Troubled by Moscow’s rising influence in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, the United States has carried out military exercises with North African states Tunisia and Morocco in a show of strength against Russia.
Details of the Airforce Drills
The September 7 exercise with Tunisia included two nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and two Tunisian F-5s. The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) said the training mission aimed to enhance interoperability and collective responsiveness “to ensure security and stability prevails within the African continent”.
A day earlier, the B-52s joined four Moroccan F-16s in another training mission to intercept the USS Roosevelt, which was simulating a hostile vessel in the southern Mediterranean Sea.
“The Security and Stability of the African Continent Remains a Vital US Interest”
Maj. Gen. Joel Tyler, US Africa Command Director of Operations, said the exercises showed “the strategic reach of our joint force and our collective commitment to preventing malign influence in Africa”. Tyler pointed out that “The security and stability of the African continent remains a vital US interest.”
Tunisia also saw talks between senior officials and AFRICOM commander, Gen. Stephen Townsend, who visited the North African country on September 9. A statement released after the talks said Townsend’s discussions with Tunisian officials focused on shared concerns over regional stability and the desire to degrade violent extremist organizations.
“Tunisia is a critical partner to the United States and a major non-NATO ally. We share mutual security concerns, common threats and a commitment to enhancing regional security and stability,” Townsend said in the statement.
Russia’s Foothold in Libya
Tunisia is a next-door neighbor to war-torn Libya, where mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group are fighting alongside forces of eastern warlord Khalifa Haftar against the UN-recognized, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).
Haftar is backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, while the GNA is supported by Turkey, whose military support has helped turn the tide of the war in the GNA favor and forced Haftar’s forces to end their year-long offensive on Tripoli and to retreat to the oil-rich city of Sirte.
The US military exercises with Tunisia and Morocco reflect the rising concerns in Washington over the Russian attempts to gain a foothold in war-torn Libya.
In July, AFRICOM accused Russia of supplying Wagner mercenaries with fighter aircraft, military armored vehicles and air defense systems. “Russia continues to play an unhelpful role in Libya by delivering supplies and equipment to the Wagner group,” US Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Bradford Gering, AFRICOM director of operations, said in a statement. “Imagery continues to unmask their consistent denials.”
The accusation came almost two months after AFRICOM said in May that Russia had sent at least 14 MiG-29 fighter planes to Libya via Syria, where they were painted to camouflage their Russian origin.
US-European Fears of Russian Meddling
Washington fears that Moscow is attempting to control Libya’s oil wealth and secure major energy deals by consolidating Haftar’s role in eastern Libya. US officials believe that Russia is seeking to compensate its losses in Libya following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Gaddafi’s ouster and death following a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 cost Moscow billions in contracts that had been signed with his regime.
The Americans and Europeans also fear that the Russian support to Haftar could earn Moscow military bases on Libya’s coast and consequently threaten Europe’s southern flank.
In May, Gen. Jeff Harrigian, the head of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa, warned that Russia could seize bases on Libya’s coast, allowing them to deploy air defense batteries that could prevent American overflights. “If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank,” Harrigian said.
In a show of force against emboldened Russia, the US dispatched six B-52 Stratofortresses last month to join aircraft from 20 allied nations to fly over all NATO countries in an exercise dubbed “Allied Sky”. The training came amid tensions between NATO members Greece and Turkey over gas exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean, which Moscow sees as an area of competition with the US and Europe.
“Training events like this help ensure that we fulfill our core mission: to deter aggression, prevent conflict and preserve peace,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.
Russia to Hold Live-Fire Drills in Mediterranean
In response, Russia, as announced by Turkey, will hold live-fire naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean between September 8-22 and September 17-25 in areas where Turkish seismic research vessels are operating.
The Russians see an ample opportunity to boost their influence in the eastern Mediterranean, given that Moscow now has access to a naval base in Tartus on the Mediterranean coast in Syria. This base can accommodate 11 warships and perform operational capabilities throughout the Mediterranean. Moscow also operates the Khmeimim airbase in the Syrian city of Latakia.
Moscow sees its military support to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria as a golden chance to increase pressure on Turkey and the EU, who both oppose the Assad regime. Russia also uses its military involvement in Syria as leverage in its relations with the EU to convince the Europeans to increase funding to rebuild war-torn Syria and to stop irregular migration and other effects of the war.
In all, the Russians seek to use their presence in Libya and the Mediterranean to undermine US military capabilities, including through the supply of military equipment and energy cooperation with Turkey, and to weaken NATO, which it perceives as the most important threat to its security.