Trump’s seesawing on Libya creates opening for Russia

  • Jo Becker and Eric Schmitt
  • The New York Times
6:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 Politics
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump greets Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of Libya upon his arrival for a meeting at the West Wing of the White House on December 1, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Last March, the Pentagon’s top general for Africa made a rare trip to Capitol Hill, bearing a sobering double-barreled warning. 

“The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” the general, Thomas D. Waldhauser, told lawmakers. But perhaps just as concerning, he indicated, were intelligence reports that Russia was helping a former Libyan general turned military strongman in a fight for control over the country’s government and vast oil resources. 

In fact, just two months earlier, in a brazen assertion of the Kremlin’s growing Middle East ambitions, Russia’s only aircraft carrier had entered Libyan waters and, with great fanfare, welcomed aboard the militia leader, Gen. Khalifa Haftar. 

During his campaign for president, Donald Trump made the U.S.-backed NATO operation that toppled Libya’s dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, a cornerstone of his critique of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. The 2011 intervention left Libya with dueling governments — one recognized by the United States and the international community, the other aligned with Haftar. In the chaos, Libya also became a safe haven for the Islamic State. 

In December, Trump met privately with the Libyan prime minister, Fayez Serraj, in Washington. In an interview, two senior White House aides argued that the United States was fully engaged in finding a diplomatic solution to the country’s civil strife. But the Libyan leader left with no policy pronouncements from the president. Indeed, the administration has deferred the difficult job of brokering a diplomatic settlement almost entirely to the United Nations. 

“What U.S. policy in Libya?” Martin Kobler, the former U.N. special envoy there, asked in an interview with The New York Times shortly before he stepped down last summer. 

Meanwhile, an emboldened President Vladimir Putin has seized the opportunity to expand Russian influence over the oil-rich North African nation just 300 miles from Europe. In Libya, Russia has publicly offered itself up as a mediator between the country’s warring factions. But Moscow has also been covertly aiding major players like Haftar at a time when the United States is supporting the fragile U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord. 

According to dozens of interviews with current and former European, Libyan and American officials, Russia’s involvement in Libya goes significantly beyond ushering Haftar into a stateroom on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to confer with Russia’s defense minister in Moscow over a secure telephone line. 

It includes previously unreported instances of attempted weapons-for-oil deals, attempted bribery and efforts to influence top government defense appointments, as well as printing money and stamping coinage for the Haftar-allied government. American and British intelligence officials told The Times that Russia, aided by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, had also provided a range of weapons to Haftar. 

In the last year, Russia has quietly but steadily entrenched its influence, sending military advisers and intelligence officers to the country’s east, and providing Haftar’s troops with spare parts, repairs and medical care, according to American and other Western intelligence officials. 

Mohammed Mensli, a senior adviser to the Government of National Accord, said it was “vital” that the United States become more engaged and condemn destabilizing interference by other nations. 

“We really are not interested at all in the Russians getting involved in our affairs,” he said, “but they are very persistent.” 

A Dwindling Sense of Urgency 

So risky is the security situation in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, that the U.S. embassy has been temporarily relocated across the border in Tunisia. In late May, at a dinner party at the U.S. ambassador’s residence there, Waldhauser was grilled by the attendees on the Trump administration’s lack of a coherent Libya policy. He had no real answers, one American guest said. 

Trump, in fact, had supported intervening in Libya before he took to the campaign trail and began calling the military operation a “disaster” that left the nation in “ruins.” 

There appeared to be some sense of urgency early on. U.S. officials working out of the Libya Embassy in Tunis said they had been assured that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would make Libya a top priority, several officials said in interviews. And then there were the warnings from some of Trump’s top military advisers, including Waldhauser’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

Trump’s lack of sustained attention caused consternation in some quarters not just because of the terrorism threat but also because Libya remained a primary transit route for refugees and human traffickers. 

“You had this country that was the topic of a lot of campaign rhetoric, and at the same time those of us who had been working on Libya issues in government felt an urgency to build pockets of stability,” said Joshua A. Geltzer, a former senior counterterrorism official at the National Security Council under Obama and Trump. “But over the past year, I haven’t seen much momentum to do that.” 

Oil and Arms 

Putin has had Libya in his sights for years. Ever since he became convinced that the United States, and specifically Clinton, then secretary of state, had double-crossed Russia by toppling Gadhafi in what had been billed as a limited, humanitarian intervention, the Russian president has been working to regain influence there. 

In 2014, the Russians approached Ibrahim Jathran, a militia leader who controlled Libya’s key oil ports before Haftar. U.S. Navy SEALs had recently boarded a North Korean-flagged ship and disrupted a plot by Jathran to bypass Libya’s government and sell oil directly on the international market. 

Two of Jathran’s top deputies, who asked that only their first names, Osama and Ahmed, be used, for fear of reprisals, described how the Russians then stepped in with a “really amazing” proposal to help Jathran sell the oil — and arm his militia. But when the Russians demanded exclusivity, Ahmed and Osama said, their boss balked. Jathran, who is now in hiding and could not be reached for comment, walked away from the deal. 

The next year, in 2015, the Russians came back, Ahmed and Osama said. The same weaponry was on the table, but this time they wanted Jathran to throw his support behind the Russians’ choice for defense minister: Libya’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time. 

Officials in the U.N.-backed Libyan government convinced Jathran that it would be far more productive to align himself with the West. A meeting was set up between Jathran and Jonathan Powell, then the British envoy to Libya, after which “Ibrahim instructed me to close the file on Russia,” Osama said. 

Then, in September 2016, Haftar’s Libyan National Army seized the oil terminals from Jathran’s forces. Ahmed, who served as a commander during the fighting, recalled being stunned by the sophistication of the weapons Haftar seemed to have acquired overnight. 

Osama and Ahmed, who said he was injured by Russian-made munitions, came to believe that the Russians had begun facilitating arms shipments to Haftar after their boss turned them down. “It definitely tilted the balance,” Ahmed said. 

That assessment, based on anecdotal evidence and informants, was backed up by American and British intelligence reports. A former senior U.S. national security official and a former senior British official said evidence gathered in late 2015 and 2016 indicated that the United Arab Emirates were cooperating with Russia to provide Russian weaponry to Haftar’s forces with Egypt’s help. 

Russia has maintained that it is in compliance with a U.N. embargo on transferring weapons into Libya. 

Over the last year, Russian assistance has generally been subtler. Russian military advisers and intelligence officers have regularly gone in and out of Haftar’s area of control, U.S. intelligence officials said. Other Russian support personnel have provided spare parts, equipment repairs and medical care. The heavy lifting of providing military support to Haftar has fallen largely to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. 

“Putin is pushing the envelope, and will keep pushing and pushing until he is stopped,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, who was the State Department’s second-ranking diplomat for Middle East policy from 2013 to 2016. 

‘No Role,’ or a ‘Leading Role’ 

Appearing to hedge his bets on Libya’s political future, Putin has also reached out to the Government of National Accord. According to Western officials, Russia is seeking a political settlement — a central government favorable to its economic interests, especially on arms contracts, energy deals and a railway project. 

“If they can give the EU a black eye along the way, so much the better,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the forthcoming book “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya.” 

Despite Trump’s assertion in April that the United States would have “no role” in helping to rebuild Libya, State Department and White House officials now insist the administration is taking what one called a “leading role” by pursuing “a two-tier strategy”: carrying out counterterrorism strikes aimed at the Islamic State, while supporting political reconciliation aimed at stabilizing the country. 

To many Libyans, though, the Trump administration’s strategy looks a lot like the Obama administration’s “lead from behind” approach: carrying out reactive strikes while leaving the difficult tasks of reconciliation to the latest U.N. envoy. 

“We have clearly delegated all of our foreign policy in the Gulf and Libya to a coalition of Emirates, Saudi and Egyptians,” said Jason Pack, executive director of the U.S. Libya Business Association. “That’s essentially letting the Russians win in Libya because they support exactly the same groups.”