Russia’s deployment of combat aircraft to support warlord Khalifa Haftar in the ongoing Libyan Civil War indicates a desire to retain a permanent footing in Libya. This has serious implications for the UK, NATO, and the EU.
The civil war in Libya
Following the fall of leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, efforts to deliver real and lasting political stability in Libya have failed. The weak government institutions, formed after Qaddafi was removed, could not prevent armed violence and non-state groups proliferating.
Amidst the chaos, Khalifa Hafter seized Libya’s oil infrastructure. He would then lay siege to the UN recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in the country’s capital, Tripoli. Recently, he has been pushed back from the city and is poised to withdraw from western Libya.
The conflict between General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army and the GNA has become increasingly internationalised. The international backers of both Haftar and the GNA have committed significant support. Hafter enjoys the support of Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and others. The GNA has strong backing from Turkey. As Haftar suffers heavy losses and retreats from western Libya, Russia has escalated its involvement, by quietly deploying 14 combat aircraft to Libya.
The rise of Russia
An increased Russian role in Libya has a number of risks for the EU and NATO, either through a permanent military presence, strong political influence, or both.
Firstly, Russia could weaponise the major migration routes that move through Libya. Libya is a major transit hub for migrants seeking to reach the EU, because of its porous southern borders and proximity to regions experiencing severe economic and political issues. This was previously weaponised by Qaddafi, who exploited Europe’s nativist fears to secure billions in investments. Following the fall of Qaddafi, migration through Libya to Europe rose dramatically. To combat this, Italy signed the Memorandum of Understanding with the GNA, which involves the GNA intercepting migrant vessels and forcing their return to Libya, where migrants are detained indefinitely in grave conditions.
Russia has been accused of weaponising migration previously in Syria. This, according to one US and NATO Commander, drove hundreds of thousands of Syrians to Europe “to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve”. It could do the same again in Libya. Manipulating migration patterns into southern Europe could be used to sow dissent and discord within the EU and NATO.
Secondly, Russia could deploy assets to eastern Libya to threaten NATO’s southern flank and frustrate access to the mediterranean. Given the UK’s military bases in Cyprus and naval facilities in the Middle East, this could seriously threaten access to Suez and the eastern Mediteranean. This is particularly worrying, given how Russia possesses weapons systems that can be rapidly deployed with little infrastructure support. Russia has already deployed the SU-24 – a strike aircraft with significant anti-ship capability and an effective range over 1000KM – to Libya. More lethal aircraft could be deployed if necessary.
Two systems merit consideration: the S-400 Surface to Air Missile (SAM) system and the P-800 Anti Ship Missile (ASM) system. The S-400 can target aircraft out to 250-400km, and the P-800 can target ships up to 300km offshore. Both the S-400 and P-800 are wheeled, all-terrain mobile systems that require limited manpower to operate. When they are deployed in appropriate numbers and with readily available support systems – aircraft, drones, satellites and other missile systems – they are highly effective.
The UK response
Russian strategy has been deeply opportunistic (capitalising on western ambivalence) in seizing territory in Georgia and Ukraine, and intervening in Syria. Its escalating involvement in Libya fits comfortably within this pattern; the conflict in Libya is highly internationalised, with a number of nations wielding decisive influence.
The UK and its allies must advocate for peaceful negotiations to achieve a cohesive government that is not expressly beholden to the interests of foreign powers. To do this, the UK and its close allies can influence Khalifa Haftar’s main backers – Turkey, Russia, UAE, Egypt – individually, to effect broad change. If they want to avoid increased Russian leverage over them, the UK, EU, and NATO must prevent the exploitation of Libya by Russia.
Jack Sargent is co-Head of Agora’s Defence & Security Programme.