US Africa Command said Russia has introduced fighter aircraft to Libya to “tip the scales” in the country’s civil war, a move the command characterized as a step toward a possible security threat to NATO.
Reports first emerged last week that a Russian MiG-29 had been spotted at al-Jufrah airbase in western Libya. Satellite imagery also led to speculation that Russian Su-24s were being stored in hangars at al-Khadim airbase in the country’s east.
AFRICOM said in a press release that Russia delivered the aircraft via Syria, where they were painted “to camouflage their Russian origin.” The command said the jets will likely be flown by Russian pilots providing air support to Wagner paramilitary fighters and Khalifa Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in his stalled campaign against the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya,” AFRICOM commander US Army Gen. Stephen Townsend said in Tuesday’s statement.
Townsend likened the move to Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war, which has ensured the Kremlin’s military position on the Mediterranean.
Russia’s Wagner paramilitary fighters have backed Hifter’s offensive against Tripoli, seat of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), with mixed results.
Townsend previously told Congress in January that if Russia obtains bases in Libya and introduces long-range weapons systems, it would pose a security risk to NATO, limiting the alliance’s access to its southern flank.
Gen. Jeff Harrigan, commander of US air forces in Europe and Africa, called the introduction of anti access/area denial systems Russia’s “next logical step” in Libya.
Representatives of both the UN-backed GNA and Hifter's rival LNA said last week that Russian aircraft had been introduced to the conflict on Hifter’s side.
Head of Hifter’s air force Saqr al-Jaroushi warned on Thursday of “the largest aerial campaign in Libyan history” and declared Turkey-backed forces in Libya to be legitimate targets.
Russia’s move may encourage a further response from Turkey, which earlier this year introduced Syrian mercenary fighters into the conflict in support of the GNA, in what Townsend called a “serious escalation.”
Jaroushi’s announcement came after GNA forces captured the LNA’s Watiya airbase, some 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli, marking the worst setback for Hifter’s forces since launching their offensive against the western capital in April last year.
The GNA also claimed to have captured a Russian-made Pantsir mobile air-defense system after allegedly destroying two others.
Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s senior crisis adviser for arms and military operations, called the introduction of Russian fighter aircraft “a major escalation.”
The new MiG-29s “are a major step up from the very few old MiGs and L-39s” that had been flown by both sides in the conflict, Castner told Al-Monitor. The Russian aircraft also have the capability to shoot down Turkey’s drones.
“These Russian aircraft have killed large numbers of civilians in Idlib and other places in Syria. So our concern is that Tripoli not become a new Idlib,” Castner said.