While military considerations are a strong element in the relationship between Moscow and Hifter, interpreting Russia’s interests in Libya through the same lens would be a mistake. Following the general’s trip to Russia, commentators reignited the talk of a possible Russian naval base in Libya; some even suggested that Benghazi could host one.
The rumors of a Russian base on the Libyan coast have been swirling since 2008, when Col. Moammar Gadhafi proposed the idea to the Russians, yet no practical steps were taken back then. The need for a naval base in 2008 was arguably far more acute for Moscow than it is today. Syria’s Tartus base, which is currently undergoing an upgrade, was recently named the Russian permanent naval base, albeit out of need rather than a careful calculation, essentially fulfilling the role of a stronghold in the Mediterranean for Russia. Libya’s Benghazi in that regard is a less safe option and is too isolated to exercise proper control over it.
Under Gadhafi, Libya was one of the few prospective cash-paying clients willing to purchase Russian weaponry. In 2008, Moscow canceled $4.5 billion of Libyan debt in exchange for arms deals that were reportedly signed in 2011, just before Gadhafi was overthrown. The deals that were worth between $4 billion and $10 billion have never been completed, and Russia still looks at Libya as a state that could one day deliver on these agreements.
While the Libyan National Army’s mostly Soviet equipment keeps degrading, Hifter, who remains outside the Libyan government structure, will not have the resources to pay for new Russian weapons, even if the embargo is lifted.
The transformation of Hifter’s role hints at the evolution of Russian interests in Libya. Because of Russia’s Syrian operation, Libya is no longer seen strictly as a stronghold for projecting military power.
Currently, Moscow sees the development of a long-term political partnership with Hifter as a more beneficial option that could facilitate both possible military objectives in the Mediterranean as well as lucrative deals associated with the reconstruction of the country and the re-emergence of its oil industry.