To bolster the waning confidence of warlord Khalifa Haftar, Moscow's alleged move of sending fighter jets to Libya has rekindled Washington's interest in the six-year-long conflict.

The foreign policies of the US and Russia are becoming increasingly competitive, with Libya becoming yet another battleground for the two nations in their struggle for global supremacy.

In the past decade, the two powers were at opposing ends of two different conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Now with Libya, a strategic Mediterranean state located beneath southern Europe, the US is facing a situation where a critical NATO front is slipping towards the Russians.

With the effective assistance of Turkish drones, Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), recently made important gains against Haftar, whose Libyan National Army controls eastern territories.

Russia, a supporter of the Assad regime in Syria, as well as Haftar, reportedly dispatched a pack of military aircrafts to Libya in a bid to secure the safe exit of its mercenaries, while the GNA forces have been closing in. 

"Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner," said Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top commander of US Africa Command. 

"For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth generation jet fighters to Libya -- every step of the way. Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support -- support they are getting from Russia," Townsend elaborated further. 

“The world heard Mr. Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” said Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top commander of US Africa Command.
“The world heard Mr. Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” said Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top commander of US Africa Command. (United States Africa Command)

Russia vs. NATO across the Mediterranean

Russian assertiveness across the Mediterranean and southern Europe has been a growing concern for Western Europe and NATO. It suggests that Moscow must have plans to slowly encircle the continent, weakening its southern flank. 

It’s a far-fetched political equation for a country that has long aimed to reach “the warm waters” of Europe. Having a grasp of the Mediterranean has historically been a driving political aspiration for landlocked Russia ever since its Imperial days under Peter the Great in the early 18th century.

"If Russia seizes basing on Libya's coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities. If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe's southern flank," said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, the top commander of US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa.

Turkey, the second biggest army in NATO, has done its best to confront Russia’s aggressive military moves in Syria and Libya across the Mediterranean, with little to no support from its NATO allies. 

But the country’s commitment toward safeguarding the internationally-recognised government has altered the course of the civil war, forcing Russia to shun its behind-the-scenes role and reveal its direct involvement in the battle.

Fighters loyal to Libya's internationally recognised government are seen after taking control of strategic Watiya airbase, southwest of Tripoli, Libya May 18, 2020.
Fighters loyal to Libya's internationally recognised government are seen after taking control of strategic Watiya airbase, southwest of Tripoli, Libya May 18, 2020. (Hazem Ahmed / Reuters Archive)

“The Pentagon, the State Department and Conservatives in the US are very fearful of Russia. What Russia does aggressively [in Libya and other places] justifies a huge defence budget in the US,” observed Salah Bakkoush, a Libyan political analyst and former advisor to the High Council of the Libyan state. 

“What you see now is the military is pressing the administration to do something. But [US President Donald] Trump is not interested in being involved in Libya,” Bakkoush told TRT World

“I don’t believe Americans are going to do much more than this,” Bakkoush said, referring to the US African command’s recent statement. 

But he also thinks that NATO and the Europeans have been concerned about any extension of Russians to the Southern Mediterranean.

“Not only could Russian air power change the military balance in Libya itself, but this could be the first step in a gradual escalation to what eventually becomes a permanent Russian military deployment in the country,” Michael Kofman, director of the Russia program at the Center for Naval Analysis told the New York Times. 

What Russia aims for in Libya

But for Bakkoush, Moscow has a limited political agenda in Libya. 

“I don’t think Russians are looking for a base in Libya. It’s extensive and it’s going to create a lot of problems for them, especially with the US Congress, that will move to place sanctions on Russia,” the Libyan analyst said. 

A US surveillance picture shows a Russian fighter jet recently deployed to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground there.
A US surveillance picture shows a Russian fighter jet recently deployed to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground there. (United States Africa Command)

In the Congress, there has already been a proposed legislation, which is called the Libya Stability Act. It offers more sanctions against Moscow, Bakkoush adds, because of its involvement in the North African country.

“Any further aggressive moves by Russia may accelerate the approval of that legislation,” he said.  

“Russia’s main objective is to keep Haftar in the game. It does not want a total collapse for Haftar, so it can have a say in future negotiations on the next step of the Libyan conflict,” explains Bakkoush. 

In both Libya and Syria, where brutal civil wars have raged due to the Arab Spring movements, Russia has invested in strongmen like Assad and Haftar. Both men have deep ties with illegal drug trafficking cartels and other deep-pocketed state and non-state actors. 

On both fronts, Turkey and Russia have been supporting the opposing sides, with their proxies violently clashing on their respective military grounds. 

But Bakkoush thinks that Libya is not as important to Russia and Turkey as Syria proves.

“Probably, Turkey and Russia will reach some kind of agreement about Libya,” he said, making a prediction. 

It is with hindsight that analysts can see that both Moscow and Ankara managed to diffuse tensions in Syria when the bloodletting was at its peak, but the subsequent agreed ceasefire deal has always been fragile with occasional skirmishes arising.

A Russia-Turkey agreement in Libya is also important for other Haftar allies like Egypt and the UAE, countries that cannot “afford” a complete Haftar collapse. This is “because they don’t have a Plan B”, according to Bakkoush. 

“They are hoping for a deal between Turkey and Russia that will give Haftar a political foothold in Tripoli in a new unity government or something like that,” he concluded. 

Source: TRT World