Haftar from Putin, the expert: “The Kremlin leverages migrants and energy”

Arturo Varvelli (Ecfr): “To counterbalance the problems in Ukraine, a strategy to increase tension in other areas. It creates anxiety for us Italians”

Moscow does not give up its presence and its bridgehead in Libya, an OPEC country and strategic country in the heart of North Africa. The Kremlin has announced the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Khalifa Haftar, a strongman from Cyrenaica. They spoke of the “situation in Libya and the region”. It would be the first face-to-face meeting since 2019, according to the media of a Libya in which the division between the east and Tripoli has been perpetuated since the end, in 2011, of the Muammar Gaddafi era. Haftar would need Putin as much as Putin would need Haftar. Arturo Varvelli, head of the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (Ecfr), discusses the news of the last few hours with Adnkronos and talks about what “could be a strategy” by Putin “to counterbalance the problems in Ukraine” .

“Not the opening of a second front”, he points out, highlighting however the risk that “the involvement in the conflict between Europe and the USA on the one hand and Russia on the other will spread to other areas”. Therefore, “not a direct military confrontation, but increasing tension in other areas to create problems and then obtain something in return”, a “Putin strategy that creates anxieties for us Europeans, Italians in particular, on the migrant and energy front” .

Varvelli notes “the difficult situation Putin is in, since the war in Ukraine is not going as expected and also in light of Ukraine’s counterattacks”. Therefore, he observes, for Moscow it is important “to have an outpost in Libya and consolidate relations with Libya, with a whole part of the world that is so important for us”, with a country that is “the gateway to Africa”, where “the Russian presence has been consolidated in the last period”, also with the use of the “lever of anti-colonialism”.

‘After Prigozhin they need a new relationship’

Head of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) supported for years by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin (who died in the ‘mysterious’ plane crash in August in Russia), the marshal arrived in Libya on Tuesday where he also met the Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, according to what the LNA said, without many details. Haftar also allegedly spoke with Moscow’s deputy defense minister, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who in the second half of August had been in Libya, where Russia has in the past denied having an official military presence.

Last September 17th, Haftar’s son, Khaled, accompanied Yevkurov to flood-ravaged Derna. Then on 21 September the American embassy announced a meeting in Benghazi between the marshal and General Michael Langley, commander of Africom. All after the head of the CIA, William Burns, was in Libya at the beginning of the year.

This is the context in which, according to Varvelli, “we must not exaggerate the contacts with Haftar”, but both the marshal and the Kremlin “need a new relationship because the intermediary was Prigozhin” and after his death “it was necessary to Haftar likes Moscow to have a direct relationship and restore a direct relationship.”

‘There are those who think that Moscow is interested in a second base on the Mediterranean’

Haftar, says Varvelli, “is still playing a game for his strength in Libya” because “despite being defeated in 2019”, with the failure of his counter-offensive to take Tripoli and his retreat to Cyrenaica, “he still continues to have ambitions to command over the whole country”. And he “does not give up on having an international role”. With a “strength” that, “in recent years, has grown hand in hand with the international support received from Moscow”. A Moscow that remains “a point of reference”, although perhaps “in the last period” Haftar had “also been very close to the Wagner group and to Prigozhin who had invested in him”. Thus the trip to Moscow could “use Haftar – continues the analyst – to recreate credibility in the eyes of Moscow and continue to have its support”.

On the Russian side there may be other interests. “There are those who think that Moscow is interested in a second base on the Mediterranean”, Varvelli further notes, recalling how the Russians “have always been interested in Benghazi” and how Moscow is “also interested in building infrastructure to accommodate ships”. A development that “for us Italians would be very dangerous, also because our role was somewhat relaunched” after the Derna flood with the “rapid response capacity” assured to the Libyans. “In some way – concludes the expert – the Italian and European role had been relaunched as a very positive relationship of help and relief after the Derna tragedy, while the Russians don’t know how to do this, they only provide security in strict terms”.