The Kremlin’s Plot Against Democracy
How Russia Updated Its 2016 Playbook for 2020
In April 2019, Khalifa Haftar, the militia commander whose forces control much of eastern Libya, began an assault on the capital, Tripoli, in an effort to topple the country’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). But instead of a swift, decisive victory establishing Haftar as Libya’s undisputed leader, the offensive resulted in a stalemate. Militias from across western Libya came together to repel Haftar, slowly pushing his forces back into the southern outskirts of the capital. For the next six months, the fighting ground on like this, with drone strikes, artillery barrages, and mortar fire creating a humanitarian crisis but no clear advantage for either side.
Then, in September, hundreds of Russian mercenaries arrived to support Haftar and shifted the battlefield momentum in his direction. Since 2015, Moscow has been gradually ramping up its engagement in Libya, where it sees economic opportunities and a chance to expand its influence at the expense of Western powers. It now supplies Haftar’s forces with antitank missiles and laser-guided artillery and supports them with paramilitary fighters from the Wagner Group, a shadowy military contractor that does the Kremlin’s bidding in a growing list of countries in Africa and the Middle East. Buoyed by the Russians’ tactical expertise, Haftar’s forces are now making slow territorial gains in the capital—and pushing the war into a new and more dangerous phase.
In the eight years since NATO intervened and helped to overthrow the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya has attracted increasing foreign interference. In addition to Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even France have all thrown their support behind Haftar, providing a mix of financial, diplomatic, and military aid. Turkey, meanwhile, has sent arms to the GNA, which is recognized—officially, at least—by the United States and other Western powers. In practice, the United States has avoided pursuing a clear Libya policy and tacitly supported Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli.
The sudden influx of Russian fighters has refocused Washington’s attention on the neglected Libyan conflict, but so far it hasn’t elicited a meaningful policy shift. That needs to change. Although Haftar bills himself as a stabilizing force to his backers and to the United States, a victory by his forces in Tripoli will only spur a new round of conflict. The commander has vowed to crush Islamists and any form of political opposition, and his advance will trigger a prolonged insurgency by armed groups and towns that oppose his authoritarian vision.
More robust U.S. diplomacy is urgently needed in Libya, not just to halt Haftar’s destructive campaign but to salvage U.S. credibility in a region marked by multipolarity and increasing defiance of the West. The United States should engage more forcefully with the intervening countries, using a mix of private diplomacy and public censure. In addition, it should support a resolution for a cease-fire at the UN Security Council while at the same time working with Libyan officials and multinational actors such as the World Bank to address the economic grievances that fuel the fighting on the ground. Only by clearing the battlefield of foreign meddlers—including the UAE, Turkey, and Russia—and providing the space for economic recovery can the United States reverse Libya’s dangerous slide toward disintegration.
A more engaged U.S. policy toward Libya must begin with a clear-eyed assessment of the conflict’s key protagonist. Haftar won broad international backing in part by marketing himself as an opponent of Islamists and a reliable security partner in a country awash with militias. Indeed, his stated intention in attacking Tripoli was to free the capital from the grip of corrupt militias and Islamists and to impose security through legitimate military institutions. But these narratives rest on faulty assumptions, and buying into them will lead only to greater instability.
Haftar is right that the GNA has long been plagued by infighting and ineffective governance. For a time, it also relied solely on corrupt militias to maintain its rule in the capital. But since late 2018, the GNA’s minister of interior, Fathi Bashagha, has undertaken a modestly successful, internationally backed effort to reduce the influence of these militias. Haftar’s claims of Islamist sway over western Libya are similarly overstated. Since 2017, Islamist hard-liners in and around Tripoli have been weakened through a combination of death, exile, imprisonment, and political shunning by the Libyan public. Haftar’s assault on Tripoli has paradoxically undermined the aim of counterterrorism by targeting militias that previously partnered with the United States to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in western Libya. As these militias shift their attention to countering Haftar, the jihadi threat could reemerge.
Haftar’s image as a stabilizer and institution builder is also misleading. Not only has he declared that Libya is unready for democracy, he has suggested privately to diplomats and journalists, including one of us, that Islamists should be killed, imprisoned, or exiled—incendiary comments that will harden the resolve of his opponents and precipitate additional violence should he take power. Even more worrying, Haftar is unlikely to follow through on his pledge to replace the fractious militias that control Tripoli with an institutionalized security force. To the contrary, he has openly expressed his desire to cooperate with some militias in the capital, and his personal army includes multiple distinct militias, some with tribal and Salafi leanings and some de facto commanded by his sons. Haftar’s opaque, ironfisted rule by select militias may be appealing to outside patrons and to Libyans desirous of greater security, but as the recent history of the Arab world has shown, this type of rule is inherently unstable and often leads to more conflict. If Haftar succeeds in toppling the GNA and winning international recognition, many factions—not only Islamists and western Libyan groups—will resist.
Despite these worrying signs, Haftar has enjoyed a measure of U.S. support for his Tripoli offensive. In an April phone call with Haftar, U.S. President Donald Trump praised the Libyan militia leader’s counterterrorist vision. The Trump administration has since blocked several attempts by the UN Security Council to pass a cease-fire resolution, and it has remained conspicuously mute in the face of Haftar’s indiscriminate airstrikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians. After the Wagner Group arrived in Libya in early September, Washington’s stance shifted slightly. The White House and the State Department both called upon Haftar to stop his offensive, but the U.S. administration never made a meaningful attempt to halt his foreign backers, suggesting that it still tacitly supports the Libyan militia leader.
To avoid the looming disaster in Tripoli, the Trump administration should seek to rein in the states that are fueling the conflict. German Chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to do this in August, when she proposed a multistate conference dedicated to halting foreign military interference. But Germany’s efforts were stymied by France, which has quietly supported Haftar since 2015. Further undermining the effort was Turkey, which has increased its involvement in Libya by sending seasoned fighters from its militia proxies in Syria, armed drones, and military advisers in support of the GNA. Ankara also signed a controversial deal with the GNA for offshore gas exploration in the Mediterranean that has inflamed tensions with Turkish rivals Greece and Cyprus. And last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he wants to strike a deal directly with Russia to divide up control over Libya. Turkey’s new assertiveness, on top of continued Russian and Emirati support to Haftar, has consigned the much-vaunted European diplomatic efforts to irrelevance.
These failures leave Washington as the only Western actor with sufficient clout to steer Libya toward peace and stability. To that end, the United States should adopt a firm but nuanced stance toward Russia. Instead of going toe-to-toe with Moscow over Libya, U.S. policymakers should recognize that Russia’s mischief in Libya is ultimately opportunistic, partly driven by the prospect of economic returns on arms sales and infrastructure contracts and in no way comparable to its massive campaign in Syria. Russian policymakers are not personally or ideologically wedded to Haftar, as they are to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and they maintain active diplomatic channels with the GNA. They can be induced to support a compromise—provided the main Middle Eastern interferers in Libya’s conflict are also heading in that direction.
Washington is the only Western actor with sufficient clout to steer Libya toward stability.
Washington should thus concentrate its diplomatic efforts on Turkey and the UAE in particular. Trump has already warned Erdogan against interference in a phone call in early January. But the administration has not been equally critical of Libya’s most stubborn and consequential meddler: the UAE. Emirati military involvement in Libya predates Turkish assistance to the GNA and overshadows it in scale. The UAE has conducted many more drone strikes than has Turkey, and it even maintains a covert air base in the country. But the Trump administration has been reluctant to push the Emiratis out of the conflict because many U.S. decision-makers consider the UAE a trustworthy friend that is on the verge of delivering a unified and secure Libya under Haftar. Unfortunately, that assessment would be wrong, even assuming Haftar was the stabilizer he claims to be. With or without Russian and Emirati support, Haftar faces a hard slog through Tripoli’s dense urban areas before he can win control of the city. Some militias in the capital may stop fighting Haftar or flip to his side, but the enclaves that have consistently opposed him will fight to the death. The humanitarian costs to Tripoli’s already beleaguered civilian population will be catastrophic.
To avert this outcome, the United States should exert greater pressure on the UAE to halt its military intervention and bring Haftar back to the negotiating table. Washington should use all the diplomatic tools at its disposal, including private talks and public hearings on the Emiratis’ violation of the UN arms embargo and their contributions to Libyan civilian deaths. Once foreign airstrikes stop, Washington should invite the UAE and Turkey to partake in a revamped, UN-led political process that builds a new transitional government. The scope and composition of these talks should be decided by Libyans from the opposing factions, but they should include a road map for elections and a plan to reconstitute Libya’s fractured security institutions (a crucial element that was missing from previous talks).
At the same time, the United States should redouble its efforts to support economic reform in Libya. Libya’s conflict stems, in part, from grievances about the uneven distribution of oil wealth in the capital and in the west of the country. Haftar and his foreign backers, particularly the Emiratis, attribute this inequality to the Islamists’ supposed grip on the country’s Tripoli-based central bank, which they allege results in public funds being funneled to Islamist elites and militias. These grievances partly explain the appeal of Haftar’s pledge to distribute the country’s oil wealth more evenly. Moreover, Haftar’s governance record in the east shows that he is unlikely to make good on this promise of reform. Indeed, many pro-Haftar groups are just as corrupt and predatory as the militias they seek to eradicate. This means that the oil-based economy will remain a source of conflict even if the current elites in Tripoli are toppled. The United States must therefore avoid focusing economic reform efforts solely on Tripoli institutions in an effort to aleviate the Emiratis’ fear of Islamist control. Instead, the United States must be evenhanded in its approach to economic corruption, scrutinizing the Libyan capital but also the eastern financial institutions under Haftar’s purview.
A revitalized U.S. approach to Libya doesn’t need to be resource intensive. Dissuading foreign meddlers and helping to stabilize Libya’s economy would require only a modest diplomatic investment. The United States doesn’t need to actively confront Russia; it only has to close the diplomatic fissures that Moscow has managed to exploit—namely, between Turkey and the UAE, but also betweeen European countries. The first priority for the United States should be to end the battle for Tripoli by dissuading Turkey and the UAE from armed escalation and by pushing for peaceful dialogue. Without a U.S. diplomatic gambit along these lines, the country will likely spiral toward irreversible dissolution, as neither the Turks, the Emiratis, nor the Russians have the capacity or the will to achieve peace.