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May 28, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8771

After Defeat Of Russia's Ally Khalifa Haftar, Russia Sends Planes To Protect Haftar And Its Investment In In Libya Amidst Domestic Criticism

May 28, 2020
Libya, Russia, North Africa | Special Dispatch No. 8771

According to press reports Russian contract soldiers from the Wagner company and mercenaries from Syria were airlifted from Western Libya on May 24, 2020. This followed the crushing defeat of Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army at the Al-Watiya airbase on May, 19, 2020 and the advance by troops of the Tripoli based Government of National Accord (GNA).[1] At Al-Watiya Russian anti-air systems were destroyed and captured and then paraded in Tripoli.


Captured Russian-made Pantsyr-S1 Air Defense system paraded through Tripoli (Souce: Ej.ru)

Russia has repeatedly denied that it was militarily involved in Libya. In January Russia's President Vladimir Putin responded to a question at a joint press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel about the presence of Russian fighters in Libya: "If there are Russian soldiers there they do not represent the interests of the Russian government. they do not receive money from the Russian government. "[2]  Even after a Russian Antonov cargo plane was shown evacuating forces, some Russian papers claimed that was fake news disseminated by the GNA and its leader Fayez Saraj.  Its purpose was to deflect attention from the Turkish military intervention on behalf of Ankara's client– the GNA.[3] The pattern repeated itself again following accusations by the US Africa command that Russia had sent fighter planes to Libya to back Hafter: "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 U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander, U.S. 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."[4]Russia, in this case did not issue its own denial and sufficed with republishing a denial by LNA spokesperson Ahmad Al-Mismari to Al-Arabia in its official news agency Ria.ru: "We find such statements, that mention the increase in the combat readiness of the [LNA] army, that we have various types of Russian aircraft. <...> We also find it strange that these reports do not mention the intervention and expansion of Turkey in our country and the transfer tens of thousands of mercenaries from Turkey."[5]

Russia's consistent denial of involvement was never convincing. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Russia was managing the conflict in Libya "at the highest level".[6] The US ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland said the presence of about 2000 Russian mercenaries from Wagner Group and the modern weapons they have are disrespectful to Libya's sovereignty and regional security.

The US, said Norland believed that Russia could secure its legitimate interests in Libya via more normal means.[7] In the recent fighting the body of a dead soldier fighting for Haftar was found and his personal effects included Russian currency.


(Source: Social network photo republished by Novayagazeta.ru)

Nor could ties between Russia and Haftar be easily denied.  In March 2019, Haftar visited Assad in Damascus and his "government" reopened the Libyan embassy in the Syrian capital.  After his talks with Syrian officials, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Moqdad said at the embassy reopening: "This is an acknowledgment that Syria and Libya are waging the same battle against terrorism and those who support it."[8] With the Assad regime's connivance, Russia recruited Syrian rebels to fight for Haftar in Libya (Turkey was busily doing the same in areas that it controlled to recruit fighters for the GNA).[9] 

The following report examines reactions in Russia to the setback in Libya:

Liberal Analyst Goltz: For Haftar There Was Money, For Russia's Unemployed Nothing

The respected independent military analyst Alexander Goltz tied the events in Libya to Russia's ongoing struggle against the coronavirus. Goltz recalls that until recently, Moscow had big plans for Marshal Haftar. Haftar would ensure order and protect Russia's interests. Pro-government commentators speculated on billions in military sales to a Haftar-ruled Libya forgetting Russia's bitter experience with Muammar Ghadaffi's unpaid bills. Via its Libyan ally, Russia would presumably project strength in the region. The misplaced optimism was based on Haftar's having studied in the USSR, and his personal friendship with the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, and "Putin’s chef" Yevgeny Prigozhin.[10] However, Moscow's hopes were not destined to be realized. Haftar sabotaged peace talks in January by walking out on Putin although his opponent the GNA's Fayez Saraj was prepared to sign a deal. Haftar also refused to pay Wagner for $150,000,000 in the equipment and services claiming that the mercenaries supplied were inexperienced. Goltz concluded:

"Thus, we are now witnessing yet another rather inglorious end to the Kremlin’s geopolitical games. Its senselessness and costliness are especially glaring right now, when government officials are shamelessly arguing that the state has absolutely no means to help the strapped for funds Russians [during the coronavirus]. There is no money for our unemployed, but for Haftar - there was ..."[11]

Pavel Felgenhauer: Critics Of Haftar Now Ascendant

Military expert Pavel Felgenhauer believes that Haftar's defeat will strengthen the hands of Russian officials, who favor peace talks between the warring parties in Libya. The telephone conversations between Putin and Erdogan following Al-Watiya's capture appear to indicate this direction. According to Felgengauer, the Russian leadership was split on Libya. For example, the Russian Ministry of Defense supports Haftar, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Kremlin do not: "The disagreements were especially pronounced during the January talks in Moscow. Kremlin tried to put al-Sarraj and Haftar at the same negotiating table. Let me remind you that Haftar did not sign anything then and left. The Russian Ministry of Defense supported him, but the Foreign Ministry scolded him…The head of the Russian Defense Ministry, Sergei Shoigu, has repeatedly met with Haftar and is his supporter, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has not, and he has repeatedly publicly criticized the actions of this Libyan soldier…Now, in my opinion, the view of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs prevails, which states that Haftar has overreached, and his support must be stopped." [12]


Pavel Felgengauer (source: Yandex.ru)

Felgengauer's assessment was corroborated by a Russian Foreign Ministry press release reporting a conversation between Lavrov and the speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives Aguila Saleh calling for immediate ceasefire talks and effectively opposing Haftar's policy of total victory:

"On May 26, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had a telephone conversation with President of the Libyan House of Representatives Aguila Saleh at the latter’s initiative.

During the conversation the officials had a detailed exchange of views on developments in Libya under conditions of continued armed confrontation between the eastern and the western military-political camps. Both sides emphasized that a military solution of the crisis has no prospects and that it is necessary to launch a constructive dialogue of all Libyan political forces without delay."[13]

El-Murid: A Draw In Libya Is A Victory For Turkey And A Defeat For Russia

The influential blogger "El-Murid" claims that the events in Libya show that Turkey has gotten the upper hand. In the case of a military clash, Turkey can bring more force to bear, while Russia's supply line runs precariously from Khmeimim in Syria and can easily be interdicted by Turkey. A military confrontation between Turkey and Russia is however unlikely. Haftar's allies, Egypt and the UAE are reassessing their support, and Russia is left with unpaid bills because with the collapse of oil prices, Haftar can no longer support himself by oil smuggling.

Nor should Russia console itself that even if Haftar has not managed to conquer Western Libya, the GNA is in no position to extend its control to Eastern Libya: " The task of Turkey in this war is much simpler than that of its opponents - if they [the opponents] need to overthrow the [GNA] government of Saraj and capture Tripoli, then Turkey does not need to smash Haftar and capture Benghazi. It is enough to guarantee the safety of Tripoli, since Saraj, although illegitimate and temporary, is still recognized by the UN as the country's leader, and therefore has the right to sign international documents, in particular with Turkey. The Turk, however, is interested in an agreement on the delimitation of the Mediterranean Sea, within whose framework, they gain control over all offshore pipeline systems from the eastern Mediterranean towards Europe… And in this sense, even a 'draw' with Haftar looks for Turkey like a real victory. And that means the defeat of its opponents, including, of course, the Kremlin."[14]

Yulia Latinina: Moscow Backed An Eternal Loser

Yulia Latinina writing in Novayagazeta.ru, mocked the Russian leadership for backing an eternal loser and thinking that its tactics of private armies and mercenaries could not be copied by others:

"There is such an eternal loser - Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. This man made a military coup with Gaddafi back in 1969 and even then dreamed of becoming the ruler of Libya. However, it was not he who became the ruler, but Gaddafi, and Haftar managed to lose the war with Chad and get captured there. You must agree, losing a war with Chad is awesome. You can lose a war to the USA, China, and finally Great Britain, finally. But Chad ?!

"…In the Kremlin, however, they will always find a hopeless geopolitical project in which to invest money, be it Venezuelan oil or an eternal loser, who has been dreaming of the post of Libyan dictator for the past fifty years.

"Therefore, the Kremlin bet on Haftar. They supplied him with loads of military equipment and sent Wagnerites and military advisers, the number of which is estimated, according to various sources, from 1200 to 2500 people. Haftar last April announced that he would now capture Tripoli - and, of course, did not.

"Although Haftar could not take Tripoli, still a significant part of the country with Russia's help was in his hands. But then the war in Syria ended, and the Turks began to transfer to Libya both their soldiers and former ISISians who are now Turkish Wagnerites, and most importantly - their Bayraktar drones who are produced by Erdogan’s son-in-law and who have so well established themselves in Syria against the Russian Pantsyrs.

It was the total air supremacy of Turkish drones air that produced the result that Haftar began to suffer defeat after defeat."

"…You may ask: what did the Kremlin forget in Libya? What are we fighting for? Really for the Libyan oil? It is not necessary to have the title of oil analyst in order to realize that - given the real military situation in Libya - Libyan oil will bring us no more than Venezuelan or Kurdish. ..

"As a result, two phantom states - pseudo-Tsarist Russia and the pseudo-Sublime Port - are fighting in Libya over who will threaten Europe with refugees from there.

At Worst A Draw

An analysis in Topwar.ru, that surveys defense issues conceded that Haftar had temporarily lost a bit of his swagger but counseled against writing him off: " Of course, talk about the complete defeat of Haftar near Tripoli is premature. After all, just as the field marshal does not have the strength to capture the city, his opponents do not have the power to oust Haftar from Cyrenaica. Therefore, most likely, in the foreseeable future, the battles in Tripolitania will still continue with varying success. Much will depend on whether or not his patrons, who assist the field marshal with arms, ammunition and military equipment, will leave or stick by Haftar."[15]

Stanislav Kudryashov, head of the Business Advisory Council for Libya that views itself as the representative of the Eastern Libyan House of Representatives based in Tobruk views the setback as temporary. Turkey cannot compete with the Arab states that oppose the GNA and will be overmatched by Russia and others militarily. Interviewed in Prigozhin's Riafan.ru he said:

"Ankara opposed itself to the entire Islamic world, proclaiming itself its leader. The Turkish government is trying to create some religious and educational institutions, to lure teachers from other countries. Such an active position of Erdogan causes irritation not only abroad, but also among local clergy, since everyone perfectly understands where the source of truth and the center of Islamic theology are. For example, in the oldest Egyptian Islamic Academy al-Azhar, in the UAE, in Saudi Arabia, where the holy city of all Muslims, Mecca, is located,

"…It is clear that the party that Turkey supports in the Libyan conflict is in power illegally. Members of the GNA are terrorists… all their power was previously sustained by weapons and Islamist gangs, and, in fact, with the help of immigrants from the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda (terrorist organizations banned in the Russian Federation), who were disguised as law enforcement agencies called the 'government'. Today, all Tripolitan power is based on the military power of Turkey. But we must understand that Turkey is not the only country in the world that has drones and an army."[16]

The pro-government Vesti claimed that Haftar was not finished: As for Haftar, this is not the end. The general will now specifically attack Turkish forces. Sakr al-Jarushi, Haftar's Air Force Commander, promised to unleash "the largest air campaign in the history of Libya," making all Turkish positions "the legitimate targets of our air forces." However, Vesti claimed that main arbiter of Haftar's fate was the UAE (Union of Arab Emirates) that now had to decide whether to continue investing in Haftar.[17]

Evgeny Krutikov expects Haftar to take the war to the Turks: "Strategically, Haftar does not seek that much to fight for every village in the desert, but primarily to stop the enemy's supply from Turkey, and secondly, to seriously increase the risks for the Turks. Now they dodged a rocket, but tomorrow they may not dodge it. Turks are less critical of casualties than Americans or Europeans, but relatively recent events in Idlib have shown that the loss of a large ship with casualties can be a rather sensitive blow. Already in Ankara they threaten Haftar with terrible punishments if "at least one Turkish soldier suffers".[18]

RIAC Expert Kirill Semenov: Conflict Will Be Frozen, Haftar Will Be Used Till Russia Is disgusted With Him

According to expert Kirill Semenov, Moscow will not go to war with Turkey and will suffice with a frozen conflict in which Haftar will serve as a useful tool until a better alternative can be found:

"The Turkish side is aggressive. Unlike Syria, the Turkish Air Force will be able to act against Russian aircraft in Libya, if they really exist and yet belong to Haftar, said Kirill Semenov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. And then it will be not only and not even a Libyan war as much as a Russian-Turkish war.

"In this case, Moscow does not need any conflict. It really can increase influence in the region - especially if Egypt and the UAE finally cease to support the LNA (apparently, this is only a matter of time). However, it is most likely impossible to avoid large-scale bloodshed - the situation in Libya has long been triggered, and the war will continue regardless of what its external participants do. But the conflict can be frozen: for this Russia needs to deal with its ally, who has turned into the main problem - Field Marshal Haftar.

"However, there is no alternative now: in the east of Libya, the Haftar army is the most powerful political force. So far, Russia simply does not allow the PNS to be strengthened, but if Field Marshal really 'bores Moscow, it may deprive him of support. In any case, the victory or loss of Haftar is not very interesting for Russia: it just wants to act as the main mediator and leading political force in the Libyan area."[19]

 

 

[1] Rbc.ru, May 25, 2020.

[2] Novayagazeta.ru, January 11, 2020.

[3] Pravda.ru, May 26, 2020.

[4] Africom.mil/media-room/pressrelease, May 26, 2020.

[5] Ria.ru, May 27, 2020.

[6] Themoscowtimes.com, February 17, 2020.

[7] Libyaobserver.ly, May 17, 2020.

[8] Englis.aawsat.com, March 10. 2019

[9] Foreignpolicy.com, May 5, 2020.

[10] Prigozhin is reportedly Wagner's financial angel. Bbc.com, November 4, 2019.

[11] Ej.ru, May 21, 2020.

[12] Rosbalt.ru, May 20, 2020.

[13] Mid.ru, May 26, 2020.

[14] Elmurid.livejournal.com, May 23, 2020.

[15] Topwar.ru, May 25, 2020.

[16] Riafan.ru, May 22, 2020.

[17] Vesti.ru, May 25, 2020.

[18] Vz.ru, May 25, 2020.

[19] Rambler.ru, May 25, 2020.

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