukraine and the country’s possible role in any broader Middle East conflict that ensues. of the war between Israel and Hamas. Russia has been heavily active in neighboring Syria during the civil war that has ravaged the country for a decade.

The US administration takes “this threat very seriously,” said Jonathan Winer, former US special envoy to Libya. “Keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean has been a key strategic objective: if Russia gets ports there, that gives it the ability to spy on the entire European Union.”

Covert presence

Russia has had a covert presence in the North African oil exporter for several years through the Wagner mercenary group, which set up shop during the power vacuum and civil war that followed the ouster of former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. backed by NATO. The Russian Defense Ministry has been systematically taking control of Wagner’s activities since its mutinous leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and his top aides died in a mysterious plane crash in August.

The grassroots work done by Wagner to promote the Kremlin’s interests in Africa and the Middle East has allowed Moscow to increase its military assets abroad rapidly. He is also trying to build a naval base on the Red Sea in Sudan that would give him permanent access to the Suez Canal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Peninsula, although the civil conflict in that country may delay those plans.

Libya is divided between dueling administrations in the western capital, Tripoli, and the east, where Haftar dominates. It is common for each side to oppose foreign policies and other decisions made by its rivals.

Haftar, 79, controls many of the major oil facilities in Libya, an OPEC-producing country that is home to about 40% of Africa’s reserves. He is seeking air defense systems to protect himself from rival Tripoli forces, backed by the Turkish military, according to people close to his Libyan National Army.

It also wants training for its aviation pilots and its special forces. In exchange, a handful of air bases currently occupied by Wagner paramilitaries will be modernized to accommodate Russian forces.

Russian warships could also gain permanent docking rights at a Libyan port, most likely Tobruk, located just a few hundred kilometers across the Mediterranean from Greece and Italy, according to other people with knowledge of the talks. However, this is a longer-term perspective as it will require a substantial upgrade of port facilities. So far, Russia only has one naval base in the Mediterranean, in the Syrian city of Tartus.

Decisive meeting

Haftar’s audience with Putin on September 28 marked a breakthrough for the Libyan commander in his relations with Russia. During his previous visit to Moscow in 2020, Putin refused to meet with him as low-ranking officials pressured him to sign a ceasefire with Tripoli. He left the country abruptly without accepting a deal.

Haftar’s deepening ties with Moscow have raised concerns in Washington and prompted a series of high-level visits to the country this year in an attempt to persuade him to change course.

A week before his talks with Putin, the commander of US forces in Africa, General Michael Langley, and the current US special envoy to Libya, Richard Norland, met with Haftar in Benghazi. They pressured him to withdraw foreign forces, according to the US Africa Command.

Libya should be able to “choose from a range of security cooperation partners,” Norland told reporters in a conference call last month. He denounced the Russian military role in Libya as “destabilizing.”

Biden’s problem

US President Joe Biden’s problem is that Russia is offering military assistance that the United States cannot provide because of Haftar’s failed attempt to overthrow the internationally recognized government in Tripoli in 2019-2020, according to Winer, the former US envoy. At the same time, he has not been willing to discuss sanctions, he said, so there is little obvious cost to Haftar in turning to Putin.

However, a defense deal with Russia will reinforce divisions between eastern and western Libya, currently governed by rival administrations, and make it less likely that the country can be reunified after more than a decade of fighting since Gaddafi’s overthrow, he said. Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group.

According to Kirill Semenov of the Russian Center for International Affairs, founded by the Kremlin, this scenario suits Russia very well.

“For Haftar, the key is to maintain his armed forces, and the United States is giving him no choice but to continue with Russia as a main partner.”