Russia Increases Military Involvement in Libya

Oleg Krinitsyn, the head of private Russian security firm RSB Group, said that his firm sent contractors into Libyan territory to support General Haftar in his fight for control over the embattled country, reports Reuters. According to Krinitsyn, the firm had consulted with the Russian foreign ministry during the operation, which ended in February 2017. The use of private contractors to subvert the Libyan government signals a shift in Russian military strategy. The Russian government believes Haftar will stabilize Libya, but is divided over how to support him. General Haftar leads the Libyan National Army, a military faction aligned with the Council of Deputies (CoD). The CoD is battling the UN- backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and other small rebel groups, such as Islamist factions and ethnic militias. The Libyan Civil War of 2014 began when members of the General National Congress (GNC) refused to disband or relinquish authority to the democratically-elected CoD in Tobruk. In April 2016, the UN brokered a peace deal wherein the GNC handed power to the Presidential Council of Unity Government, the GNA. However, Haftar refused to unify.

Russia has been increasing its involvement in Libya, granting diplomatic and military support to Haftar. The Russian oil company Rosneft announced a production and exploration deal with the Libyan National Oil Corporation amid Haftar’s fight to regain control over the oil ports that Islamist militias have captured and ceded to the GNA. U.S. aerial aircraft also observed the movement of Russian special forces, transport aircraft, and a drone to Egyptian bases on the Libyan border on March 14.

Haftar’s forces announced on March 15 that they had regained two of the oil ports using airstrikes and troop mobilizations, according to The Financial Times. The oil ports provide the majority of Libya’s wealth, and diminished control has damaged the GNA’s ability to sustain itself and assert its authority over the fractured country. In response, the U.S. and the EU released statements demanding an end to the fighting and that Haftar return the oil ports to the central authority, said EUobserver. Foreign governments and international organizations worry that the continued instability in Libya, exacerbated by the transformation of the largely militia-based conflict into a proxy war, will empower Islamic militants and encourage migrant smugglers to exploit conflict and route migration paths.

Russia demonstrates a clear willingness to support Haftar, claiming that he promotes stability. However, foreign policy officials within Russia remain divided over the ultimate goal of their support. The Foreign Ministry wants Haftar to eventually unite with the GNA, but defense ministers and Kremlin executives would prefer Haftar to solely control the embattled country.

General Haftar meets with Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister