Felgenhauer believes one thing could have tipped the scales in Haftar′s favour: money. After all, the strongman is in charge of nearly all of Libya′s oil-producing regions. "That means he has the money – which means he is important for Moscow," the analyst says. Felgenhauer argues that despite the UN arms embargo on Libya, Moscow could be angling to sell Haftar weapons – or even already be selling them. The fall of Libya's long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 lost Russia billions in arms sales, according to some estimates.

On 7 April, Russia blocked a UN Security Council​​​​​ ​​statement that would have urged forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar to halt their advance on Tripoli, insisting that the statement should urge all forces in the country to stop fighting. Felgenhauer sees the move as a clear sign of Russia's tacit support for Haftar.

Members of Misrata forces, under the protection of Tripoli's forces, prepare to go to the front line in Tripoli, 8 April 2019 (photo: Reuters/H. Amara)
Determined not to get sucked in: former Russian diplomat Matusov is convinced that any Russian involvement in Libya is unlikely to mirror its commitment to Syria. "The main thrust of Russian foreign policy and military policy is anti-Americanism. That works in Syria and in Venezuela, but in Libya it's not clear who the Americans are actually supporting"

Murky signs

According to various media reports, Russia may have another way of quietly taking sides in Libya. In late 2018, Russian daily RBC reported that there are Russian troops in the east of the Libya, citing a source close to the Russian Defence Ministry. The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a video showing Yevgeny Prigozhin taking part in talks with general Haftar in Moscow.

Prigozhin is a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is a shadowy figure who apparently heads Russia′s social media "troll factory", as well as a private Russian military company called Wagner Group. It has reportedly turned up in conflicts all over the world, including in Eastern Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela and Central African Republic.

Former Russian diplomat Matuzov thinks that sending Russian mercenaries to Libya would be impossible, calling the claims "disinformation". He says if there were mercenaries in Libya, "we would already know." Matuzov says there is no clear distinction between various warring groups in the country, explaining that fighters in the conflict often move between the groups "depending on how the situation on the ground develops" – and that is why "there are no secrets in Libya."

But military expert Felgenhauer isn't so sure. He thinks Russian mercenaries are quite possibly on Libya's ground and in its airspace and argues that this would be a very elegant solution for Russia′s diplomatic conundrum. Because they aren't officially associated with the government, "mercenaries allow [Russia] to get involved — while not getting involved," Felgenhauer says. "They allow plausible deniability."

Syria 2.0?

In early 2018 Russia′s announcements of its plans to withdraw troops from Syria only increased rumours about a potential Russian military operation in Libya. However, Russia is unlikely to launch a large-scale intervention in Libya like it did nearly four years ago in Syria, in part because it is still entwined in the conflict there.

"Syria hasn't gone away," Felgenhauer points out. "Russian capabilities are already overstretched. We're not the Soviet Union anymore." He also doesn't think it fits Russia's overarching strategic aims. "The main thrust of Russian foreign policy and military policy is anti-Americanism. That works in Syria and in Venezuela, but in Libya it's not clear who the Americans are actually supporting."

Matuzov agrees that Libya won't be Russia's new Syria. For one thing, he says, the two military bases Russia established in Syria during the conflict mean Moscow doesn't need another foothold to cover its strategic interests in the Middle East. And moreover, he adds, Moscow simply couldn't afford a base in Libya.

Matuzov also cites another reason why Russia won′t launch a full-scale military operation like in Syria: "Libya is like quicksand. Anyone who steps into it will get sucked in."

Emily Sherwin

© Deutsche Welle 2019

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