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Beyond Ukraine: Russia's shifting strategy and secret mercenaries in Libya

Written by
Laura Hawkes
Last updated:
May 12, 2022
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For the fifth instalment of our Beyond Ukraine series, where we analyse the wider, international impact of the invasion of Ukraine, we have assessed the influence this conflict has had on the geopolitics and stability of Libya.

As Ukraine's invasion continues, and its impact is felt around the world, it is useful to determine what are the intersections with other conflict zones, such as Libya, and in saying so, how Russian interests and operatives there too are impacted.

Background

Although on the surface it seems Libya is more stable now than it has been since at least 2014, post-civil war Libya remains a complex mess, shackled to uncertainty as different factions, supported by foreign actors, remain at bitter odds with one another on how to advance the country forward.

A multitude of international actors continue to prop up the two camps which can be roughly split into the following: one supports the Tripoli-based, and UN-supported, government in the west, this was for a long time the GNA, though now has been consolidated into the Government of Unity. Members of this camp mainly include the UN, the US, Algeria, Turkey and Qatar (and also the UK and Italy). The second camp supports the eastern-based government, which has long been propped up by General Khalifa Haftar’s forces. This was known as the House of Representatives (HoR), and was supported by the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia and at times France.

To add another complication to the geopolitical dimension in Libya, it poses as a unique arena for longstanding, external geopolitics. These traditional blocs of support are different in Libya. For example, the US supports one camp while their historic allies Saudi, the UAE and France prop up the opposition camp; and Russia, Saudi, the UAE and France are backing up the same side.

Russian state aspirations in Libya

It has been the overarching aim of this piece to analyse Russia’s objectives in Libya and how the Ukrainian conflict has impacted this. As such, it is first prudent to understand the Russian aims and experiences in the North African nation and beyond.

Russia’s grand strategy falls into two separate, yet inter-related categories; first, the country wants to offer the world an alternative to the post-Soviet, US-dominated international order by restoring multipolarity to the international system. Second, Putin wants to ensure that Russia is truly recognised as a great power, equal to the US or China, and whose counsel is once again sought on global issues. Expansionism not only underpins Russia’s aggressive policy aims but also as a defensive mechanism as it has spent much of its recent history militarily, economically and diplomatically threatened. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia’s global ambitions have steadily increased, including exploiting the situation in unstable areas of the Middle East, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere.

Russia’s interests in Libya are fourfold: Back a viable ally in Libyan politics, resume stalled economic contracts, and on a geostrategic level, entrenchment in Libya helps Russia secure a passageway into sub-Saharan Africa and also a base on NATO’s Southern Flank. Additionally, Russia wants to use its presence in Libya to embarrass, pressure, and remind the West that it retains a global reach despite measuring short in traditional calculations of power. All of these objectives also feed into Russia’s wider regional and grand strategy.

Russian non-state influence in Libya

Where Arab nations rushed in to pursue their security interests, Russia has proceeded cautiously, preferring to remain in the shadows. Although a late comer to the conflict, it is perhaps now the largest international power involved in Libya.

As such, next, we assess the activities of Russian non-state actors in Libya. A core strategy in spreading its influence has been military involvement of some kind, either traditional military might as seen in Syria, or via the use of proxies against enemies abroad. This has been demonstrated in the context of Libya, private militaries such as the Wagner Group, who also serve to deliver arms to the eastern-based government and warlord General Khalifa Haftar.

During the Second Libyan Civil War the use of mercenaries increased, especially by Turkey, Russia and the UAE, making the geopolitical dynamic of the conflict further complex. The normalisation of mercenary use in Libya takes place in the context of major, state-level foreign interference. And in reality foreign mercenaries, militaries and arms being sent into Libya from different sides actually serve towards reciprocal radicalisation of the other side. If the crisis of foreign mercenaries in Libya is not soon settled, the future of its citizens will remain hostage to political and military forces from far beyond their borders.

The October 2020 ceasefire agreement included a clause on the withdrawal of all mercenaries and foreign fighters from Libya within three months. The deadline was ignored by Russia. A UN panel of experts reported in March 2021 that, notwithstanding the ceasefire agreement, there had been no indications of withdrawal by the Russian Wagner Group. It is only since Putin’s war on Ukraine, that Wagner contingents have been forced to remobilise to eastern Europe from places like Libya. Estimates are that around 1,000 Wagner fighters are now in Ukraine. These have come from across the Middle East and Africa, meaning at the very least 1,000 remain in Libya.

As mentioned in our ‘Beyond Ukraine: Putin’s chef serves the CAR on a silver platter’ article, Wagner mercenaries are increasingly becoming embedded within the security and cultural framework of the country. Wagner’s main financial sponsor is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-linked oligarch with a long history of being met with sanctions by Western intelligence agencies, and is a key actor in Wagner’s expansion in the CAR. Meanwhile, in the region, Prigozhin’s jet, the Gulfstream G550’s, route has been tracked to Nigeria and also routinely travelling to and from Benghazi in eastern Libya.

What is further interesting, is that during the past month Ukrainian officials have alleged that LNA’s General Haftar had agreed to covertly transfer LNA forces to Ukraine under the Wagner Group’s auspices. Though the LNA have denied this, photos have emerged online showing what appears to be Libyan fighters killed during fighting with Ukrainian forces.

Russian state influence in Libya

In the background, another tactic it has adopted is to get Libya to rely on it as a trading partner. As such, Russia has been making moves to regain oil contracts, restart its oil and gas companies production in Libya, for example Tatneft and Gazprom, though these companies are still not the biggest stakeholders.

These factors serve to highlight how the Ukrainian conflict is shaping Russia’s activities and strategy in Libya. We feel the drawdown of Wagner Group personnel in Libya (shifting them to Ukraine) may have a short term calming effect on US/Russian tensions.

However, it remains yet to be seen how Russian foreign policy will, if at all, change after its invasion of Ukraine. In the best case scenario for Libya, Russia sees its war in Ukraine as vastly unsuccessful and undergoes a period of pulling back from overseas expansion. As the US and European allies maintain a ‘maximum pressure’ policy towards sanctioning the country, Russia is forced to look inward and cannot provide investment and funding to Libyan projects.

However, there is the risk that once the situation in Ukraine reaches either a de-escalation, an end or a political settlement, Russia will seek the send its proxies back on their global missions. Laced with new anger from Ukraine, these groups could serve to make sure fragile states remain weak, such as Libya, so that the instability makes it hard for US and European interests to operate there also.

Even if the Libyan government does not seek to have relations with Russia, there is the potential that it gets in Turkey’s ear and still has a stake in Libya. This is possible, as Turkey is now a key player in the Libyan political dynamic.

Libya’s reaction to the Russian invasion

Across Africa, official state reactions to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine have varied dramatically, though with many against. In the case of Libya, a country as mentioned, with an informal Russian military presence their opposition to Russia’s actions have been clear. On 24 February, Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush’s condemned Russia while six days later Libyan Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha issued a statement saying the invasion was “a clear violation of international law and the sovereignty of a democratic Ukraine.” Further, on 07 April, Libya also voted to suspend Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Bashagha has a history of friction with the Russian state, exemplified in February 2020, as he urged the US to counter Russia by establishing a base in Libya and as interior minister at the time, he accused the Wagner Group of using chemical weapons in the country. In response, Russian media outlets accused Bashagha of “kidnapping” political operatives Maxim Shugaley and Samer Seifan, who were released in December 2020, and the Prigozhin-aligned Federal News Agency labelled Bashagha “the leader of the Libyan terrorists.”

However, after the Libyan elections initially intended for 23 December 2021 were postponed until June of this year, Russia has tried to curry favour with Bashagha in blatant attempt to entrench its sphere of influence in Libya. In February 2022, Russia became the first major power to endorse Bashagha’s takeover.  While in December 2021, Prigozhin praised Bashagha as the only western Libyan politician who could rein in militias around Tripoli and called him a “true patriot.”

Furthermore, the conflict in Ukraine is impacting Libyan food supplies and could further aggravate its economy on this basis. We note that in 2020, Libya was the tenth largest purchaser of Ukrainian wheat globally, though now war-instigated supply disruptions are forcing Libya to consider more expensive wheat imports from suppliers further afield in the US, Canada, Australia and Argentina.

To the future

However, more positively, it now seems that many regional actors are influenced by the Biden administration’s pragmatic approach and are adopting policies in favour of diplomacy rather than heated rivalry. It explicitly shows that the battle over Libya is not really fought on the ground, rather it is decided on externally and informed by geopolitical realities. Movements towards diplomacy and rapprochement between traditional adversaries do though have the prospect of pushing for unity.

In addition, it has become apparent how a stable Libya with a ceasefire followed by rival factions produces a very lucrative market. For example, in January 2022, the National Oil Corporation of Libya announced that the country’s lifeline oil and gas exports raised revenues of more than USD21.5 billion in 2021 - the highest level in five years.

Internal stakeholders as well as international actors are thus more inclined to seek out a stable government, with, preferably, their favoured candidate in power to swing contracts their way. And so Libyan political actors continue to court different international actors in talks of oil contracts – which is likely a problem born out of so many individuals claiming power in the country.

Even if, in a best-case scenario, Libyan elections run smoothly and the elected is upheld by all parties, international powers are likely to continue the longer term view of exerting soft power influence in Libya, particularly through investment.

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Laura Hawkes
Consultant, Threat Intelligence

Laura is a threat advisory and intelligence consultant, with extensive international experience working in risk management and intelligence-driven investigations for major organisations in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and LATAM. Laura is an Arabist and holds an MA in Terrorism and Security from King’s College London where she graduated top of her class.

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