In a significant development, the strongman of eastern Libya, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the supremo of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), was received by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.
Haftar “met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in the Russian capital Moscow”, the LAAF announced, without giving details. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the event, adding “The situation in Libya and the region as a whole was discussed”, without elaborating.
Moscow has maintained close relations with Marshal Haftar, who backs the Tobruk administration that rivals the UN-backed government in Tripoli. Haftar’s meeting with Putin was important enough to merit a Kremlin readout — it was the first meeting between the two men since 2019 — but Moscow’s reticence marks a high degree of sensitivity.
However, on Friday, Kremlin issued a readout of Putin meeting with two high-ranking Russian security officials whose names are closely linked to the Wagner — Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Andrei Troshev (who was a participant in Wagner’s combat missions previously.)
During his visit to Moscow, Haftar also held talks with Yevkurov who is known to have been the “point person” for Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, and was a regular visitor to eastern Libya in recent years, most recently on September 17 when he met Haftar in Benghazi.
Haftar’s abortive 2019 assault on Tripoli relied heavily on Wagner fighters but failed to overcome Turkish-backed armed forces. A UN report in 2020 said up to 1,200 Wagner fighters were backing Haftar. Experts say hundreds have since remained active in the east, which is also the oil terminal zone, and in southern Libya, the gateway to the Sahel region, which is turning toward Moscow as provider of security, replacing western powers.
How far Haftar’s Moscow visit is linked to his expected renewed bid to capture Tripoli is a moot point, but, without doubt, it signals Russia’s decision to reassert its influence in Africa despite Prigozhin’s absence and the preoccupations in Ukraine notwithstanding.
The coup in Niger with its pronounced anti-western slant may have rejuvenated Russian interest in Libya, which holds attraction for Moscow in strategic terms. The web of international entanglements in Libya has changed lately and leading protagonists — Turkey as well as key Arab and European powers — are showing signs of retrenchment. For Europe too, anything that stabilises Libya and curbs the migration wave will be deemed a positive development. Thus, Moscow likely senses that it has a relatively free hand.
The big question is whether the US intends to “return” to Libya after its abrupt disengagement in September 2012 following the devastating attack by members of the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia on the US Special Mission in Benghazi in which the American ambassador and three other US citizens lost their lives.
That makes the surprise visit to Benghazi by Gen. Michael Langley, the four-star chief of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) located at Stuttgart, Germany, and his meeting with Hafter virtually on the eve of the latter’s Moscow tour more than coincidental. Possibly, Langley reminded Haftar not to put all his eggs in the Russian basket.
An article in the Intercept magazine recalled last week that Gen. Langley’s visit to Benghazi (September 20-21) was “the latest twist in America’s on-again, off-again relationship” with Haftar, once a favourite of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who, in the late 1980s, joined a US-backed group of dissidents seeking to topple his former boss.
The article says, “After their coup plans fizzled and the rebels wore out their welcome on the African continent, the CIA evacuated Haftar and 350 of his men to the US, where he was granted citizenship and lived in suburban Virginia for the next 20 years.”
Over the years, the US sent mixed signals to Haftar. The CIA at one time trained his fighters as special forces. Langley said after meeting with Haftar, “The United States stands ready to reinforce existing bonds and forge new partnerships with those who champion democracy.” Which is a rather contradictory statement. Don’t be surprised if Haftar briefed the Russian officials on his interaction with the AFRICOM chief.
An AFRICOM press release merely said Langley’s visit aimed “to further cooperation between the United States and Libya.” Langley said afterward, “It was a pleasure meeting with civilian and military leaders throughout Libya.” The backdrop could be that the coup in Niger has motivated Washington to attempt to fill the void left by France.
Now that the much talked-about ECOWAS intervention in Niger is no longer on the agenda — and with Nigeria backing away from any such misadventure — Washington and the coup leaders in Niamey have renewed the US-Niger agreement on combating terrorism.
Thus, Washington recognises the transitional government in Niger and maintains its military presence — while relocating the US contingent from the 101st base in the capital Niamey to the 201st air force base in the city of Agadis, which is the sole drone base in Sahel built at a cost of over $100 million and of pivotal importance.
Washington’s decision to be friends with the new authorities in Niamey upsets France and the EU, but then from the very beginning, the US took a much more cautious and expectant position on the coup in Niger given its prioritisation of counterterrorist operations in the Sahel region.
Looking ahead, the intriguing question is how far these dramatic circumstances would trigger a convergence of interests between the US and Russia. Some American analysts had signalled that a co-habitation with Wagner in post-coup Niger might be possible.
Moscow likely estimates that the US will not seek major influence in Libya at this point given American public sensitivities due to past US failures there — as well as a perceived lack of trust in Libyan authorities — and Biden administration may not oppose Russia’s support for Haftar’s takeover bid in Libya.
Certainly, Putin’s meeting on Friday (the day after he received Haftar) with two key Russian officials associated with Wagner suggests that the Kremlin is speeding up the move to reorganise the militia’s combat missions abroad. Putin repeated that Wagner fighters will be put on par with regular soldiers as regards their salary and other perks and privileges (which have been made very attractive in the past year.)
Putin also said that convicts serving jail sentences who joined Wagner’s combat missions would be eligible for the attractive “social guarantees.” This time around, surely, they will be known differently and organised as “volunteer units” reporting to Yevkurov, himself a hardened veteran in counterterrorist operations in North Caucasus, answerable to the defence ministry’s foreign military intelligence agency (which was originally created under its current form by Josef Stalin in 1942 after the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany.)
Interestingly, at the Kremlin meeting on Friday, Putin paid fulsome praise to Andrei Troshev and elicited his views “on creating volunteer units which will fulfil various combat missions, including in the zone of the special military operation”.
Putin told Troshev: “You fought in one of such units yourself for over a year. You know what it is like, how to do it, and what issues should be addressed in advance to ensure the best possible and the most successful fulfilment of combat missions.”
It is entirely conceivable that Haftar’s visit underscored the urgency of regrouping Wagner forces for undertaking combat missions in Libya and elsewhere in Sahel in the worsening security situation linked to militant Islamist groups.
This article was published at Indian Punchline