Russia funneling weapons through Libyan port, eying gateway to Africa

Russia funneling weapons through Libyan port, eying gateway to Africa

ROME — Russian vessels have been unloading thousands of tons of military equipment in the eastern Libyan port of Tobruk this month after repeated visits by Russia’s deputy defense minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the strongman running eastern Libya.

The shipments, arriving from the Russian-controlled port of Tartus in Syria, contain towed artillery, armored personnel carriers and rocket launchers according to video released by Libyan news site Fawasel Media.

The equipment may in part be used to sustain Russia’s growing military presence in eastern Libya, but are also likely destined for countries further south in Africa like Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso where Russia has ties to leaders of recent coups.

Some experts see the uptick in activity as a result of America’s diplomatic strategy toward Haftar, which has failed to stop the warlord from allying with Russia and given Moscow the chance to pour weapons into the country, turning it into a gateway to supply its growing presence across Africa, the criticism goes.

“Eastern Libya is becoming a significant way station into Africa for Russia, and it comes after the U.S. seriously misplayed Haftar,” said Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“There has been an continuous U.S. attempt to engage with Haftar, rather than isolate him, but he has repeatedly defied our requests and UN requests and moved closer to Russia. The U.S. approach has been to run the same football play over and over and expect a different result,” said Fishman, who previously served on the National Security Council.

Fishman said that Haftar had received Russian visits and made trips to Moscow while also holding meetings in Libya with Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf and U.S. special envoy Richard Norland.

“Indeed, the day after Norland and the Commander of Africom visited Derna in eastern Libya after the floods last September, Haftar flew to Moscow,” he said.

“Their approach was ‘He will move closer to Russia if we isolate him,’ but he moved closer anyway and Moscow is profiting,” said Fishman.

Through its proxy Wagner mercenaries, Russia backed Haftar’s failed bid to conquer western Libya in 2019 after the country split following the ousting of national leader Col. Muamar Gadaffi in 2011.

American diplomacy has recently aimed at convincing Haftar to take part in national elections to reunite the country, while Moscow has reportedly focused on negotiating a permanent Russian naval presence at Tobruk, giving it a foothold in the central Mediterranean.

As Russian military instructors meanwhile arrive in Niger to support coup leaders who took over the country last year, the fate of a U.S. base in the country from which drone flights are launched across Africa is in the balance.

“For some U.S. officials, Haftar is a good anti-terrorism asset so they are prepared to look away when he abuses human rights or jumps into bed with the Russians,” said a former Western diplomat who declined to be identified.

“But if the U.S. is worried about Russia’s growing role in Africa then maybe it should go beyond occasionally expressing concern,” the diplomat said.

On April 17, a U.S. Navy MQ-4C Triton drone flying out of Sigonella airbase in Sicily monitored Tobruk.

Fishman argued that the U.S. should have enlisted the help of the UAE or Egypt, who back Haftar. “Egypt has no interest in an increased Russian presence across the border in Libya – this was a missed opportunity,” he said.

“We never made it clear that isolation was an option. The next move could be sanctions, although that could be complicated by the fact that Haftar is a U.S. citizen. Aware of the threat, he has reportedly been moving accounts out of the U.S.,” said Fishman.

Before marshaling troops in Libya, Haftar was a CIA asset, living for years in Virginia.

Fishman said, “To reduce Russia’s ability to use Tobruk, there could be disruption of radar use or the stationing of vessels off the coast – but that is now impossible now given our commitments in the Red Sea.”

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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