Russia throws down the gauntlet in Libya with MiG deployment

Russia has upped the stakes in Libya after deploying MiG-29s and other military aircraft to help opposition fighters in Libya, Seth Frantzman wrote for the Jerusalem Post.

Moscow appears to be challenging Turkey and the latter’s support for the government in Tripoli at a time when other countries may have thought that it would end its support for General Khalifa Haftar following territorial losses, said Frantzman, a Middle East security analyst.

“It is a big play for Russia, doing it in broad daylight to show off, after around ten Russian Pantsir air defence systems were reportedly destroyed by Turkish drones,” he said.

Turkey and Russia, which have fostered close political ties in recent years, angering Turkey’s NATO partners, appear to be squaring up in the Libyan war after Ankara intensified its support for the UN-recognised government with mercenaries, drones and military advisers. Tensions over Libya and in Syria have increased speculation that Moscow and Ankara may be falling out on key strategic issues.

Frantzman said Turkey has persuaded Western media to underscore its victories over the Russian-backed Libyan National Army and used social media to show its drones hunting Russian hardware.

“Moscow, which is selling Turkey air defence systems, has a bizarre love-hate relationship with Turkey and sent its fighter jets to Libya to show that two can play at the public relations game,” Frantzman said.

Haftar, also backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, has seen his siege of Tripoli fall apart this month. Turkey also appears to have provided Libya’s Government of National Accord with intelligence on how to defeat Russia’s Pantsir air defence system, which had strengthened Haftar’s ability to shoot down Turkish drones, Frantzman said.

Turkey has also fed misinformation about Russia’s apparent withdrawal of support for Haftar. But in reality, Moscow was preparing a fresh initiative in Libya after Haftar threatened airstrikes on Turkish targets in the country, Frantzman said.

 “We watched as Russia flew fourth-generation jet fighters to Libya, every step of the way,” said U.S. General Stephen Townsend of AFRICOM, the U.S. military command post for the region. The general said it showed the full extent of Moscow’s involvement.

U.S. officials had been seeking to get Russian President Vladimir Putin stuck in the conflict in Syria, but instead Putin is linking Libya and Syria, as is Turkey, Frantzman said. Meanwhile, the United States has said Russia conducted an “unsafe” intercept of its aircraft over the Mediterranean on Tuesday, increasing regional tensions further.

“Russia is showing its muscle in Libya now,” Frantzman said. “Russian contractors purposely stroll into local towns, negating operational security or plausible deniability.

“The intel on the location of the Pantsirs and precise strikes on them, shows that a hi-tech state like Turkey, a NATO member, was involved. Russia read this as a test and wants to up the ante.”

Some people are suggesting that the deployment of the Russian MiGs may be a trap for Turkey, Frantzman said. But the reality is that the two countries also work together, he said, pointing to joint military patrols in northern Syria.

“The involvement of the U.S. this week, pinpointing Russia’s alleged escalation, increases the chances for a showdown,” Frantzman said. “But first, Russia has to make its pilots in Libya actually do more than just fly around and show off the flag.”