As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, both the United States and Europe have focused their attention on the Wagner Group, the Russian private military contractor, and its activities in Libya and other parts of Africa.
This scrutiny comes as the United States designated Wagner an international criminal organization in January and is seeking to isolate the group financially and politically. Europe is likely to follow suit, also seeking to increase pressure on Wagner and its backers.
Yet a closer look at the group's operations in Libya indicates it is evolving tactics to adapt to increased Western scrutiny.
Wagner's origins in Libya
Although Wagner’s combat operations in Libya only started in the summer of 2019 to support the Libyan National Army's (LNA) military offensive to capture Tripoli and dislodge the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), their non-combat operations started a few years prior.
Russian presence in Libya followed the 2014 bout of civil war and subsequent political and institutional split that resulted from the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) and its allied armed groups rejecting the legislative elections. This period of turmoil was seen by Russia as the perfect opportunity to start intervening on the ground, especially since Moscow had successfully intervened in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
From 2015 to 2019, Wagner Group operations in Libya focused on security-related files such as training to use and maintain Russian and Soviet weapons systems, including advanced air defense and command control systems, as well as de-mining services for the Libyan National Army (LNA) in Benghazi and Derna. Additionally, Wagner affiliates sought to develop business and cultural links with Libyan stakeholders and communities by dispatching to Libya social scientists and experts to conduct field research, interviews, and work on focus groups with local leaders and communities.
Russia's #Wagner Group designated a "Terrorist Organization" by Lithuanian lawmakers. This is the first such case in the #EU. In January 2023, the US Department of the Treasury declared the Wagner PMC a transnational criminal organization. https://t.co/Kc9b95hRo1 pic.twitter.com/icZ5UQXHD5— Adrian Shtuni (@Shtuni) March 14, 2023
In late 2015, Libya’s eastern-based authorities reached a deal with Russia’s stock company Goznak to print banknotes for the cash-strapped eastern-based Central Bank, a development that followed British and German companies’ refusal to print such banknotes in fear that it would result in the split of Libya’s banking system.
At the time, Moscow saw an opportunity and took it, justifying it with the fact that the eastern-based authorities were recognized by the country’s internationally recognized legislature, the House of Representatives (HoR), and that for Russia’s Goznak, it was a simple business transaction. However, there is no denying that the printing of Libyan banknotes in Russia had a profound impact on the conflict dynamics in Libya as its consequences can still be felt today as far as the country’s ailing economy is concerned.
Politically, Moscow sought to develop relations with all Libyan factions, seeking in the process to empower former regime figures and loyalists. Moscow lobbied for the inclusion of Muammar Gadhafi-era generals, officers and soldiers in the LNA’s ranks, and lobbied the HoR's leadership to issue an amnesty law that would allow the return of former regime loyalists and figures including Saif al-Islam Gadhafi to political life in Libya. Indeed, Saif al-Islam was released from captivity from Zintan in 2016 based on an amnesty law that was passed by the HoR in Tobruk at the time.
As such, Moscow managed in a few years to install itself as an economic, political and military partner for key Libyan factions including the HoR, LNA and former regime figures such as Saif al-Islam.
A shift into the conflict
In 2019, with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh reportedly footing the bill, the Wagner Group took an active combat role in Tripoli to support the LNA’s stalled advance toward the capital. Hundreds of Wagner fighters arrived at the frontlines in Tripoli in the late summer of 2019. Wagner’s intervention tipped the balance of power in favor of the LNA and almost led to the collapse of the pro-GNA forces’ defenses in Tripoli. Subsequently, Turkey seized the opportunity to deepen its partnership with a collapsing GNA and imposed security and maritime deals on its ally — two deals that gave Ankara both an official military presence on the ground in western Libya through a security cooperation agreement, and a maritime claim in the eastern Mediterranean.
Despite backing opposing sides in the Libyan conflict, both Ankara and Moscow saw the benefits and importance of their coordination in Libya, making them the two states with actual tools on the ground to influence events in their own favor. Indeed, a few months after Turkey got militarily involved and tipped the balance of power in favor of the GNA’s forces, Ankara and Moscow reached an understanding to impose a cease-fire on the two warring sides in Libya.
The LNA’s Khalifa Hifter and the GNA’s Fayez al-Sarraj were summoned to Moscow to sign a cease-fire agreement on Jan. 13, 2020. Sarraj agreed to sign under Turkish pressure, but Hifter walked out and left Moscow without signing the deal in what was seen at the time as a huge embarrassment for Russian diplomacy. As such, Moscow sought to punish Hifter for his behavior and coordinated with the Turks to reshape the military and security landscape in Libya and impose a cease-fire on their own terms. Shortly thereafter, Wagner fighters withdrew from the frontlines without coordination with the LNA, and Turkey made sure that the GNA’s forces did not advance toward Sirte or al-Jufrah where Wagner fighters were based.
Taking advantage of a weakened LNA following its defeat and retreat from Tripoli, Russia brokered the Sochi deal in September 2020 on the management of Libya’s hydrocarbon resources and revenues. The deal resulted in the lifting of the oil blockade that had been imposed by factions loyal to the LNA and paved the path toward talks between the LNA and GNA military leaders in Geneva, where they reached a cease-fire agreement in October 2020. In turn, the cease-fire paved the way for the launch of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum under the auspices of the United Nations in November 2020.
Libya as forward base for Wagner
Throughout these years, Wagner-affiliated companies have sought to secure contracts with Libya’s authorities both in the east and west. Sectors that Wagner-affiliated companies showed interest according to official government documents Al-Monitor reviewed back in 2019 are wide-ranging. There is Wagner demand for the energy sector, including requests for concessions and development contracts in the east and southeast of the country. Security provisions for oil and gas installations as well as mining in the southern region also represent an important part of contracts being pursued by the Russians.
Currently, Wagner units are mostly present in the eastern region, specifically at al-Khadim air base near al-Marj city as well as in the cities of Sirte and al-Jufrah in the central region. This is where the majority of Wagner’s fighters and most valuable assets, including its advanced air defense systems and fighter jets, are believed to be located. As Moscow increases its reliance on the Wagner Group in Ukraine, the United States and other Western powers are putting more effort and resources into sanctioning and curtailing the group to deprive it of access to weapons and financing.
The Wagner Group has sought to use Libya as a forward base for its activities in the Sahel region, particularly Chad and Niger. Additionally, the Wagner Group has managed to build spheres of influence with local communities and smuggling networks in the southern border regions of Libya, where the group has helped provide weapons and at times extraction technologies for gold or other precious metals.
Continua l’assedio russo di #Bakhmut a opera della compagnia militare privata russa #Wagner. Secondo fonti #NATO, questi assalti costerebbero la vita a 2.000 mercenari della compagine ogni 90 metri di territorio guadagnato.— ISPI (@ispionline) February 22, 2023
"Il mondo in tasca" → https://t.co/9dWKz3eZ07 pic.twitter.com/yvrvCgibLz
One key risk linked to the Wagner Group’s presence in the country is that it is mainly implanted in these oil-rich regions of central and southern Libya. There is a constant risk that the Russian PMC or an affiliated group will decide to target Libya’s energy production and infrastructure so as to retaliate against mounting Western pressure on Moscow, putting Europe’s energy security at greater risk.
Sources in the LNA confirmed to me back in January that Wagner fighters have not been paid for over 10 months. This raises the question of how the Wagner Group is funded in Libya and by who. On the potential path to generate revenues in Libya today is through engagement with Libyan groups engaged in illicit activities such as the smuggling of fuel through the southern border to African countries or through the Mediterranean to Europe by collaborating with Libyan illicit networks across the country.
US ramps up pressure
When CIA Director William Burns made a surprise one-day visit to Libya in January, the Wagner file was top of the agenda. Burns met with Hifter in Benghazi and the Government of National Unity’s Abdul Hamid Dbeibah in Tripoli. Sources within the LNA have said that Burns delivered a clear message to Hifter, saying that any kind of cooperation with Wagner in Libya will no longer be tolerated and will have consequences. This message was reportedly shared with other regional actors as well. The United States’ Jan. 26 designation of the Wagner Group as a "significant transnational criminal organization" has continued to solidify the message that the United States will be ramping up pressure on the group.
Today we were very pleased to welcome CIA Dir. William Burns 🇺🇸 to Libya. We had fruitful exchanges about cooperating on issues of security, paving the way towards stability and elections in 🇱🇾. Looking forward to translating these excellent initiatives into concrete steps soon. pic.twitter.com/wjNDjm8R5I— Dr. Najla Elmangoush (@NajlaElmangoush) January 12, 2023
In Benghazi, according to LNA sources, the American delegation was caught off guard by Hifter’s openness and readiness to discuss Wagner’s departure from Libya. However, Hifter requested assurances and guarantees from the United States that measures be taken to ensure the Turks also depart from Libya and that the United States provide support for the LNA to replace military assistance provided by Wagner and the Russians — including the operation of advanced air defense systems that help secure Hifter’s headquarter in al-Rajma, south of Benghazi. It is unlikely that the United States can offer such guarantees regarding the Turks or any sort of direct military assistance, but Washington can potentially find third parties to play that role, such as France or Egypt.
Since Burns’ visit, local sources have confirmed increased movement by Wagner units in the various regions they are located. On Feb. 2, various local media reports and social media accounts claimed that airstrikes targeted Wagner assets at al-Khadim air base, near al-Marj, and also in al-Jufrah in central Libya.
Local security sources confirmed to me at the time that there were no airstrikes in al-Jufrah but indicated that there was an incident at al-Khadim that involved a military cargo plane immediately after landing that resulted in explosions on-site likely due to the explosive nature of the plane’s load. On March 9, a government source in Sirte confirmed to me that three cargo planes landed at al-Qardabia air base on that day without elaborating on the nature of their loads. The Wagner Group is known to have a presence in and around the Qardabia air base in Sirte.
As the United States and its NATO allies move to curtail Wagner’s operations and influence in Libya, there is growing concern regarding how the group and its affiliates on the ground will retaliate. This situation raises the risk of attacks on Libya’s oil and gas infrastructure, or the triggering of another conflict between Libya’s opposite parties. In addition to its military, security and illicit operations, Wagner affiliates have also been active in the information operations sphere with the aim of influencing public opinion in Libya in favor of its allies and against the policies and actions of the United States and the broader West. In particular, Saif al-Islam and former regime factions benefit the most from these operations.
Recently, Wagner-affiliated groups accused the Tripoli-based armed factions, the United States and the United Nations of actively trying to deprive former regime loyalists and figures of participating in the upcoming elections. In particular, the United States is being accused of orchestrating a political process through the UN that would prevent Saif al-Islam from running in any upcoming elections.
As the political scene in Libya shifts in light of the UN envoy to Libya Abdoulaye Bathily's recent announcement for a plan to pave the way for the formation of a new high-level steering committee for elections, it is expected that Russia will use its permanent seat at the UN Security Council to influence the process in favor of its allies and find ways to disrupt the United States’ policies in Libya. This will be done in opposition to attempts by the United States, United Kingdom and France to influence the trajectory of the plans and efforts of Abdoulaye Bathily, special representative of the secretary-general for Libya.
All while Moscow will likely continue activate its assets on the ground in Libya to secure its interests in the upcoming phase of Libya’s conflict.