Russia's deepening support for the Libyan National Army (LNA) proves the Kremlin views LNA leader Khalifa Hifter as crucial to its greater North African and Mediterranean strategy, and could grant Moscow the upper hand in shaping the war-torn country's political future. The U.S. military, among others, recently released photos confirming the arrival of a fleet of Russian fighter jets at two LNA-controlled air bases in Libya. The deployment will make it more difficult for the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) to make further military gains beyond Tripolitania. But perhaps most importantly, Russia's growing involvement in Libya's civil war — alongside Turkey's continued support for the GNA — will leave Moscow and Ankara at the helm of any potential negotiations between Eastern and Western Libya, much to the dismay of those in Europe and the United States.
Over the last two months, Hifter's rebel forces have suffered a series of significant losses to Turkish-backed GNA forces in Western Libya.
- On April 13, the GNA took control of several cities along the coastal road between Tripoli and Tunisia, including Sabratha.
- The GNA then seized Hifter's vital al-Watiya air base in Western Libya on May 18, and has since begun to prepare for an offensive on the LNA-controlled town of Tarhuna, which is located 65 kilometers or 40 miles southeast of Tripoli.
- In response to these losses, the LNA recently announced it was withdrawing some of its forces from the front lines of Tripoli to launch a large-scale aerial campaign against the GNA.
The deployment of Russian fighter jets is likely intended to help halt the GNA's recent momentum, even if it doesn't necessarily help Hifter regain lost territories.
- The jets will likely be used to support Russian mercenaries, which have been active in the fighting in Western Libya, and other pro-LNA groups with close air support, particularly around protecting lengthy supply lines.
- They’ll also probably be used, in some cases, in the air superiority fight against the GNA's Turkish-supplied drones and air defense systems.
It appears clear, however, that this is not just a one-off show of force in response to the LNA’s recent losses.
- The satellite images also show several, Russian-made IL-76 cargo jets at the LNA's al-Jufra and al-Khadim air bases in Libya, which could provide additional equipment and supplies to support a more long-term deployment.
A more permanent Russian presence in central and eastern Libya could help shift the calculus of Turkey's allies in Tripoli, as well as the northwestern city of Misrata.
- Misratan and pro-GNA forces have also been conducting operations targeting the LNA's lines of communication between front lines in Tripoli and Tarhuna.
- Increased direct Russian involvement could be designed to be a deterrent force to keep the GNA and Misrata at an arm's length from the al-Jufra air base, as well as Hifter's forces in central Libya.
It remains to be seen whether Russia intends to have an ongoing quasi-deployment in Libya as it does in Syria.
- Such a deployment would suggest that Russia's intention in Libya would be to allow Hifter's forces to gradually advance in Western Libya, while conducting surgical operations aimed at degrading the GNA's defenses.
- This would be similar to Moscow's strategy in Syria, where Russian forces have inflicted constant attrition on the Syrian rebels to gradually advance Bashir al-Assad's government, and would entail increased transfers of armored personnel carriers, training and other equipment.
But there are notable differences between Russia getting more directly involved in Libya compared with Syria.
- Unlike Syrian rebels, Libya's GNA has significant air defense capabilities and a functioning air force that has already proven to be effective against the LNA's Russian-built air defense systems.
- Moreover, the LNA's biggest constraint in its offensive has not necessarily been air capabilities, but rather its ground forces.
- Mounting a successful offensive on Tripoli will thus require additional Russian support of Hifter's ground forces, in addition to his air forces.
By increasing Hifter's dependency on Russian support, Moscow’s direct and more overt involvement in Libya could give it a larger say in potential peace talks.
- Officially, Russia's foreign ministry still is calling for a cease-fire in Libya.
- In January, Moscow and Turkey also brokered the failed temporary cease-fire between the LNA and GNA.
Russia's backing of a Libyan leader who could eventually become an ally will fuel Western concerns about Moscow's intentions in North Africa.
- Indeed, as part of Moscow's effort to build a naval presence outside the Black Sea, Russian military strategists have long pointed to Libya's ports in Tobruk and Derna as being potentially being ideal alternatives and/or compliments to Russia's naval facility in Syria.
- Outside influence in North Africa, however, has been dominated by Western countries in the post-Soviet era, particularly France, Italy and the United Kingdom.
- Russia's deepening efforts to establish a quasi-permanent presence in Libya, even amid civil war, will thus be viewed by some U.S. and EU officials as a threat.
The West, however, is still unlikely to challenge Russia's increasing involvement in Libya beyond rhetorical statements.
- In Europe, France has backed Hifter for years and has probably even been working alongside Russia in Libya.
- Italy's government has oscillated between negotiating and not negotiating with Hifter, but is unlikely to ever get militarily involved in Libya's civil war to a significant degree.
- And in the United States, while Russia's presence in Libya has alarmed the U.S. military's Africa Command, it remains unclear whether the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump shares the same concern. The White House initially backed the LNA offensive in Tripoli and has shown little interest in getting involved in a conflict that remains a politically toxic subject among U.S. voters and legislators.
At the very least, Russia's increased involvement will make the Libyan theater dominated by both Russia and Turkish support for rival sides.
- This means any path towards political negotiations in the country will require Russian and Libyan support to materialize.
- The United States and most European countries will not be happy with this development, but driving Russia and Turkey out of Libya is rife with political and military constraints.