Libya: An opportunity for Russian exploitation
By Col. (Ret.) Wes Martin
When won by multiple independent and opposing organizations, revolutions usually create more confusion and discord than what was overthrown. This situation is even more difficult when tribal and regional loyalties exacerbate the forming of a country-wide central government.
The American Revolution lasted eight years, with patriots fighting side by side in all parts of the country. Yet, even the development and acceptance of a very progressive Constitution failed to completely overcome primary loyalties to the states. For two generations, until resolved by the Civil War, the survivability of the nation was under continual challenge.
The Libyan Revolution of 2013, that resulted in the overthrow of long-term dictator Muammar Gaddafi, was over within a few months. All battles were local. The Libyans never united into one military force. Success in great part was due to intelligence, logistical assistance, and aerial support provided by the United States and Europe. As in the case of Iraq, an oppressive and brutal government was replaced with anarchy, which produced even greater brutality.
Today in Libya, the physical and political fighting continues – from the west with Tripoli’s General National Congress (GNC) and from the east through Tobruk’s House of Representatives (HOR). The Government of National Accord (GNA) was developed by the United Nations with the intent of bringing both sides together.
Tribal alliances, self-serving militias, criminal gangs, and Islamic State influences contribute to the realization that the true ruler of the country is chaos. The victims of this constant maneuvering for absolute power are the Libyan people and their country’s future.
The eastern sector has the richest history of warfare. It was from this region that Omar al-Mukhtar fought against Italian colonization in the 1910s and 20s. It took twenty years for Mukhtar to be defeated by General Graziani’s superior numbers, technology, armament, and mobility by air and ground. The legend and legacy of Mukhtar is deeply engrained in Libya’s history and national pride.
This past summer, from this region, came the westbound advance of the HOR’s military arm led by General Khalifa Haftar. His advance stalled outside Tripoli due to shortages in trained personnel and equipment.
Seizing an opportunity, Russia’s Vladimir Putin recently deployed the Kremlin’s civilian mercenary force, the Wagner Group. Air strikes, suspected of now being flown by Russian pilots, have suddenly become more effective. Overnight, snipers are now engaging with deadly accuracy. Ground troops are now displaying a level of training and organization seen more from professional soldiers than uniformed militias.
As expected, this involvement is being discounted by Russian officials, brushed off as “fake news.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov recently stated “We support the appropriate efforts, including through the U.N. We’re in dialogue with those who in one way or another influence the situation”. This statement is reflective of George Orwell’s 1984. “Appropriate efforts” are what Putin wants them to be. “In dialogue with those who in one way or another influence the situation” means Russia will play all sides against each other and the middle to achieve its own goals.
Russia’s goals are always focused on one end-state: regional domination. Putin has now succeeded in keeping Bashar al-Assad securely in power in Syria. In return, Syria hosts Russian air bases and a naval port on the Mediterranean’s east coast. If left unchecked, Putin will do the same in Libya. Mukhtar died fighting against foreign military forces on Libyan soil, exactly what Putin is the process of enacting.
GNA’s Minister of Interior, Fathi Bashagha, has been warning the West that NATO’s hands-off approach is allowing Russia to exploit Libyan instability. Having lost its former Warsaw Pact allies of East Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia, Russia is finding ways to challenge European security. With Libya comes a large stretch of the southern coast of the Mediterranean, the attic door into Africa, and vast oil and natural gas reserves. Militarily and economically, Putin is finding ways to outmaneuver the West.
The United States and Western Europe do not have the luxury of time to ignore this problem. Unlike a good magician, Putin is not causing his audience to look the other way. The US and Europe are doing that all by themselves.
Col. (Ret.) Wes Martin, U.S. Army Military Police, has served in law-enforcement positions around the world and holds an MBA in international politics and business.