What Do The Russians Have Planned Off Libya's Coast Next Week?

Russia may be planning a cruise missile barrage on Libyan targets.

Admiral Grigorovich frigate arrives in Sevastopol
Alexander Karpushkin—Alexander Karpushkin/TASS

Russia's increased interest in Libya is nothing new—we have reported on it in detail before—but the possibility of Moscow intervening in that bloody and chaotic civil war with cruise missile strikes is. That is one very plausible reason behind Russia's issuing of a notice to airman (NOTAM) warning of an impending "rocket test" off the eastern coast of the country next week. 

The NOTAM has been issued to include a daily 11-hour window from May 24th through the 27th, when the activity could occur. The area effected runs off the shore of Libya from roughly the Egyptian border to 150 miles west, and out to sea about 100 miles. 

These types of notices for "test launches" and "maritime exercises" have often preceded major strikes on Syria by Russia's various cruise missile launch platforms, included ships, aircraft and submarines. In particular, Russia's Black Sea Fleet now has two modern Admiral Grigorovich frigates capable of firing Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles. 

In past years, similar warning zones have almost always been relegated to the far reaches of the eastern Mediterranean, to the waters off Syria. Even legitimate Russia exercises in the area have used the body of water between Crete and the Syrian-Lebanon coastline. Also, Russia's only warm water port is located in Tartus, Syria, adjacent to this naval operating area. 

With all this in mind, this latest warning notice is especially peculiar. 

Eastern Libya has remained particularly mired in chaos in recent months, and just last week, Libyan National Army troops, under the command of the rogue General Khalifa Haftar, struck deeper into central Benghazi. Haftar's forces are at odds with the UN backed Libyan government in Tripoli, but he is a favorite of the Kremlin. The Russian Navy even hosted the strongman aboard their only carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, as it traversed the region earlier this year. We described Haftar as such in a recent feature on Russia's increasing involvement in Libya:

"Haftar himself has had a complicated political history. He served as a military officer in Gaddafi’s army before running afoul of the enigmatic leader and ending up in prison. In 1990, he moved to the United States after officials in Washington helped secure his release.

Though Haftar styles himself head of Libya’s national armed forces, fighting terrorists on behalf of the country’s central government, he has disputed the GNA’s authority and seems intent on becoming president. His spokespersons have declared taking over Tripoli is key to the group’s supposed counter-terrorism mission, implying that government officials are in league with dangerous Islamist extremists."

AP

Rogue Libyan general Khalifa Haftar

It seems very possible that Russia could be moving to actively support the General's forces in the region, and specifically in the coastal power center of Benghazi now that he has established a steady foothold there. Once again, this could be done via cruise missile attacks on opposition forces bases or even via naval gunfire support. Russia would likely classify such an act as an anti-terror campaign in a similar way as it has done in Syria. Russia has deployed a number of special operations troops to eastern Egypt, which are likely operating in Libya in support of Haftar. These troops could work as a targeting cell for such strikes. 

Just today, Putin seemed ready to deepen Moscow's involvement in the conflict, after meeting with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. Meanwhile, General Haftar met with Egypt's Army Chief of Staff today, a totally unprecedented event and a signal that a Egyptian-Russian-FLA alliance could be in the works. 

Another possibility, albeit a less likely one, is the Russians are demoing weaponry for Egypt, who have ordered a lot of hardware from Moscow since the US turned away from Cairo under the Obama Administration. 

If Russia does become "kinetically" involved in Libya, it would mark a major change in policy by the Kremlin and would act as another reminder of how Russia is willing to opportunistically fill any geopolitical void left by the US

Although the US has periodically waded back into the Libyan civil war, the actions have largely centered around counter-terror operations, with targeted strikes on particular Islamic extremist groups or individuals operating in the country or even occupying portions of it. But Russia may be looking to accomplish an entirely different set of objectives. It Moscow could prop-up Hafter to where his forces can reliably secure the eastern part of Libya, it could offer Russia another warm water port in the Mediterranean and doing so could result in a persistent Russian military presence on NATO's southern flank.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com