April 23, 2024

With the gaze of much of the world fixed on the carnage unfolding in Gaza, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin continues to expand his country’s reach in Africa.

Russia, in the form of the private military contractor (PMC) Wagner, has been a growing presence in Libya since at least 2018, when the group was first reported to be training troops under renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army, forces belonging to the eastern of the country’s two parliaments.

But, following the death of Wagner’s founder and former Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, after his failed coup in Russia last year, the fate of the paramilitary force in Libya and Africa seemed uncertain.

Russia operates several PMCs. However, none is said to be as close to the Kremlin or to have been deployed as extensively as that founded by Prigozhin. At little cost to the Kremlin, Wagner has gained Russia financial, military and political influence across swaths of Libya and Africa.

Given the stakes, the Kremlin was never likely to disband Wagner, despite its active rebellion last year. Instead, following Prigozhin’s much-predicted demise, his commercial and military interests were divided between Russia’s various intelligence services, a report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) released this week claims.

Like other PMCs, like the United States’ Constellis (formerly Blackwater), Wagner allowed its government to operate in overseas conflicts at arm’s length: projecting power while maintaining a degree of deniability. That distance also allows PMCs to operate outside the typical bounds of state warfare, engaging in campaigns of terror and disinformation in a way that conventional forces cannot.

Command of Wagner’s overseas presence has been assigned to Russia’s military intelligence (GRU), specifically General Andrei Averyanov. Through a series of intermediate PMCs like Convoy, established in Russian-occupied Crimea in 2022, and Redut, active in Ukraine, but established in 2008 to protect Russian commercial interests, maintaining legal deniability, Wagner’s Ukrainian operation is being retitled the Volunteer Corps, with other operations becoming the Expeditionary Corps.

That its ambition remained undimmed was evidenced by its initial instruction to build a fighting force across Africa of some 40,000 contractors – since reduced to 20,000 but far larger than its current footprint.

Some measure of General Averyanov’s intent can perhaps be gained from looking at past command of Unit 29155, the wing of Russian military intelligence reported to be responsible for overseeing foreign assassinations and destabilising European countries.

African dreams

Africa, one of the richest continents in terms of minerals and energy, is undergoing a “youth boom” that stands to change the demographics of the world.

Within Africa, Libya boasts the largest oil reserves and gold deposits estimated to rank among the world’s top 50. In addition, its geographic location, linking Niger, Chad and Sudan to North Africa and Europe, makes it of vital strategic importance.

Already Averyanov has been busy, travelling to meet with Field Marshall Haftar in September of last year, followed by trips to Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Niger.

In all cases, the offer was largely the same: resources for security.

Only in Libya did that rubric break. Russia’s lucrative oil extraction plants operate under the auspices of Libya’s other, internationally recognised government in Tripoli, meaning Haftar and his allies, claimed by the US Department of Defence to include the United Arab Emirates, would have to pay for the Expeditionary Corps’ deployment themselves.

“Haftar needs Wagner,” Tarek Megerisi, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations said, using the better-known name for the group. “Furthermore, while he’s hosting them in Libya, [Wagner] can use its position to prop up operations in Syria, Sudan and elsewhere.

“It’s a network,” he continued, citing reports. “It’s not just military support, either. They’re using their position in eastern Libya to transport [illegal narcotic] Captagon from Syria, shift gold to evade sanctions, as well as help traffic migrants from southern Africa and as far away as Bangladesh.

“Libya is a hugely profitable area for Wagner,” he said.

Presence

By current estimates, the Expeditionary Corps is thought to have some 800 contractors deployed in Libya, with a further 4,600 dispersed across sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to its fighters, the Expeditionary Corps maintains three air bases – one in the oil basin of Sirte, one in al-Jufra in the interior, and one in Brak al-Shati – which analysts say allows both groups, (Haftar’s Libyan National Army and the PMC) to move goods between allies in Sudan and other sub-Saharan locations.

In addition to its presence on the ground, talks are under way to give Russian warships docking rights at the port of Tobruk in exchange for air defence systems and training for LNA pilots.

“The Central and Eastern Mediterranean is an incredibly important area for Europe and, by extension, NATO,” Ivan Klyszcz, an authority on Russian foreign policy at the International Centre for Defence and Security at Tallinn, said. “Russia already has a Mediterranean port at Tartous in Syria, a port at Tobruk would deepen that presence and potentially bring them into competition with Europe, not least the British, who maintain a large naval presence at Cyprus.”

That the Expeditionary Corps could increase its footfall to 20,000, referenced in the RUSI report and widely discussed by military bloggers, already appears to be within sight.

“That doesn’t sound unachievable, if you consider where they are now,” Jalel Harchaoui of RUSI said. “After all, we’re not talking about purely Russian recruitment, so much as ongoing recruitment across Africa,” he said, recalling Wagner’s transplanting of fighters from Syria to Libya in 2020.

“Eventually, what we may be seeing is a PMC where local troops from one African state can be deployed to another, where they’ll be free to operate to whatever rules they see fit. For instance, in one state, it could simply be a case of providing security to a head of government or a facility. In another, they may be called upon to resort to rape, torture and anti-personnel mines.

“The business model allows them to accomplish all of this, to build alliances … at little cost to what is, at the end of the day, Russia’s relatively small economy,” he said.

End game

However, while a significant player, Wagner is far from alone in a shifting and occasionally crowded Libyan battleground. In addition to the Tripoli-allied militias are the Turkish forces who allied with local commanders to counter and repel the Wagner-backed Haftar, when he attempted to take and hold the capital in 2020 and end the political deadlock in his favour.

Moreover, with Russia’s extensive investment in Libyan energy protected and governed by the Turks’ allies in Tripoli, there are no guarantees that Moscow’s alliance with Haftar may not also fall victim to the cold pragmatism that has been constant amid the chaos in Libya since its revolution.

“There is nothing to suggest that Russia is pledged to Haftar,” Klyszcz continued, “Haftar is important because of where he is, not who he is. It’s as much a marriage of convenience as it is anything else,” he said.

“Likewise with Turkey. There is nothing to suggest that the PMC can’t cooperate with Turkey, as they have in other parts of the world.

“You need to remember that Russia is engaged upon a global strategy with regional implications,” Klszcz said. “Putin’s intention is to create a multipolar world, with India and China all exerting power, rather than just the West as we have at present,” he said.

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