The Russian state, despite having the capacity to do so, never made the strategic decision to engage head-on in a long bout of war and ensure that Haftar triumphs in western Libya. Instead, Moscow has been working quietly to render the field marshal less and less indispensable to its agenda in eastern Libya — but gradually, without ever clashing with him. The Kremlin wishes to see a less unpredictable, less dysfunctional class of Libyan elites run Cyrenaica. It would use that to secure more perennial access to key facilities there, such as, potentially, a naval base, more hydrocarbons concessions, and the option to do business with Tripoli.
The Kremlin moves slowly and surreptitiously closer to that objective by exploiting the weaknesses of the United Arab Emirates’ Libya policy. Despite Moscow’s pragmatic attitude vis-à-vis Turkey, Abu Dhabi and its proxies have no choice but to keep working with Wagner. By fulfilling a military role in eastern and southwestern Libya, Wagner acquires essential importance there. The Kremlin then converts this into sheer power in those Libyan territories, which currently fall outside of Turkey’s sphere of influence.
As for the Turkish-backed authorities, Moscow has managed to preserve a communication channel with them even though Wagner continues to be a dangerous threat. “If we have to give a bit of business to the Russians to get them off our back, that can be envisaged,” said a member of the Government of National Accord in a June 2020 interview. The admission is a euphemism given the distinct possibility that Tripoli may have to award large contracts to Russian companies within the next year or two.
Since its 2013 rise as a major counter-revolutionary interferer across swathes of the Middle East and Africa, Abu Dhabi has become renowned for its single-mindedness. Moscow views that trait as a given — not as a phenomenon it must combat, appease, or rectify. As with many other dysfunctional dynamics characterizing the region, the United Arab Emirates’ stubborn absolutism offers rewards for actors nimble enough to work around it, or even exploit it tactically.
Indeed, the two anti-liberal powers disagree on fundamental points, a particularly salient one being whether Turkish influence should be allowed to exist in Libya. But as things stand today, the Emirati-backed camp there is too weak to be able to even hinder Turkish expansionism without Russian military assistance. For that reason, the United Arab Emirates has no choice but to work and coordinate with Wagner. In fact, Abu Dhabi has likely funded parts of Wagner’s operations, as U.S. Africa Command Center noted in a recent report. Wagner’s indispensability in turn strengthens the Kremlin, whose own goals do not include the total eradication of Turkish influence from Tripoli. Abu Dhabi, however, cannot settle for anything less.
Cognizant of the discrepancy between Little Sparta’s exigencies and vulnerabilities in Libya, Russia has implemented a new modus operandi by combining skillful soft-power maneuvering with the use of force through an unacknowledged semi-state actor. This low-cost strategy has enabled Moscow to become an impossible-to-circumvent power broker in a country where it had lost all sway in the wake of the U.S.-led intervention in 2011. In all cases, the war is not over — and the Russian pendulum is not done swinging in Libya. Time is on its side.