The Art of Denial – Russia’s Mercenaries in Libya

  • Jean-Patrick Clancy
  • 8.6.2020 11:29

Mercenary activities remain to this day a banned practice in Russia. This may come to many as a surprise as Russian paramilitary organisations such as the infamous Wagner Group have increasingly been in the spotlight following their involvement in Ukraine. Since then, Russian mercenaries have been involved in many conflict theatres and have allowed the Kremlin under some circumstances to enact low cost, low risk, high yield foreign policy and geostrategic choices.

In early May, a leaked UN document reported the presence of mercenaries from the Wagner Group in Libya, a Russian paramilitary organisation which is suspected of having close ties to President Vladimir Putin. The experts’ report revealed that the Wagner Group has not only provided logistical support but has also been involved in active combat missions since October 2018.

The presence of between 800 and 1,200, possibly more, mercenaries sent by Moscow not only acts as a force multiplier on behalf of General Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army but will inherently contribute towards increasing Russia’s growing influence in the oil-rich region and boost its control over the Eastern Mediterranean.

Its involvement in Libya is evocative of Moscow’s intervention in Syria and the backing of authoritarian president Bashar al-Assad by preventing his brutal regime from collapsing.

Yet, the very nature of this paramilitary organisation allows for plausible deniability, a strategy which Moscow has relied upon during its operations in Ukraine as well as in some Middle Eastern and African countries before including Libya in its portfolio.

 

Russia’s Ambitions and Interest in Libya

One might attribute Russia’s involvement in the Libyan civil war as a result of the country’s abundant oil reserves. Libya possesses Africa’s largest oil reserves but has remained in a political turmoil and has been ungovernable since the collapse of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime in 2011.

Indeed, Russia does have energy related interests in Libya but there is more to this than meets the eye. Libya is a major oil supplier to Europe, and some European companies – BP, Eni, Total - have heavily invested in the oil and gas sector. Yet, European investments ultimately depend on the stability and political situation of the country and stability in which Moscow can play a role.

One could further surmise that this interference in the current civil war could have less to do with profiting from the country’s own abundance in natural resources, but more with acquiring a crucial leverage over Europe on its imports of Libyan resources.

At a regional level, Russia’s intervention could help Moscow consolidate its relationship with other countries in the region – including Gulf States – in pursuit of its own energy, military, industrial and economic interests.

Furthermore, Russia is aiming to become a leading geopolitical actor in the Middle East and North Africa by promoting the image of credibility and reliability for current and future MENA partners. By doing so, President Putin is gradually filling the void left by both the US and Europe’s absenteeism and their slow response in some conflicts as a result of the US’s perceived disinterest in the region and the EU’s lack of foreign policy and suitable diplomatic measures.

Russia is also seeking to reassert its role in the Mediterranean and expand Moscow’s manoeuvring space in global politics. Its current and only naval base in Tartus (Syria) has enabled it to reinforce its East Mediterranean foothold. A victory for Haftar and the LNA could potentially lead to a permanent Russian presence in Libya allowing Moscow to gain further military access to the Mediterranean Sea and to airspace over Southern Europe and North Africa.

Libya is therefore an opportunity for Russia to reassert itself in a region where it once had a foothold but which was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is also a chance for Moscow to establish a Russian presence in Europe’s – and ultimately NATO’s - Mediterranean flank, while acting as a gateway for future Russian investments in Africa.

 

Reliance on a Privatised Military

Direct Russian military intervention remains highly unlikely as it would be logistically challenging and most importantly, it could have a detrimental impact on its attempt to distance itself from the perception by many of its opponents that it is a pariah state. Military intervention could also be viewed negatively by the Russian people who have increasingly voiced distrust towards Putin and his Moscow acolytes in recent years.

Instead, Moscow is relying on Private Military Contractors (PMCs) that have grown to become an indispensable Russian instrument of foreign policy and that are guided by Moscow’s geopolitical aspirations and personal economic interests. However, it is worth noting that the activities of Russian PMCs and their deployment have always remained in accordance with Russia’s foreign policy - Ukraine, Venezuela, CAR, Libya, Syria, Madagascar, Sudan - rather than self interest only.

Not only does outsourcing allow Moscow to discreetly and rapidly deploy troops in a conflict zone without fearing a backlash at home for exposing the military to unnecessary danger and international outrage, but most importantly it allows Moscow to test its geostrategic goals by relying on a covert and privatised military. A failure to achieve short-term goals would simply lead to the retreat of mercenaries and to Russia avoiding a costly intervention.

Russian PMCs, among them Wagner Group being the most prominent, have bolstered Russian interest by taking part in direct combat duties and by providing the Kremlin with the cover of plausible deniability thus minimising official Russian involvement in the conflict. This not only reduces geopolitical and security risks for the Kremlin but also allows it to maintain its position of strength both abroad and at home.

Some have questioned the degree of command th&t Moscow exercises over Wagner Group which is currently deployed in Libya, and globally where Russia has economic, security and geostrategic interests.

Yet, evidence emerged in late 2018 of Wagner Group’s collaboration with Moscow in connection to Libya. Media Footage showed the alleged head of the organisation, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch nicknamed “Putin’s chef” – taking part in a high-level meeting between Russian defence officials including Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia’s Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov, and a Libyan military delegation which included General Haftar.



Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin (bald; wearing a dark suit) at high-level military talks with General Haftar in Moscow on November 7, 2018. Collage created by author. 

 

This meeting in Moscow attracted media’s attention as there had been parallel reports of Wagner Group mercenaries being deployed in Libya and taking part in fighting to support of LNA forces.

These reports and recent events not only tend to confirm the paramilitary organisation’s involvement in the Libyan civil war but also suggest it has closer ties to Moscow than the Kremlin wants to admit.

 

Tracking Wagner Group’s Retreat

The recent publicised retreat of alleged Wagner Group mercenaries from the south of Tripoli might provide a further glimpse into the organisation’s collaboration with Moscow with regards to Libya.

On May 18th, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj announced that GNA forces had, following a month-long bloody battle, managed to capture the strategically important al-Watiya air base from fighters loyal to the LNA. This capture is a massive blow for LNA forces as it had over the years become Haftar’s stronghold in the West of Libya. The loss of the military installation followed by the capture of surrounding towns by GNA backed forces represents a setback in Haftar’s yearlong offensive to capture Tripoli thereby possibly affecting the outcome of his military operations in the West in the weeks or months to come.

The loss of the airbase has led to the retreat of LNA forces, amongst them, hundreds, if not thousands, of mercenaries from the infamous Wagner Group. From May 23, there had been various online accounts of Russian speaking mercenaries withdrawing from key LNA held cities including Tarhuna, and heading south towards the city of Bani Walid.

Video Footage emerged on a telegram channel seemingly showing a convoy of many dozens of vehicles heading away from Tripoli. While the convoy is nearly exclusively made up of armed pickups and civilian vehicles, a few are worth mentioning: a Russian produced pantsir-S1 system mounted on the chassis of a Kamaz-6560, several Russian produced GAZ-2975 Tigr, and a handful of US produced M1248 Caiman (possibly donated by the UAE).




The convoy on its way to Bani Walid. Source: Video shared on a Russian mercenary telegram channel. Image created by author.

 

An exact geographic location of the convoy could not be determined, however the convoy was reportedly heading southbound from Tarhuna towards the city of Bani Walid using a desert single lane asphalt road.

The same day, various social media accounts possibly belonging to locals and pro-GNA fighters showed images and video footage of a similar, possibly identical, convoy entering the city of Bani Walid.

Comparison of accessible footage and images suggests that the convoy had entered the city of Bani Walid from the North and had most probably used the route highlighted above.

A collection of data has helped to pinpoint the exact geolocation of convoy elements entering the city (31° 44' 46.842" - 14° 0' 56.1306") as well as the location of a similar Pantsir-S1 system on the chassis of a Kamaz-6560 heading South en route towards the airport (31° 44' 15.9216" - 14° 0' 48.603").




The Route used by the convoy through the city of Bani Walid to the airport. Image created by author.

 

Finally, local and later international media reported on May 24 the evacuation by plane of Wagner Group mercenaries. While accounts differ as to the number of planes involved and the exact nature of the operation, footage shared online featured some important details: firstly, a Russian made Pantsir-S1 system on the chassis of a Kamaz-6560 is seen operational near the tarmac of the airport. This could possibly be the same one observed in the convoy and later entering the city of Bani Walid

Secondly, despite its low quality, a careful look at the footage shows one M1248 Caiman on the right of the aircraft, a vehicle which had been observed in the convoy as well.

The plane featured in this particular footage, an Antonov AN-32B belongs to a Tajik based company “Asia Sky Lines” (identification possible as a result of its partly hidden registration EY-332). While the plane had been spotted in South Sudan in 2017 and in Malaysia as late as March 2020, little is known about its operator Asia Sky Lines which has been involved in dubious transactions with Iran Air in early 2019 despite US sanctions and now seems to be leasing one of its aircrafts to a party involved in the Libyan civil war.

 

The Bani Walid Airport that Wagner Group mercenaries used for evacuation. The Antonov AN-32B is in the picture on the left. Image created by author.

 

The destination of the mercenaries remains unverifiable, but there have been reports of the aircrafts heading for the Al-Jufra air base, the same military base which came into the spotlight after US Africa Command accused Russia of secretly sending unmarked MIG-29 fighter jets and SU-24 fighter bombers to Al-Jufra which acts as the LNA’s main forward airfield in its campaign to take Tripoli.

 

In Conclusion…

Moscow officially stated on April 12 that “there is not a single Russian serviceman in the area of the military conflict in Libya” and that it had “not received any reliable data on any Russian nationals who participated in the hostilities”. However, a careful analysis of events and of OSINT & GEOINT material seems to contradict Russia’s official stance and instead suggests some extent of Russian military – both direct and indirect - involvement in the Libyan crisis.

Besides the mercenaries’ obvious use of Russian produced armoured vehicles and of complex anti-aircraft systems (different in terms of chassis from the UAE version captured or destroyed around Tripoli) that require some degree of Russian military expertise, the fact that an entire column of mercenaries could safely retreat from Greater Tripoli and head south to Bani Walid in open desert would under normal circumstances sound unlikely.

Additionally, the suspension of Turkish air strikes on GNA’s adversaries during the withdrawal of Russian mercenaries in a conflict which has been dubbed as the “largest drone war in the world” seems to suggest a Syrian-like understanding between Turkey and the Russian Government. Another reason for the safe withdrawal of Wagner Group mercenaries could be a result of the deployment of Russian jets a few days prior to the Al-Jufra airbase which may now serve as a deterrent against any future GNA attempts to advance beyond its current area of control.

The supply of unmarked jets via Syria, which Moscow describes as “Soviet, not Russian”, further illustrates Russia’s fantastic attempts at hiding the truth behind the extent of its involvement in the civil war while blatantly participating in violations of the 2011 UN Arms Embargo.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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