Exploiting Chaos: Russia in Libya

This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
After gripping the world’s attention in 2011, Libya slowly faded from the spotlight as its revolution transitioned into a simmering civil war. Chaos fueled by foreign intervention has only exacerbated the inherent difficulties of rebuilding a deeply fragmented and tribal society. Where Arab nations rushed in to pursue their security interests, Russia has proceeded cautiously, preferring to remain in the shadows. By slowly increasing its involvement in Libya, Russia has managed to secure the bulk of its tactical and strategic objectives without much interference from the West. Once U.S. policymakers took notice of Russian actions in Libya, their focus myopically centered on Russian private military and security contractors (PMSC), specifically the Wagner Group. Even after widespread reporting of Russia’s intervention, the U.S. response to Russian interference remains tepid, focusing on press releases to condemn and shame Moscow for using mercenaries. Russia’s actions in Libya are more extensive than a band of Kremlin-controlled mercenaries seizing oilfields. A thorough examination of Russia’s intervention in Libya reveals similarities to previous operations as well as the likely contours of future Kremlin interventions in other security vacuums.
The remainder of this article continues in four parts. It begins with a multitiered examination of Russian objectives to identify the enduring motivations behind Moscow’s interest in Libya. The article then reviews Russia’s playbook to highlight its means and methods for capturing influence abroad. Next, a case study reveals the breadth of Russian activities at play in Libya. The article concludes with a discussion of options to counter Russian efforts.

Why Libya?

Any discussion of Russian activities in Libya must begin with a multitiered assessment of the Kremlin’s objectives to understand the policy drivers and motivations that compel both its attraction to and actions in Libya. A hierarchical examination of Russian aims beginning at grand strategy followed by regional intentions and country-specific goals illustrates how Libya fits within higher foreign policy objectives. This top-down, strategic-to-tactical examination draws from military analytical frameworks, but its application is instructive in a foreign policy setting, revealing the context that provides state and non-state actors the flexibility and political cover to translate Vladimir Putin’s vision into decentralized action.
There is a strong consensus in analytic circles that Putin’s grand strategy is essentially two-fold. First, Russia wants to offer the world an alternative to the post-Soviet, U.S.-led international order by restoring multipolarity to the international system. Second, Putin wants to ensure that Russia is truly recognized as a great power—equal to the United States or China—whose counsel is once again sought on global issues. Putin’s grand strategy is driven by a historical sense of entitlement and resentment over Western encroachment into post-Soviet space and the erosion of Russian influence abroad. Putin’s vision of Russia’s greatness and grievances with the West are largely shared by Russian elites and grounded in a unique interpretation of Russian power beginning with the Congress of Vienna. Putin’s relatively simple vision grants license to a variety of entrepreneurial actors unencumbered by bureaucratic restraints, creating the illusion of a centrally managed yet tactically nimble foreign policy machine.
The Mediterranean basin has historically been strategically important to Russia beginning with a tsarist interest in the Levant and ending with Soviet involvement across North Africa. When viewed through a historical lens, Russia’s return to the region is more routine than revisionist. Russia’s regional strategy for the Mediterranean Basin could best be described as a hybrid of its approach to the Middle East and Africa. At the regional level, Putin’s grand strategy translates into four objectives for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): (1) support leaders favorable to Russian interests in order to cultivate future clients and erode U.S. influence; (2) become a key player in regional affairs to reinforce Russia’s stature on the global stage; (3) develop economic interests in order to enrich the Russian state and elites; and (4) secure military positions beyond the Black Sea to expand Russia’s confrontation with the West. These regional objectives are largely mutually supporting and clearly align with Putin’s overall strategic vision. Furthermore, the geopolitical realities of MENA—chronic instability coupled with waning U.S. influence—almost compel Russian involvement across the region with Libya being Moscow’s newest prize.
Russia’s attraction to Libya began at Potsdam in 1945 with a play by Joseph Stalin to control Tripolitania. Later, Soviet ties to Muammar Qaddafi during the Cold War partially realized Stalin’s dream. Then, as now, Libya’s strategic position and natural resources call out to Moscow and feature prominently in its attempts to exploit Libya’s chaos. Currently, Russia’s interests in Libya are fourfold. First, Russia wants to develop Khalifa Haftar, or a viable alternative, into a future client. Establishing patronage networks early buys staying power, facilitating longer-term Russian objectives—chiefly the political and economic capture of distressed states. Second, Russia wants to revitalize stalled investments in Libya’s energy sector and develop new commercial opportunities. Russian firms have seemingly legitimate investments in Libya’s oil industry that remain nascent or distressed. Additionally, Libya offers potentially new and lucrative opportunities through defense contracts and other economic prospects. Third, Russia wants to secure basing along NATO’s Southern Flank. Libya’s strategic position cannot be overstated; it offers multiple options for naval and air bases that could host Russian forces beyond the Black Sea and support activities deeper in Africa. Finally, Russia wants to use its presence in Libya to embarrass, pressure, and remind the West that it retains a global reach despite measuring short in traditional calculations of power. Even a token presence in Libya embeds Russia into regional politics and provides opportunities to exploit Europe’s migrant crisis—not unlike Qaddafi’s refugee blackmail.
Russia’s aims in Libya are clearly in line with its regional objectives with added specificity towards targeted individuals, investments, and locations. Russian state and non-state actors likely have extreme latitude when translating Putin’s vision to local circumstances, essentially creating a strategy of tactical opportunism. While there is ample room for improvisation, Kremlin operatives follow a familiar playbook when pursuing official and personal interests abroad.

Reexamining the Kremlin’s Playbook

There are regular patterns to Russia’s means and methods of securing influence abroad. The most studied are its techniques to gain influence in Central and Eastern Europe. Simply put, Russia injects itself into a country’s political and economic systems in order to establish patronage networks that benefit local authorities as well as Moscow and its agents. Long-term interference solidifies into enduring dependence on Russia, granting the Kremlin influence or outright control. Russia’s methods of entry follow two parallel tracks: (1) Russia provides support to corrupt leaders favorable to Moscow and (2) Russia employs a mix of legal and illicit methods to secure dominant positions in local industries and infrastructure.
These two approaches are well documented throughout the post-Soviet space but can be easily observed in regions and countries further afield. Notable examples of these methods applied beyond Russia’s traditional sphere of influence include support to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the Central African Republic’s Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Russia often relies on legitimate, questionable, or outright illegal methods of capturing access to distressed oil, gas, and mineral deposits to secure influential economic positions in the aforementioned countries. Although Russia’s approaches are broad enough to be universally applicable, its means are varied and shift depending on the local conditions.
Where the United States struggles to implement whole-of-government solutions, Russia is adept at leveraging the full complement of its national power, specifically military, diplomatic, economic, and informational means. Moscow’s tools are almost always used in concert, creating synergistic effects. The exact mix of these means is driven by tactical circumstances, but the fact of the matter is that Russian hard power features prominently in many regions, particularly MENA. Russia has employed calibrated mixtures of its hard power tools—conventional forces, special forces, PMSCs, and arms sales—in multiple security vacuums to achieve its political and economic ends across Africa and the Middle East. Specific functions Russian hard power has performed to secure economic and political influence include personal security for local authorities, facility and infrastructure security, technical advising, military training, and combat.
Moscow typically reinforces hard power by deftly weaving diplomatic, economic, and informational support into its foreign affairs. Diplomatic means range from personal diplomacy (e.g., Putin’s connections to isolated leaders such as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi) to varying degrees of support in international venues such as the U.N. and multilateral negotiations (e.g., The Astana Talks on Syria). Russia’s economic means can range from the legitimate (e.g., debt relief and foreign investment) to the illicit (e.g., bribery and under-the-table deals). It should be noted that seemingly legitimate economic activity abroad is often driven by Moscow’s desire to circumvent sanctions and monitoring. Finally, Russia’s informational element of national power provides critical support to its other tools. Moscow’s modern information operations employ an interconnected web of traditional and social media. Russia’s disinformation campaigns are becoming increasingly advanced and tailored to local audiences, featuring authentic voices that make detection difficult.
The means and methods Russia uses to spread its malign influence follow familiar patterns from its near abroad to more distant regions with ample room for improvisation by country. Even with a comprehensive understanding of the Kremlin’s playbook, the United States typically does not maintain focus on Russia’s non-military actions abroad until they become newsworthy. In the case of Libya, Russian meddling was rumored well before mercenaries seized the spotlight. Indeed, Libya is essentially a real-time battle lab—to use an old Army concept—for the world to observe how Russia exploits chaos.

Russia’s Newest Battle Lab

Where others can only see chaos, violence, and misery, Kremlin operatives in Libya imagine opportunities for personal enrichment, geostrategic positioning, and prestige. These are the factors that fuel Moscow’s support for Haftar. The following discussion is intended to quickly reveal the specific means that Russia is using to achieve the goals outlined in the first section. This case study offers examples of Russian tools in play while avoiding an in-depth historical narrative. The discussion is grouped by the elements of national power mentioned in the preceding section—Russia’s military, diplomatic, economic, and informational tools.
Although journalists have only partially documented Russia’s military backing to Libya, media accounts do reveal the major forms of Russia’s shadowy support for Haftar. Elements of Russian hard power in play include special forces, PMSC, arms transfers and maintenance support, intelligence support, and combat. In 2017, media accounts surfaced that Russian special forces were more than likely using western Egypt as a staging ground for operations in Libya. Previously, Russian military-style support to Libya revolved around the RSB Group, a Russian PMSC, conducting de-mining operations and possibly military training in areas controlled by Haftar. Rumors of deeper Russian involvement persisted with reports surfacing in 2018 of Russian special forces and intelligence operatives conducting training and liaison duties with Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). In late 2019, it was widely apparent that Russia had supplied mercenaries—Russian and Syrian—aircraft, and missiles to support Haftar’s bid to seize Tripoli. By 2020, the Wagner Group had up to 1,200 contractors operating in Libya, providing the full gambit of PMSC services from combat to site security. Based on previous operations, this equates to four 300-man battalions featuring three assault companies and one fire support company each—a sizeable force considering the lack of reporting on their build-up and earlier presence in the conflict. By the summer of 2020, Russia incrementally increased its support to Haftar again by providing more advanced fighter aircraft, armored vehicles, and, possibly, sophisticated air defense systems to halt a Turkish supported counterattack, creating an uneasy stalemate. While not decisive, Russian hard power maintains Haftar as a credible contender for control of Libya, preserving his and Moscow’s presence in international negotiations.
Russia’s diplomatic support to Haftar is fairly well documented. It appears that Haftar established relations with Moscow sometime in 2015 shortly before Russia began providing top-cover at the U.N. Over the years, Moscow’s support at the U.N. has grown more forceful, culminating in a move that blocked a resolution denouncing Haftar’s 2019 assault on Tripoli. Additionally, Moscow has provided direct and indirect support through multiple multilateral negotiations, notably the Moscow and Berlin Summits in 2020. Despite Haftar’s intransigence on prolonging the war, Moscow continues to support him; although, Russia is hedging its bets by keeping backchannels open to the Government of National Accord and a potential political rival, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, Muammar Qaddafi’s heir apparent.
Russian economic intervention in Libya focuses as much on securing long-term investment opportunities in Libya as it does on developing Haftar into a loyal client. While Haftar stands to gain from Moscow’s financial moves immediately, Russia’s long-term efforts focus on controlling Libya’s resources and reinstating Qaddafi-era business deals. As discussed earlier, Russian economic activities in Libya range from merely questionable to outright illicit. On the questionable side, multiple Russian firms have signed energy deals with Libya to varying degrees of success with at least one firm exiting the market entirely. Russia’s illicit support to Haftar includes counterfeit cash infusions and possibly other sources of funding. Finally, on a related note, the Wagner Group seized control of Libya’s Es Sidr oil field in August 2020. Through force of arms, Russia effectively seized the dominant position in Libya’s energy sector. This latest development has less to do with financial investment, and more about blocking competing firms and shaping post-war settlements to Russia’s advantage.
Russian information operations in Libya have proven to be well orchestrated and quite advanced. They feature a mix of traditional and social media platforms with some coordination between them. On the traditional front, Russia supports at least two local broadcast television networks and one print newspaper. Like Soviet propaganda efforts, Russian involvement in these outlets remains almost undetectable to the target audience. In addition to its Libyan operations, Sputnik and Russia Today (RT) also push content in Arabic, further extending Russia’s reach albeit with a less authentic voice than Libyan generated content. Moving on to social media reveals an equally impressive content machine. Russian backed social media campaigns in Libya to date have relied on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. Posts were frequent and dynamic, shifting to follow current trends and memes. As with Russia’s diplomatic efforts in Libya, it appears that Russia is using information operations to support both Haftar and bolster Saif al-Islam Qaddafi’s credentials as a potential rival. Despite playing both sides, Russian information operations in Libya deflect attention from or galvanize support for Kremlin interests rather than sow wide-spread division and discord like disinformation campaigns in the West. Finally, Russian information operations in Libya are assisted by in-country "political technologists," enhancing their overall effectiveness.

Implications and Options

While Russia’s playbook features familiar elements, the exact means it uses to gain influence vary by country. In the case of Libya, hard power mostly accompanied by diplomatic and information operations are laying the groundwork for delayed economic benefits with ample opportunities for individual Kremlin operatives to line their pockets now. In the near term, Russia has largely achieved Putin’s grand strategy by proving that Moscow can still influence global affairs and retain its seat in the great power club. It appears that a Russian victory in Libya simply means not losing. Russia can muddle through with Haftar and still achieve the majority of its objectives. Because absolute victory has yet to be declared, the United States still retains opportunities to chip away at Russia’s position in Libya without directly exposing itself to significant risk.
If the United States wants to be more active, it has a couple of options available to erode Russian influence and impose costs for staying in Libya. First, the United States must determine the full extent of Moscow’s involvement. Comprehensively cataloging the exact pieces Moscow is playing is the only way to identify and target the vulnerabilities in Moscow’s strategy. Additionally, a detailed case will not only focus U.S. efforts, but it will also make soliciting international support easier.

The United States has at least three options to consider when looking at low-cost, coordinated U.S.-allied actions to counter Russian gains in Libya. The first option is bolstering support for the recently extended U.N. arms embargo with special emphasis placed on getting allied ships and aircraft on patrol and keeping them there. This option will require diplomatic support and military participation to round-out European intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. The second international option is pressuring other actors to quit cooperating with Russia in Libya. The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to be swayed completely, but their assistance could possibly be reduced—backing Haftar should not mean cooperating with Russia. The third option is assisting Turkish forces directly in confronting Haftar’s LNA and Russian proxies. Modest Turkish support stalled Haftar’s advances in 2020; U.S. backing—intelligence sharing and other indirect assistance—could turn the tide further. Finally, regardless of international support or action, the United States must ramp-up its information operations beyond just “outing” Russian arms transfers to Libya. A deliberate and sustained information operation that highlights Russian interference and Haftar’s own methods for retaining power would imperil Moscow’s position in Libya.
Major Thomas D. Arnold is an Army Strategist assigned to the U.S. European Command as an operational planner. He holds a BS and an MBA from Louisiana Tech University and an MPA from Harvard University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, U.S. European Command, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).