The strong pushback against Gen. Khalifa Haftar's bid to take Tripoli endangers one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's risky bets. But even if Haftar loses, Putin will keep seeking similar adventurers in Libya and around the world to back. Russia's version of great power foreign policy these days is an exercise in the art of the possible: Take a gamble on those who are themselves willing to take a gamble on Moscow's aggressiveness and the murky economic benefits it can offer.

In the 1990s, an impoverished Russia turned inward and lost friends and clients throughout the developing world. Syria, ruled by the Assad family, and Algeria under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika were two of a few holdovers from the Soviet days, and Putin has gone out his way not to lose them.

But other strategically important allies in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America were lost to the United States and, lately China: Russia couldn't match the size and variety their investments. So the Kremlin went on a hunt for potential allies who might be interested in Russia's two-part package: On the one hand, military expertise and weapons, and on the other, the resources and know-how of Russia's civilian state-owned companies, mostly oil and gas ones but also the atomic power giant Rosatom and railroad monopoly Russian Railways.