When Russia welcomed a Libyan warlord aboard its aircraft carrier last year, it looked like the Kremlin was throwing its weight behind a rival to the United Nations-backed government in the North African country.
But by that time a Russian businessman was already one year along on a quieter Kremlin-backed mission to court the official administration in Tripoli.
The envoy’s pursuits have confuted expectations that Moscow could give Khalifa Haftar, armed forces chief of the second of Libya’s two rival governments, the kind of decisive military clout that turned the tide in Syria in favor of leader Bashar al-Assad.
Instead, Russia has staked a foothold in Libya’s future by cultivating allies on opposing sides of the conflict.
“We haven’t placed a bet on one player,” said Lev Dengov, the 34-year-old businessman who has spearheaded the Kremlin’s strategy in Libya. Leaders of the Tripoli government are now regular visitors to Russia, and Russian companies are exploring businesses opportunities in Libya.
Moscow’s efforts have extended its reach from the Middle East to North Africa and made it a central player in the resource-rich country.
While the U.S. is rival to Russia for influence in Syria, President Donald Trump said in April 2017 that he saw no role for the U.S. in Libya beyond combating Islamic State. Since then the U.S. has supported U.N. peace efforts and focused on counterterrorism, including airstrikes against militant groups.
Leaders of Libya’s warring political factions, including Fayez Sarraj, prime minister of the Tripoli government, and Mr. Haftar, who controls much of eastern Libya, set a path to elections later this year at a meeting in Paris on May 29. Moscow said it supports international mediation efforts.
Libya remains the main route for waves of undocumented migrants bound for Europe via the Mediterranean. Islamic State and other extremist groups that target Europe are ensconced in lawless areas throughout Libya.
Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala said in an interview that the Tripoli government wanted Russia to take on a bigger role. “We want a balance between the external players,” he said.
Mr. Dengov’s role in Libya highlights how businessmen sometimes work to further the Kremlin’s power while advancing their own interests, goals that are often intertwined.
The Soviet Union had close ties to longtime Libyan dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi, which Russian leader Vladimir Putin sought to rekindle on a visit in 2008 that brought billions of dollars in arms, oil and rail contracts.
Mr. Dengov said he began visiting Libya that year. Through various business projects he built relations with officials in Gadhafi’s administration, some of whom are now serving in rival governments, he said.
During the uprising in 2011 that took down the regime, Russia initially didn’t object to airstrikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against Gadhafi’s forces. But after Gadhafi was captured and killed, Mr. Putin accused the U.S. and its allies of overstepping their mandate.
Mr. Haftar, a Soviet-trained former commander in Gadhafi’s military, had turned against the Libyan ruler and lived for two decades in exile in the U.S. before joining the uprising.
In 2014, he led a military campaign that he said was aimed at ridding the country of terrorists, bringing together disparate militias to take control of a swath of eastern Libya, including most of the country’s main oil-exporting ports.
At the end of that year, Mr. Dengov was made head of a diplomatic outreach to Libya under the supervision of the Russian Foreign Ministry and Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya in southern Russia.
Mr. Kadyrov, an ally of Mr. Putin, is a central figure in Russia’s efforts in the Middle East, where he has myriad contacts and significant sway, Mr. Dengov said.
After Mr. Dengov arranged for a delegation led by Mr. Haftar’s son to visit Russia in 2015, Moscow started providing support. Ignoring protests from Tripoli, Russia printed Libyan currency in 2016 for the government allied with Mr. Haftar. As well as his trip on the warship, Mr. Haftar visited Moscow in 2016 and 2017.
A U.S. official said Russia had furnished Mr. Haftar’s forces with weapons and military advisers. Russia has denied this, saying it abides by a U.N. arms embargo. A spokesman for Mr. Haftar didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The Russian government sought to build international support for Mr. Haftar, including in the Trump administration. He has gained backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—though both endorsed the plan to hold national elections.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dengov was working in Tripoli with a lower profile. One of his first tasks was to wrangle the release of 11 Russian sailors held over alleged oil smuggling. He succeeded, bringing them out in three groups in 2015 and 2016.
To build trust, Mr. Dengov said, he also worked to dispel the image of Russia as siding with Mr. Haftar. “When we came to Tripoli, they said: ‘You are with Haftar,’” he said. “We offered them friendship.”
“The Russians realized they have to diversify their contacts,” said Frederic Wehrey, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They sense an opportunity to play the role of a power broker.”
Russia’s reputation in Tripoli has been burnished, Mr. Dengov said, by the success of Mr. Putin’s military backing for Mr. Assad in Syria, which Moscow portrays as support for a legitimate government.
“People see that Russia is confident in the steps it takes. In Libya, they saw that our leader was a person who could take autonomous decisions,” said Mr. Dengov.
Mr. Dengov heads the Russian-Libyan Trade House, formed in 2017 by businessmen from the two countries to increase economic links. Russia is interested in reviving old deals made under Mr. Gadhafi, including in oil exploration and the construction of a railway line, and exploring new areas, such as agriculture and information technology, he said.
Mr. Dengov uses his contacts to help Russian companies establish connections in Libya and arranging security for visiting executives.
“We can use business to build up relations,” he said.
Russian state oil giant PAO Rosneft began purchasing crude from Libya’s state oil firm last year.
A delegation of Libyan security-service officials came to Moscow to meet Russian counterparts in April, Mr. Dengov said. Mr. Siala, the foreign minister, visited Russia twice in May, most recently for an economic forum in St. Petersburg where he appeared on a panel with Mr. Dengov and encouraged Russian companies to invest.
Mr. Siala didn’t indicate concern about Russia’s relations with Mr. Haftar. “Anyhow we are happy now that Russia is giving the same footing of importance for all the Libyans and all the political players,” he said in the interview.
Mr. Dengov is also making efforts to extend Tripoli’s influence in Libya’s oil-rich south by brokering peace at a local level. In November, he said, he met with tribes in the town of Ubari in the lawless region and persuaded them to align with Mr. Sarraj’s government in return for recognition of their municipal government.
On the panel in St. Petersburg, Mr. Dengov described efforts to convince disparate local groups of the value of having a Russian company invest in an oilfield, without giving further details.
“Political and economic links are inseparable,” he said.