Experts argue that the withdrawal of forces could damage Haftar's momentum and discourage his foreign allies from pinning their hopes on him.
Russian mercenaries were seen making a hasty retreat from the front lines as Libyan civilians demanded they leave the strategic town of Bani Wali, situated between the cities of Misrata and Tripoli.
The withdrawal of the Wagner Group, a Russian state-backed paramilitary force, will likely be a blow to the renegade warlord Khalifa Haftar who seeks to take over Libya.
Haftar began his operation to take the Libyan capital of Tripoli almost a year ago, however, his advances have stalled in large part due to the Turkish support of the internationally-recognised government of the Government of National Accord (GNA).
“Despite some temporary setbacks, the Operation Peace Storm launched by the Government of National Accord (GNA) has been successful and the seizure of Sorman, Sabratha and more recently the Watiya airbase have put the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) on a defensive posture,” says Umberto Profazio, a Middle East analyst.
The Russian mercenaries and their heavy equipment were flown to a remote location in the administrative region of Jufra in central Libya, a stronghold of Haftar’s militants.
A string of setbacks by Haftar’s militia may well result in his foreign backers, which include Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, to rethink whether the warlord is indeed capable of taking over the country.
“Facing the pressure of the GNA's counteroffensive, the uneasy relationship with relevant stakeholder in eastern Libya and the increasing doubts of his main international supporters about the dwindling chance of success of his campaign on Tripoli, Haftar is forced to consolidate its front and regroup, directing more resources to defend its main base in the east” added Profazio, speaking to TRT World.
The arrival of Russian mercenaries in the country in 2019 was a game-changer, allowing Haftar’s militants to conquer significant tracts of land. More than 1,400 Russian mercenaries are believed to have helped him strengthen his position in Libya.
Recent reports suggest that Russia sent eight Soviet-era fighter jets to Libya from its military base in Syria. While there may have been a withdrawal from the front lines, Moscow is likely to stay in Libya.
Profazio believes the recent withdrawal could be the beginning of a new phase to the conflict where “Russia's moves are aimed at deterring any further push eastward by the GNA and Turkish forces, whose role has been crucial in recent months.”
Putin “playing hardball”
Nicolai Due-Gundersen, a Middle East political analyst who has been tracking the legitimacy of Arab governments since the Arab spring and non-democratic political legitimacy in the region, believes that the recent pullback could be a result of Putin “playing hardball.”
The Russian retreat "shows that relations with Haftar are becoming strained. As early as January, Haftar stormed out of a meeting in Moscow after he couldn't meet Putin. Wagner's withdrawal amid Haftar losing territory that the group helped him gain is very damaging to him symbolically,” added Due-Gundersen, speaking to TRT World.
The withdrawal of mercenaries could also damage momentum and a belief amongst Haftar’s allies in Libya and his external backers, warns Due-Gundersen.
“It shows that his military accomplishments are not real without external backing. For someone who wants to be a military strongman that is going to make him look very weak,” he explains.
For many analysts, the longer-term impact of Wagnar's pullback and its potential impact on Haftar’s sponsors is hard to gauge.
While the GNA has made significant gains in recent months to recoup back territory, its ability to take on Haftar and his strongholds in the east, is unlikely to be possible without a significant investment in manpower and weapons by its foreign backers.
The frozen front lines could be an opportunity to restart negotiations, says Profazio.
“It could push rival factions to resume negotiations under the sponsorship of Russia and Turkey, offering a new chance for peace, especially if Haftar's position becomes untenable following the ongoing debates among its main international backers,” he adds.
In January of this year, the Berlin process was held as an opportunity to bring the warring parties together and to find a negotiated solution.
Since then, however, the fighting between the Libyan government and Haftar has intensified as both sides have continued receiving weapons by their respective international backers.
“Both Ankara and Moscow are inclined towards a brinkmanship policy that could well work in a different context like Syria. In Libya, however, where the stakes of several western powers are considerably high, the risks of deflagration is particularly relevant,” warned Profazio.