From Potsdam to Putin: 70 years of Russian strategy in Libya
Illustration credit: Olivia May (@olivia_may_graphics)

At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, as WWII wound down, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin sought trusteeship over Libya – an Italian colony which eventually gained independence in 1947. Though he failed, his successors courted the North African nation, developing strategically significant ties – a relationship which has continued, with blips, to the current day.

As the Middle East and North Africa became a battleground in the wider Cold War, as evidenced by the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the various Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Soviet Union began to entrench itself in the region as a symbol of its global power status.

While Khrushchev initially established relationships chiefly with Egypt in the region, his successor – Leonid Brezhnev – began, slowly but surely, to develop relations with Libya. The alliance developed slowly after Gaddafi seized power in September 1969

From 1974 through to the late 1980s, the USSR sold Libya more than $20bn worth of advanced weaponry. It also provided hundreds of Soviet-bloc advisers, technicians, and security police, whom helped keep Gaddafi’s arsenal in order.

Additionally, representatives of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany – a key Soviet ally) advised Libya’s intelligence service and staffed Gaddafi’s guard; on a number of occasions, they allegedly helped put down attempted coups

1967-76 alone saw a cumulative total of $1,005m of Soviet arms exports, which made up 55% of Libya’s total arms imports. Libya was the 5th largest non-aligned recipient of Soviet arms – after three other Middle Eastern nations and India. These figures clearly demonstrated the importance of the region to Soviet foreign policy.

From 1970 to 1975, Soviet trade with Libya grew from 12.9m roubles to 18.8m – a 46% increase.

Therefore, Libya came to play a crucial role as the forward base of Soviet interests in the Mediterranean. Its geostrategically critical location at the crossroads of the Sahel, southern Europe and North Africa also played a part. Soviet leaders further benefited from Qaddafi’s staunch anti-Americanism: they benefitted from his hostility to U.S. peace initiatives and his fostering of anti-American sentiment.

It must be noted, though, the USSR never developed a formal alliance with Gaddafi, due chiefly to his reputation as an erratic and often dangerous leader.

Though a blip in relations arose in the early 1990s, as the new Western-focused Yeltsin government of the Russian Federation (the USSR’s chief successor state) joined the sanctions regime against Libya in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing, things were soon back to normal.

Under Putin, Russia made arms and construction agreements worth more than $4bn with Gaddafi. Thus, NATO’s action in 2011, in which Gaddafi was killed, cost Russia billions in contracts.

It is little wonder, then, that Russia supports General Haftar in the civil war that erupted in 2014 amid the post-Gaddafi power vacuum, whom it has helped consolidate a hold on the east and south of the nation, home to most of Libya’s oilfields. Haftar is also backed by Egypt and the UAE.

Haftar has, since 2014, rallied against the Government of UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli and backed by Turkey.

Russia has been able to exploit the tumult that ensued after 2011 to entrench itself as a crucial player in Libya; Haftar’s success is heavily dependent on the level of his patrons’ support. In return, Russia may well end up with a strategically important foothold on the EU’s and NATO’s southern flank. 

Similarly to the case of the East Germans during the Cold War, today the Russians back their man through ‘surrogates’ – this time, it is the ‘Wagner Group’, a shadowy private military group with links to a Kremlin-friendly businessman.

In addition to lucrative energy and reconstruction contracts (Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa, and the 22nd largest gas reserves worldwide), Russia’s manoeuvring can be seen – like in Syria (see article) as an attempt to assert its status as a great power.

Again, as in Syria, Russia finds itself on opposing sides of a proxy war to Turkey. Russia has blocked a UN Security Council statement that sought to condemn Haftar’s offensive while accusing Russia of deploying disguised fighter jets to Libya to support the General. Such reports were, it must be noted, decried by Russian officials: the deputy chairman of the Duma’s defence committee said the allegation was “another American horror story … fake and misinformation”.

Though, in recent weeks, the GNA has succeeded in reversing some of Haftar’s significant positions, it is unlikely to be able to reclaim the entirety of the country through military might – particularly given Haftar’s Russian backing.

Were, as currently seems likely, Russia able to institutionalise Haftar’s hegemony over eastern Libya, Putin may, in effect, be able to achieve what Stalin, a leader he has attempted to rehabilitate, never quite could.