TRIPOLI — Early last spring, just before a planned American-backed peace conference between warring factions in Libya, the aspiring Libyan strongman Khalifa Hifter arranged a phone call with John R. Bolton, then the White House national security adviser.
Mr. Hifter did not want to talk peace.
A former Libyan Army general and onetime C.I.A. client, Mr. Hifter wanted a White House blessing for a surprise attack to seize Tripoli, the capital, before the peace talks commenced.
Mr. Bolton did not say no.
The attack, launched last April 4, backfired badly. Mr. Hifter failed to capture Tripoli, overextended his forces and restarted a civil war — killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands more. The fighting has cut off the flow of Libyan oil, injected new volatility into the region and severely diminished Washington’s influence.
But one apparent winner has emerged: the Kremlin. Russia has operated with cold-eyed cynicism, taking advantage of three years of muddled messages from the Trump administration to become a critical kingmaker in Libya, a geopolitical prize with vast energy reserves and a strategic location on the Mediterranean.
Mr. Bolton’s call with Mr. Hifter — described by a former senior administration official as well as three Western diplomats briefed by both Mr. Hifter and American officials — appears to have played into the Russian machinations.
Days before the call, private Russian operatives in Libya reported to Moscow that Mr. Hifter was a flawed and outmatched military leader sure to fail if he ever tried to conquer the capital, according to secret Russian documents seized in Tripoli and viewed by The New York Times. The operatives saw opportunity in his weakness and suggested that Russia could win leverage over Mr. Hifter if it sent mercenaries to bolster his so-called Libyan National Army.
“Russia will maintain a loyal and strong ally in the structure of the LNA,” the operatives argued, “which Hifter will have to contend with.”
Washington’s inconsistent position on Libya — officially supporting the peace process even as the White House has signaled that President Trump favors Mr. Hifter — has played a major role in prolonging the chaos. The absence of a strong American policy has opened the door to interference from competing American partners, including Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Yet it is Russia that is now best positioned to dominate Libya.
An arm of the Kremlin controls dozens of social media accounts promoting Mr. Hifter and other favored clients, including the eldest son of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s former dictator, according to the operatives’ report. The same Kremlin operation has acquired an ownership stake in a pro-Qaddafi Libyan satellite network and advised a pro-Hifter network as well, the operatives wrote.
At the same time, the Russian military has worked behind the scenes to surround Mr. Hifter with many of its old partners from the Qaddafi-era security forces, encouraging Qaddafi henchmen to return from exile. The Kremlin also has built ties to a potential governing party-in-waiting, the documents show.
And the Kremlin followed the operatives’ prescient advice. When Mr. Hifter’s assault stalled, Moscow propped up his sagging advance with thousands of trained mercenaries who continue to operate in Libya.
Representatives for the White House and Mr. Bolton declined to comment.
But alarmed American lawmakers have begun asking how the White House appears to have ended up backing the same side as Moscow.
During a recent Senate hearing on Libya, lawmakers wondered how the United States could fault Russia for propping up a client when the White House appeared to like him as well. The president sounded “inclined to support Hifter” even as the State Department seemed to oppose him, said Senator Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican.
“Is there consistency?” Mr. Romney asked.
“I can say unequivocally,” David Schenker, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, insisted with exasperation, “We do not support the Hifter offensive.”
Courting the President
A campaign to get the White House behind Mr. Hifter started almost as soon as Mr. Trump was elected.
Mr. Hifter’s most important patron, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, pitched Mr. Hifter to members of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy team at a secret meeting in New York in December 2016, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, whom Mr. Trump has jokingly called “my favorite dictator,” also took up the Hifter cause five months later when he visited the White House.
“Hifter was a core talking point in every meeting with the Egyptians and Emiratis,” said Andrew Miller, a member of the National Security Council staff at the beginning of the Trump administration and now a researcher at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit.
Libya had foundered in chaos since a NATO air campaign helped oust Colonel Qaddafi during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Extortionist militias, militant extremists and migrant traffickers ran amok as the country was divided into fiefs. Officially, the United States recognized only the United Nations-sponsored provisional government in Tripoli.
But Crown Prince Mohammed and Mr. el-Sisi told Mr. Trump that the provisional government was hopelessly weak and riddled with Islamists. They argued that only Mr. Hifter could prevent Islamists from taking power in Tripoli, which the Arab leaders said would create a domino effect across the region, according to two former senior administration officials.
Mr. Hifter had vowed since 2014 to eradicate political Islam and take power as Libya’s new military ruler. Yet he had quietly formed an alliance with a rival faction of extremists, Saudi-style ultraconservatives known as Salafis.
As they lobbied Mr. Trump, Crown Prince Mohammed and Mr. el-Sisi overlooked that contradiction. They were also simultaneously working closely with Russia. Egypt had opened a secret Russian base to supply Mr. Hifter’s forces, to the alarm of Western officials worried about Moscow’s expanding influence.
The two Arab leaders, though, found a sympathetic ear in Mr. Bolton, who became national security adviser in the spring of 2018 and had previously led a far-right think tank known for sweeping attacks on political Islam.
The Bolton-Hifter phone call last spring came at a critical moment. Even as the peace talks were approaching, Mr. Hifter had moved his forces into a strategic oasis town south of Tripoli and was poised for a surprise attack.
When Mr. Hifter asked for consent, Mr. Bolton’s answer was “a yellow light,” not a green or a red one, the former senior administration official said. Yet three Western diplomats briefed on the call by both Mr. Hifter and senior American officials described Mr. Bolton as less equivocal: If you are going to attack, do it quickly, he told Mr. Hifter, according to all three diplomats.
Mr. Hifter counted that as an explicit assent, all three diplomats said.
The April 4 attack stunned the world. The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, had just landed in Tripoli for the peace talks. He urged Mr. Hifter to pull back, a message endorsed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. American military forces hurriedly left the city.
But as the fighting was underway, Mr. Hifter’s powerful allies were lobbying Mr. Trump to show his support, White House officials said. Mr. el-Sisi pressed the president in person last year on April 9, and Crown Prince Mohammed over the phone on April 18.
The next day, the White House said in a statement that the president had called Mr. Hifter to commend his “significant role in fighting terrorism.” A day after the call, Mr. Hifter’s forces began shelling civilian neighborhoods of Tripoli.
“It seemed as if the Americans were switching sides in a way that didn’t make sense,” said Peter Millett, the British ambassador to Libya until 2018, noting that the Tripoli government had been the main Libyan partner to the United States military in counterterrorism.
“There was confusion and massive surprise in the international community,” he said.
Col. Ahmed Mismari, a spokesman for Mr. Hifter, declined to comment on the call with Mr. Bolton but said the Libyan commander appreciated the president’s support.
Even before the assault on Tripoli began, the Russians had concluded it would be a disaster for Mr. Hifter.
The Russian operatives in Libya worked for an obscure research center linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Prigozhin is also described by American officials as the leader of a Kremlin-linked private security company, the Wagner Group. Their teams of mercenaries have overseen Russian efforts to meddle in the politics of Ukraine, Syria and several African countries.
The leader of the Libyan team, Maxim Shugaley, had been identified in news reports in 2018 trying to pay bribes and spread disinformation to turn elections in Madagascar. Tipped off by American intelligence, according to a person involved, a militia allied with the Tripoli provisional government eventually detained Mr. Shugaley and his interpreter. A third operative eluded capture, Libyan officials said.
After detaining Mr. Shugaley, the security agents found a report in his hotel room that his team had sent to Moscow in March of last year, shortly before the Hifter-Bolton call. Dossier, a London research center critical of Mr. Putin, obtained a copy of the seized report and provided portions to The New York Times. Senior Libyan officials authenticated the text independently.
For several years, Russia had provided military supplies to Mr. Hifter and printed millions of dollars in newly minted Libyan currency for him to distribute.
But the secret report showed that the operatives were much more skeptical of Mr. Hifter than were the Arab rulers advising the White House.
Mr. Hifter, now 76, had recurring health problems. He won few military victories and had instead gained territory by “buying off local tribal groups for the right to place the flag,” so that he could “raise his significance in the eyes of internal and external players,” the report stated.
Not only did the operatives conclude that any advance on Tripoli was almost certain to fail, as did an offensive in 2014, they also warned that Mr. Hifter was stubborn and had become increasingly “difficult” to his Russian advisers.
“Hifter is using Russian help to increase his significance,” the operatives wrote, but “there is a serious basis to suggest that in the event of his military victory, Hifter will not be loyal to Russian interests.”
The operatives recommended the Kremlin hedge its bets on Mr. Hifter by allying with Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the eldest son of the former dictator. The operatives said their “company” had acquired a stake in a pro-Qaddafi satellite network and revitalized its broadcasts.
A longtime partner to Russia under his father, Mr. Qaddafi, now 47, was imprisoned in Libya in 2011 before somehow regaining his freedom. Now he is at large and plotting a comeback, according to Libyans close to him and Western diplomats familiar with intelligence reports on his movements.
But the Russians also identified a new opening with Mr. Hifter: The Kremlin should insert paid mercenaries loyal to Russia into his faltering military. Sudanese paramilitary forces were ready to do the job, the operatives insisted, and could give Moscow crucial leverage.
The contingents of mercenaries from the Wagner Group began arriving via Sudan last September, according to Western diplomats tracking their movements.
“That was the big game changer,” Ambassador Richard Norland, the American envoy to Libya, said at a recent briefing. “It’s clear the Russians see strategic advantage now in Libya — low risk and high gain.”
To deepen its influence, the Kremlin has also organized secret meetings in Moscow between Mr. Hifter’s supporters and former officers in the Qaddafi-era military and security services, according to Western diplomats and other analysts who have spoken to Libyan participants.
Musa Ibrahim, a former Qaddafi spokesman, declined to comment on specific meetings in Moscow but acknowledged that Russia had been “bringing together” the Hifter and Qaddafi officers, especially since the assault on Tripoli.
This month, on the anniversary of Mr. Hifter’s attack, the United Nations urged a halt to the fighting to respond to the coronavirus pandemic now spreading in Libya.
But Mr. Hifter has continued shelling Tripoli, even targeting a major hospital. And the Russian mercenaries have given Russia a de facto veto over any end to the conflict.
“This has been Russia’s dream since World War II,” said Fathi Bashagha, the interior minister of the Tripoli government, quoting Winston Churchill’s wartime statement that Moscow saw Libya as the “soft underbelly” of Europe.
“To get Russian feet on Libyan soil.”