One of the most poignant signs of Khalifa Haftar’s declining fortunes in western Libya was last week’s withdrawal of thousands of foreign mercenaries — supplied by the Wagner Group which is owned by President Vladimir Putin’s close friend Yevgeny Prigozhin — operating in Libya in support of his Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF). The Russian fighters were initially withdrawn to Bani Walid — a former Muammar Qadhafi regime stronghold about 150 kms to the southeast of Tripoli — where the mayor said that the town does not support their presence and wants to remain neutral.
Moscow wants to remove its fighters from those areas in western Libya that are now being targeted by the GNA and its powerful Turkish allies. Its motivation may include its lukewarm support for Haftar but may also reflect an effort to de-escalate tensions with Turkey with which it would prefer to reach an accommodation in Libya. On 18 May — the day that Ankara’s GNA allies captured the al-Watiya air-base — Putin spoke to Erdoğan and two days later Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke to his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
The departure of the Wagner Group mercenaries does not mean, however, that Russia is entirely disengaging from Libya. The widely-reported arrival from Syria of Russian jets — 14 MiG-29 fighters and a Su-24 fighter-bomber — to eastern Libya shows that, to the delight of Arab powers such as Egypt and the UAE, Moscow is ready to draw its red-lines to limit Ankara’s influence in Libya while also asserting its own continuing interest.
The number of aircraft sent to Haftar’s LAAF suggests that the purpose is not purely defensive. The MiG-29s could easily destroy the Turkish drones and the Su-24 could be used to destroy its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) facilities on the ground. But the question is, how far will Russia be willing to go to use these newly arrived fighter jets against the Turks and will Ankara therefore send more of its own aircraft?
It is widely assumed that they do not imply that Russia necessarily wants a military escalation. Instead the likely arms race — Ankara is reportedly considering deploying its own warplanes to the newly-captured al-Watiya airbase — may be explicitly designed to restore parity at the negotiating table while simultaneously pressuring their respective Libyan clients to sign a new ceasefire. Moscow does not want to: provoke a major crisis with NATO; engage in a long and costly war as it did in Syria; or wish to completely sever its limited ties with the GNA in Tripoli.
Meanwhile Ankara is juggling multiple interests when it comes to Moscow. Libya is just one of many complex issues that Erdoğan has to consider when deciding how to respond to Russia’s next steps. He understands that, despite its well-documented frustration with Haftar, Moscow will not easily quit Libya. Russia, which has been the country’s main arms supplier for many decades, is in Libya for the long game and its strategy is both incremental and deliberate. Moscow’s deliberately limited intervention in Libya has served its strategic goals of complicating matters for the West and helping to divide NATO. Russia’s interest is primarily strategic rather than economic — with the ultimate goal of a warm water Mediterranean port and airbase on the EU’s southern flank — it obviously hopes to win post-war projects in Libya. The deployment of Russian fighter-jets also forces Ankara to cooperate with Moscow as the two countries have done in Syria following their years of confrontation.
The confrontation — especially when Turkey blocked Russia’s objectives in Syria’s Idlib province — served Western goals but an overly cosy relations between Ankara and Moscow is not something that NATO wants. Turkey’s 2019 decision to purchase a Russian S-400 Triumph air defence system — despite threats from Washington — demonstrated to the West how the Turkey-Russia partnership could expand into the defence realm.