The Russian Factor in Libya

Following the recapture of Al-Watiya airbase in Libya by Government of National Accord (GNA) forces, there has been lot of noise around alleged Russian moves across the region over the last few days. The reports seem to be conflicting, as the initial accounts of Russian fighter jets being stationed in the country ready to support Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces have been followed by indications of a massive exodus of Russian-affiliated fighters from the country.

After an overview of the Russian strategy in Libya during the previous years, we will assess the latest in-country developments and will try to calculate Moscow’s potential upcoming moves on the Libyan front.

Russia’s Footprint in Libya

Back in 2017 there were already various reports of Russian forces in Libya backing Haftar. The Kremlin allegedly deployed special forces personnel into Libya at that time that could assist mainly with training and consultancy services rather than being directly involved in battle. Moscow has denied those claims and has been following this very approach of denial ever since.

Long-term Russian long-term planning is to expand its international geopolitical standing and it is worth comparing the attitude of the Kremlin towards Syria and Libya. Since 2015, President Vladimir Putin has been openly and essentially supporting the Bashar al Assad regime, through political, financial and military means. Russian intervention in support of the Damascus’ legitimate government has been straightforward since the beginning. On the other hand, Libya has been a completely different case, even though the Russian footprint is apparent in the country. The Kremlin has kept denying any official military assistance to Haftar’s forces, while any alleged Russian presence in Libya is attributed to individual groups which are supposedly not backed by the State authorities.

This approach can be justified considering that in the case of Syria, the Kremlin is backing the legitimate authority of the country against a mixture of rebel factions, while in Libya it seems to be vice versa. Haftar has been characterized as a renegade General, while the GNA is the only authority that is officially recognized by international institutions like the UN. Looking further into the Russian involvement in Libya, the Kremlin has been trying to expand its role in the country through diplomatic channels. Moscow has adopted a positive approach towards peace negotiations, and has supported any initiatives that could limit the scope of the conflict, backing several cease-fire deals. By backing Haftar’s objectives, Moscow is trying to consolidate its power in the country looking forward, towards the time that the conflict will be over and Libya will become a functioning state again. In addition to the diplomatic means, Russia has also reportedly provided vast financial aid to Haftar, even though there have been rumors about counterfeit notes being provided by Moscow.

Russia’s Military Role in Libya

Moving to the military side of things, it seems that this has been the most crucial part of Russian involvement in Libya. As noted above, the Kremlin has never confirmed direct participation of ground forces in the Libyan front, however numerous reports around the infamous Wagner Group have been circulating since last year. According to Reuters, a recent UN Security Council report suggests that there might be up to 1,200 Russian-affiliated mercenaries, operating in Libya. Sources also indicate that Russia is providing logistical support and military equipment, such as armoured vehicles, heavy weapons, drones and ammunition. Still it should be noted here, that those allegations cannot be confirmed, considering that even the Russian-made Pantsir-S1 air-defense systems, that have been recently captured in Al-Watiya airbase, have been probably provided by the UAE. Also the shadow nature of the so-called Wagner Group and the total lack of accurate information around it as an established, registered entity, enable President Putin to refute any ties to the Russian “mercenary” presence in the Libyan front.

Fighter Jet Deployment and the Surprising Mercenary Exodus

The latest gains and advances of GNA forces have created an uncertain context on what is to follow in the Libyan front. The Turkish engagement has been critical to the change of balance, that we have seen in the last few months, with LNA campaign to seize Tripoli facing a stalemate, and GNA army recapturing strategic points. Moscow’s moves have attracted extended media attention, triggering conflicting interpretations of Russia’s decisions. On May 21, there have been several articles about the alleged transfer of at least six MiG-29, escorted by two Su-24, to Al Jufra airbase approximately 220 km south of Sirte. This move has caused speculation about the escalation of the in-country violence, due to the presence of the Russian jet fighters; in fact, the transfer of the jets has prompted many analysts to speculate that an aggressive operation to retaliate for the loss of Al-Watiya — backed by the upgraded air force presence — might be in the making.

Since May 25, new reports are circulating across international media, advising that a massive number of the so-called Russian mercenaries are pulling out of Libya. This development has been interpreted by many as a Russian attempt to gradually disengage from the Libyan front, as the balance has been shifting against Haftar; however, this does not seem to be the case. Not only the removal of ground forces seems inconsistent with the earlier deployment of the fighter jets, but also the Kremlin has never showed any intentions to be backing down from Libya. To the contrary a strong Russian presence in the Libyan theater of operations and the postwar Libyan state is vital to the Russian foreign policy and strategy outlined in the beginning of the article.

The latest press release by the US African Command (AFRICOM) supports this conclusion: AFRICOM assessed that Russia is in the middle of a major operation to support Haftar via the establishment of long-range A2AD systems in the Libyan coast, which is among the strategic objectives of Moscow. In this context, if the reports around the Russian-affiliated mercenaries movements are accurate, then we are probably talking about a replacement of the force rather than a withdrawal.