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Russian army reach Iraqi border

MOSCOW — When the U.S. military said more than a dozen Russian military planes arrived in Libya last month — with identifying emblems painted over for apparent deniability — the Pentagon accused President Vladimir Putin of trying to tip the balance in a civil war, as he did in Syria.

Khalifa Hifter, Libya’s rebel leader, spent years in exile in Northern Virginia

And, as in Syria, Russia’s interests in Libya include expanding its military and political reach in the Middle East and Mediterranean — while also waging a proxy battle with rivals such as Turkey.

Russia is eager for oil and construction contracts in Libya. But the Kremlin’s strategic objective, U.S. military officials believe, is to secure military bases on Europe’s southern flank.

Who does Russia back?
Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in the Libyan civil war, part of a competition for future energy contracts and other deals worth billions in the oil-rich country.

In this Jan. 17, 2020, file, photo, Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter joins a meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Athens.
In this Jan. 17, 2020, file, photo, Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter joins a meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Athens. (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)
Russia’s ally in Libya, rebel commander Khalifa Hifter, has suffered a string of defeats in recent months as his militias tried to oust the U.N.-installed government and install himself as Libya’s ruler.



On Friday, forces of Libya’s U.N.-backed government — backed by Turkey and others — seized control of the Tarhuna, the last western Libya stronghold for Hifter’s fighters. The recapture of Tarhuna, about 40 miles southeast of Tripoli, could mark a final blow to Hifter’s siege of Tripoli and his bid to expand beyond his power base in eastern Libya.

Libya’s war has raged since NATO’s 2011 operation opened the way for rebel forces, which eventually tracked down and killed dictator Moammar Gaddafi. Russia has avoided a direct military presence in Libya — unlike in Syria where Russia’s air force, navy and other units aided Moscow’s longtime ally, President Bashir al-Assad.

Instead Russia last year deployed mercenaries to back Hifter, achieving its strategic objectives under the convenient cloak of deniability. Around 1,200 of the Russian fighters are reportedly from the Wagner Group controlled by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin. Putin has not denied the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries in Libya, but also said in January they did not represent Russia or its interests.



Russia’s ambiguous policy in Libya — offering lip service to peace efforts while boosting its aid to Hifter with warplanes — risks deepening Russia’s confrontation with NATO-member Turkey, which backs the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli.

Who else sides with Russia?
Russia is not the only foreign power interfering.

Hifter’s other backers include the United Arab Emirates, supplying advanced weapons including the Russian-made Pantsir S-1 air defense system and Chinese drones. Hifter also has support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, France and others. He even received a phone call of support from President Trump last year although the U.S. State Department now calls Hifter an “illegitimate parallel entity.”

Turkey, Qatar and Italy are among those behind the U.N.-installed government.

How the Kremlin’s fingerprints escalated Libya’s conflict, threatening a wider war in the Middle East

“Russia wants a foothold in Libya and that’s a fact,” said Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer of the Jamestown Foundation, adding it was not yet clear that Putin plans a major Syria-style intervention.

“In Syria in 2015, there was a deliberate decision to begin a major operation to deploy forces,” he added. “Here, there are different opinions on how to proceed and it’s not clear that there has been a decision to do in Libya what was done in Syria.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Fayez Serraj, the head of Libya’s internationally-recognized government, after a joint news conference, in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, June 4, 2020.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Fayez Serraj, the head of Libya’s internationally-recognized government, after a joint news conference, in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, June 4, 2020. (AP)
He noted that pro-Kremlin websites and Russian TV have not been trying to “whip up public support” to intensify the Russian involvement in Libya against Turkey and its allies in Libya. Putin also remains in close contact with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.



“That means,” Felgenhaur said, “there is no such political decision for a head-on collision at the moment.”

Turkey, however, had ramped up its military aid to the U.N.-backed side, deploying attack drones to drive Hifter’s forces back. It also sent in up to 13,000 mercenaries, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, many of them Syrian fighters who were allied with Turkey against Assad.

What do the warplanes mean?
Russia is working with Syria to deploy Syrian fighters loyal to Assad on Hifter’s side, according to U.S. officials.

But the dispatch to Syria of around 14 Russian MiG-29s and Su-24s is not likely to turn the conflict around, analysts predict.

Russia is playing a double game, according to analysts, encouraging diplomacy to try to establish a cease-fire and power-sharing deal, while sending in planes and mercenaries to try to shore up its ally Hifter in the oil-rich east.

Russian planes and mercenaries, are designed to cement Hifter’s military position and strengthen his bargaining power in negotiations according to Russia analyst Samuel Ramani, doctoral candidate at Oxford University’s Department of Politics and International Relations

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (not pictured) via teleconference call at Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, May 26, 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (not pictured) via teleconference call at Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, May 26, 2020. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Putin, who sees his role as rebuilding Russia’s status as a global power, is disdainful of Western outrage, given NATO’s 2011 Libya action that cost Russia billions in contracts that he had previously signed with Gaddafi.



“Russia wants to show that it is standing up from its knees, it’s a great player in the Middle East and Russia is seeking a strongman in Libya,” said Russian defense analyst Alexander Golts.

Ramani said Russia’s goal was the de facto partition of Libya, giving it influence in the east.

“Now that Hifter is on the retreat, Russia’s use of air power can only at best stall Turkey and the GNA’s advance, so Russia is using its military operations to buy time to bring Hifter to the negotiating table,” he said.

Russia’s goal, he added, is a three-way play: have sanctions lifted on Hifter’s forces, have him recognize the U.N.-installed government in Tripoli and “institutionalize Hifter’s hegemony over eastern Libya,” which could open the way for Russia energy deals.

Where does diplomacy stand?
In January, Putin and Erdogan tried to pressure Hifter and the leader of the U.N.-backed government, Fayez Serraj, to sign a cease-fire in Moscow. But Hifter humiliated Putin by refusing to sign. A later conference in Berlin failed to stop the fighting.



Felgenhauer argued that Moscow is less interested in potential military bases than the pursuit of oil and reconstruction contracts. He said Russia already projects force west from its naval and air bases in Syria.

“For contracts, that requires a stable government. Since Hifter failed miserably for more than a year to take Tripoli and he can’t, that means it’s time to call it a day and it’s time to build some kind of power-sharing thing,” he said.

Since the U.S. military disclosed the apparent presence of the Russian warplanes in Libya, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has engaged in furious diplomatic footwork, speaking to his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, and the speaker of Libyan House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh, pressing for a cease-fire and return to a political process.



Viktor Bondarev chairman of Russia’s upper house defense and security committee has denied Russia sent war planes to Libya.

“If there are any airplanes in Libya, they are Soviet, not Russian,” he said, adding they could have come from anywhere.

“Russia is essentially trying to assert its status as a great power and its view is that a great power has to be at the table on the resolution of any major global issue,” said security analyst Mark Galeotti of University College London’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies. “Nothing can be resolved without Russia being present and Russia’s interests being considered.”

Andrew S. Weiss, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Putin displayed an increasing risk appetite, filling the vacuum left by the Trump administration.

“We’re seeing a much wider pattern of Russian opportunism across both the Middle East and other parts of the world far from Russia’s direct borders,” he said in video comments on the Carnegie website.