Kremlin Cultivates Libyan Warlord for Naval Base in Tobruk and New Front in Migrant War on the West

From its new strongholds on the Libyan coast, Russian Kalibr cruise missiles could hit almost any target in Western Europe.

Hellenic Coast Guard via AP
Scores of people sit on a battered fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece. Hellenic Coast Guard via AP

May was Russia’s bloodiest month in its 28-month war against Ukraine — 38,940 soldiers dead or seriously wounded. This mountain of casualties did not stop the Kremlin from sending 2,000 soldiers and thousands of tons of military equipment to the eastern half of Libya, controlled by a warlord at Benghazi.

Libya?

After Islamic fundamentalists murdered the American ambassador to Libya in Benghazi in 2012, Washington lost its taste for Libya’s cutthroat politics. Moscow stepped into the vacuum. Now, after years of intense courtship, the Kremlin may be on the verge of winning basing rights for Russian Navy warships at Tobruk.

From that point in the central Mediterranean, Russian Kalibr cruise missiles could hit almost any target in Western Europe. Last week, President Putin warned that Russia could provide long-range weapons to other countries so that they could strike Western targets.

“A Russian Mediterranean base in Libya would threaten Europe and NATO’s southern flank,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War writes in a new report, “Russian Outreach Across Africa.” The report explains that Russia’s “position in Libya also gives it the opportunity to destabilize Europe by weaponizing migrant flows from Africa, which it now has an even greater influence over thanks to its recent expansion along southern points of trans-Saharan migrant routes in the Sahel.”

In Russia’s hybrid war against the West, uncontrolled immigration is a new weapon used by Moscow. Libya has the longest coastline of North Africa — about 1,100 miles. During the 42-year long rule of Muammar Gadhafi, Europe had an unwritten deal with Libya’s eccentric ruler: you keep Africa from crossing the Med, and we overlook your “eccentricities.” 

However, since Gadhafi’s overthrow and death in 2011, Libya reverted to the east-west split of the 20th-century Italian colonial era. There is one government at Tripoli, the UN-recognized capital. There is another government at Benghazi. With the split, coastal control is a thing of the past. Last year, the EU’s border patrol agency reported that 380,000 African migrants attempted to cross into Europe from Libya — the highest number in almost a decade.

Tobruk, a bitterly contested port during World War II, is only 175 miles south of Crete, the Greek island. For human smugglers, that boat ride can be done in one night. To the south, Russia’s new allies — Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger — control human smuggling routes out of the heart of Africa.

Over the last two years, Russia and its satellite, Belarus, have pumped undocumented migrants across their western land borders. Migrants are pawns in attempts by Russia and Belarus to fuel anti-migrant sentiment and boost far-right parties in the European elections.

Belarus opened travel agencies in the Middle East offering a new, unofficial route into Europe. After 4,600 migrants without EU visas attempted to illegally enter Lithuania from Belarus, that Baltic nation closed four of its six land borders with Belarus. Finland closed all its land crossings with Russia after 1,700 migrants crossed last fall. 

On Poland’s border with Belarus this summer, as many as 400 migrants a day attempt to enter that EU nation. Increasingly, attempts turn violent with asylum seekers throwing rocks and burning sticks at Polish soldiers guarding the 248-mile  border. On Thursday, a Polish soldier, Mateusz Sitek, died after being stabbed through the border fence by a migrant. Polish soldiers push back surging migrants  with pepper spray and by firing their guns in the air and into the ground.

In Eastern Libya, the local leader, General Khalifa Haftar, reportedly profits from sending boatloads of African migrants north. “Haftar has explicitly aided migrant smugglers in Libya by granting them security clearances,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War charged Thursday. The institute notes that “Russia’s partners in the Nigerien junta annulled an EU-backed migration law that aimed to stem migrant flows in December 2023.”

Ensconced at Benghazi, General Haftar personifies the failure of American diplomacy in Libya. An American citizen, he lived for two decades in Virginia where he was a CIA asset. Recently, however, he and many of his six sons have quietly moved their money out of American bank accounts.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin reaps the benefits of a long ago Soviet-era investment. In the late 1970s, General Haftar, then a rising young officer in the Gaddafi inner circle, completed a three-year degree for foreign officers at the M. V. Frunze Military Academy at Moscow.

A Russian speaker, General Haftar now is the target of Kremlin courtship: a trip to Moscow to meet Mr. Putin last September, and five meetings at Benghazi with Russia’s deputy defense minister, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, including one last week.

Two weeks ago, the fruits of this blossoming alliance could be seen at a parade at Benghazi marking the 10th anniversary of the defeat of local Islamist forces who may have been involved in the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other American officials. According to Janes, the centerpiece of the parade were rows of Russian-made Volk, or Wolf, armored personnel carriers, painted in desert camouflage.

The Volk armored personnel carriers are the tip of an iceberg of five shipments made since April 1 to Tobruk from Russia’s Eastern Mediterranean naval base in Tarsus, Syria, the Institute for the Study of War reported May 17. “One shipment in April alone accounted for 6,000 tons of military hardware. These shipments included equipment, vehicles, and weapons, including radar systems, T72 tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery systems.”

Russia is partly using Tobruk to send equipment south, to bolster the countries in the Sahel where Russian troops are replacing French troops: Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. However, many Russian military assets now are spread around Eastern Libya, according to a new report, “Mediterranean Sea Objective for the African Corps.”

“Russian military personnel and equipment have been spotted in at least 10 locations in eastern Libya since the beginning of March,” reads the report, a joint project of independent outlet Verstka and the All Eyes on Wagner project. Wagner, the Russian mercenary group, has largely been replaced by Russian soldiers answering to Russia’s Defense Ministry. Wounded soldiers from Eastern Libya are routinely treated in Russia.

On the financial side, Libya is believed to duck EU sanctions and launder Russian gas for sale to Europe. Last month, at the Russia-Islamic World Forum in Russia, Libyan officials invited the Russian company Tatneft to build an oil refinery in Benghazi or Tobruk. Last month, on a visit to eastern Libya, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Russia plans to open a consulate in Benghazi.

In previous assaults on the government in Tripoli, General Haftar flooded the country with as much as $1 billion in fake Libyan dinars, printed by the Russian state currency printer Goznak. Now, analysts believe the new funneling of arms into Eastern Libya presages more serious Russian backing: for a military assault by General Haftar on the remaining one third of Libya outside his control.


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