To ensure its own survival, Tripoli is seeking to entice Washington by appealing to US national security interests.
Libya’s interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, has urged the US to set up a base in the war-torn country to offset increasing Russian influence in the country.
The request comes as Khalifa Haftar, a warlord backed by France, Russia, Egypt and the UAE, threatens to take over the last remaining areas of Libya not under his control, Tripoli and Misrata.
The decision to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi by NATO was a turning point for Russia who felt betrayed that the UN had been used for regime change.
Since Gaddafi’s overthrow, the US has been largely absent from the country — giving the Russians an opportunity to become powerbrokers.
In 2018, the Russians argued that the late ruler's son, Saif al Islam Gaddafi, should play a role in Libyan politics.
Russia’s relationship with the Gaddafi family and former regime members such as Haftar goes back several decades. Russian support for the former Gaddafi regime included sending thousands of soldiers and engineers during the 1970s and 80s and training the army.
In the post-Soviet period, and under Putin’s premiership, in particular, deals worth between $5-10 billion were signed between the two countries. Putin was also willing to write off a great deal of Libya’s unpaid Soviet-era debt which amounted to $4.5 billion.
Russia took a massive financial hit post-revolution. Its belief that by siding with Haftar it may resume some of these contracts or potentially sell weapons and stop the country drifting in the Western camp has been a big driver of its Libya strategy.
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine puts Russia’s policy in the Middle East as: “According to Russia, Western choice of regime change to settle problems is wrong. The only way is to support existing regimes — even bad regimes.”
The suggestions by Libya’s security chief, therefore, to entice the US military presence as a key bulwark against Russian expansionism may be tempting for policymakers in Washington. It would also help to shore up the UN backed government of Libya giving it political cover.
US President Donald Trump, a self-described deal maker, could be tempted if the Libyan government currently besieged by Haftar were to purchase a significant shipment of US weapons to the oil-rich nation.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper is currently in the process of moving US troops from West Africa in a bid to counter Russia and China in other theatres.
There is a bipartisan push in Washington to prevent the US from moving troops to Africa.
The Libyan security chief believes that Libya could be a beneficiary of US troop movements recently saying, “If the US asks for a base, as the Libyan government we wouldn’t mind — for fighting terrorism, organised crime and keeping foreign countries that intervene at a distance. An American base would lead to stability.”
The Libyan government already managed to halt Haftar’s militia from taking Tripoli with the help of Turkey.
Ankara has made it clear that it will not allow the internationally recognised government of Libya to fall victim to Haftar.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said, "The critical point here is that Haftar should stop his aggressive stance. Since April, Haftar's has been the side which violated all deals and attacked the legitimate government."
Libya’s strategic location in the Mediterranean and extensive reserves of oil and gas make it an important country. Russia is already in the process of consolidating the Assad regime and maintains two bases there ensuring that it can play an active role in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Losing Libya to the Russians may result in Moscow expanding its influence across the whole strategic basin.