Russian Defence Minister Shoigu (left) with Libya’s Haftar in Moscow on August 23. Russia is a supporter of Haftar. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: In October this year, British intelligence services reportedly warned Prime Minister Theresa May that Russia was moving troops and missiles into Libya, saying President Vladimir Putin wanted to make Libya “his new Syria”.

It was also claimed that by having a military foothold in the North African country, Putin wants to impose a stranglehold on the Western powers.

The UK’s mass selling tabloid, The Sun, claimed “dozens” of officers from Russia’s GRU military intelligence service as well as its Spetznaz special forces were operating on the ground in eastern Libya, initially carrying out training and liaison roles.

There are reported to be two Russian military bases in Tobruk and Benghazi, both key coastal cities in the east, where military strongman Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army holds sway.

The Western media and politicians are seeing the alleged Russian military presence in Libya mainly from the perspective of the apparent threat it poses to shipping in the western Mediterranean. But observers have cautioned against jumping to such conclusions.

“The notion that Russia wants to exploit Libya solely as a bulwark against the ‘West’ remains unsubstantiated,” said Iliasse Sdiqui, an analyst at Whispering Bell, a risk management consultancy. “Naturally, the deeper Western involvement — especially from Washington — is in Libya, the more entrenched Russian interests will be. Moscow, however, has other priorities for now, including economic and security interests. Moscow would be more interested in reviving its arms sales and combating terrorism, a shared goal with Cairo, than simply taking control of smuggling routes to exert pressure on Europe, as it has been claimed by some media outlets.”

It is no secret that Russia has shown a willingness to play a greater role in post-Gaddafi Libya. Moscow’s political and economic links with Tripoli are historical; until the 2011 revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, Russia sold arms worth billions to Libya and its state oil companies were deeply involved with their Libyan counterparts.

Also, Russia has not been coy about its support for Haftar; Moscow has hosted him as almost a head of state. Haftar has held meetings with key Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

However, unlike its single-minded military backing for the regime of Bashar Al Assad in Syria, Moscow has adopted a more nuanced approach in Libya. It has been conciliatory towards the UN-backed government in Tripoli, and has expressed support to UN-supported talks in Libya.

“Moscow is indeed on a balancing act when it comes to Libya. On the defence side, it appears to be closer to the LNA in the East. However, Moscow is also careful to avoid an excessive shift towards the East and therefore some influential Russian stakeholders are reported to maintain close ties to factions in the West, and Tripoli in particular,” said Sdiqui.

Arguably, if Moscow wants to ensure its long-term interests in Libya (as seems to be the case), it will gain more by backing a coalition government that includes both the GNA and the LNA, rather than exclusively supporting an LNA (Haftar) takeover. The US is uneasy about growing Russian involvement in Libya. But, just like in Syria, Washington has shown it is not willing to invest enough in ensuring Libya’s long-term stability.