Libyan Gen Khalifa Hafter arrived in Moscow Sunday, Nov. 26, with a request for Russian arms and military support for his army. He was welcomed in Moscow, which saw an opening for Russia to gain its first military base in North Africa. According to DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources, President Vladimir Putin began to envision a second Mediterranean base on the coast of Benghazi, twin to Hmeimim in Syria’s Latakia. This one would accommodate Russian naval as well as air units and be located 700km from Europe.
The US-born Hafter, a general in the army of the late Muammar Qaddafi, carries the title of supreme commander of the Libyan army. However, Libya is today riddled with hundreds of militias vying for control. Haftar heads a powerful group that was once backed by the United States. But since refusing to recognize the government established by the UN in Tripoli, he relies mainly on the support of Egypt and some of the Gulf emirates for his eastern Libyan Benghazi stronghold.
Egypt and the UAE provide Hafter’s army with air support from Egyptian bases in the Western Desert. It was their leaders who urged him to accept the Russian invitation to Moscow and bid for military assistance.
This was Hafter’s second trip to Moscow. He was there in June and met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and National Security Adviser Nikolai Patrushev. Then, the Kremlin was wary of extending military aid to the maverick Libyan general. US, Italian and British special forces were at the time pressing a major offensive to drive ISIS out of the key Libyan port of Sirte. However, this offensive has still not achieved its goal.
Donald Trump’s election as US president is already causing seismic rumbles in the region. Putin is now offering Hafter’s army jet fighters attack helicopters, armored vehicles and assorted missiles as well as air support for fighting the Islamic State.
It is too soon to say whether the Russian leader’s Libya initiative betokens an invitation to the new US president to work together in the Middle East, or he is cashing in on an uncertain transition period between the presidencies to build up a stack of chips ready to face Trump as a rival power.
At all events, Russian planes in Hmeimim are capable of covering the 1,500km distance to Libya, while the Russian carrier Admiral Kusnetzev is anchored not far away, off Syria’s Mediterranean shore. Both are therefore available for operations in support of the Libyan general.
This would be the first time a Russian aircraft carrier went into action in this part of the Mediterranean.
The battles ongoing along the Mediterranean coast his week among the various militias, including Hafter’s army, are in fact a tug-o’-war for control of Libya’s oil fields. Libya’s oil riches are certainly not absent from Putin’s calculations. Moscow’s assistance in helping his Libyan visitor gain the upper hand in this struggle could augur the first Russian stake in the Libyan oil industry.