By Aidan Lewis
TUNIS (Reuters) - A visit to a Russian aircraft carrier by Libya's Khalifa Haftar has given the eastern–based commander a symbolic boost while also signaling Moscow's interest in a greater role in the region following its intervention in Syria.
Haftar is a figurehead for east Libyan factions who harbors national ambitions, and his renewed engagement with Russia comes at a time when the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli that he has shunned is once more in crisis.
Russian support could embolden Haftar in making a play for power in Tripoli, a move likely to fuel conflict and represent a major setback for genuine unity government in Libya.
Western states say the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) provides the best chance of reversing Libya's slide into anarchy and warfare.
But as splits and resistance have weakened the GNA in the capital, Haftar has gained momentum in the east, with support from foreign allies who back his fight against Islamist groups.
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He enjoys close ties to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and has cultivated his friendship with Russia, visiting Moscow twice last year to ask for help in his anti-Islamist campaign.
His tour of the Admiral Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean on Wednesday was Russia's most overt show of support to date.
In a video-conference call from the ship reported by Russian media, Haftar and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu discussed the fight against "terrorist groups", also one of Moscow's stated targets in its Syria campaign.
Haftar's advisers declined to comment on the aircraft carrier visit and what it might mean for relations with Russia.
But following its intervention in Syria, Russia sees Libya as a way to anchor its return to the Middle East, said Alexei Malashenko, the chief researcher at Dialogue of Civilizations Institute, a think-tank with close ties to the Russian leadership.
"One single Syria is not enough. That's why we need one more state for the Russian presence not only in Syria but generally in the Middle East. Libya is a convenient territory for it. It's complete chaos and you can always say that Russia helps to fight terrorism."
Russian President Vladimir Putin may also take an interest in restoring his country's influence in Libya, analysts say. Before he was overthrown, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had been a long-standing Russian ally and Putin opposed the NATO campaign that helped to topple him.
Russia did not use its U.N. Security Council veto to block the resolution authorizing military action, and Putin, who was out of presidential office at the time, took the risk of demonstrating a split in Russian leadership by publicly criticizing it.
Russia has outwardly backed U.N. mediation in Libya, and says it will abide by an arms embargo on the country. But it could eventually stand to recover billions of dollars worth of weapons and energy deals lost when Gaddafi lost power in 2011.
A parliament and government in eastern Libya that are allied to Haftar have no direct control over oil revenues. But they have maintained rival branches of the central bank, which has had Libyan dinars printed in Russia, and the National Oil Corporation (NOC), which has tried unsuccessfully to circumvent U.N. resolutions and sell oil independently of Tripoli.
"We hope for a return of the Russian state to its role as a support of Libya's armed forces, which have been abandoned by most countries in their war against terrorism," said Abdallah Bilhaq, a spokesman for the eastern parliament, citing some $4 billion in pre-2011 arms contracts.
Naji al-Maghrabi, appointed to head the NOC by the eastern government, told Reuters his office had signed 29 contracts, including recent ones with major states such as Russia and China. He did not give details.
So far, Russia's support for Haftar appears to be mainly symbolic, said Karim Mezran, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, though that could change if Haftar tries to take Tripoli, as his opponents in western Libya fear he is actively preparing to do.
"If he is getting signs of possible tribes or groups or militias who are really ready to switch to his side he might take the Russian encouragement and move," he said.
The GNA has been hamstrung by its failure to win endorsement from Haftar's allies, and its leaders have appeared increasingly isolated and dependent on Western backing since arriving in Tripoli in March.
At the start of January, one of its deputy prime ministers resigned, citing a failure to unite rival factions and tackle a collapse in living standards.
On Thursday, the head of a self-declared government sidelined by the GNA claimed he had regained control over several ministry buildings.
A general electricity blackout in western and southern Libya, on top of chronic security and economic problems, has pushed public frustration to new highs.
Haftar, a one-time ally of Gaddafi who returned from exile to join the uprising that toppled him, has largely shunned attempts to shore up the U.N.-mediated deal that created the GNA just over a year ago, accusing the government of aligning itself with some of the Islamist-leaning forces that took control of Tripoli in 2014.
In the east, his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has been tightening its grip, ousting Islamist-led opponents from most of Benghazi, appointing military governors, and extending its control over oil facilities.
As the LNA's profile has risen, Western envoys have begun to recognize its gains, while publicly insisting that the U.N. agreement is the only way to bring stability to Libya.
Hoping for more support for his anti-Islamist stance from incoming U.S. President Donald Trump, Haftar is positioning himself to talk to the new U.S. administration from a position of strength, said Mezran.
"He expects this political agreement to fail and in his mind he thinks the only solution will be a military takeover, and in the end he thinks the West will side with him," he said.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow and Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Giles Elgood)