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Wagner Group's Libya Operations
The Russian state-backed Wagner Group has been one of Moscow’s key assets in pursuing its interests in Libya and more broadly in Africa and the Middle East. Serving as a means to project Russia’s expeditionary posture abroad, broaden its geopolitical influence, attain core economic interests, test out new approaches to conducting military operations, and exploit vulnerabilities in the foreign policy decision-making of rivals, the politically low-cost utilization of the Wagner Group offers significant advantages to Moscow.
The Wagner Group was initially deployed to Libya in late 2018 to support Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s rebel forces and protect the interests of Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Egypt. After the war ended in 2020, personnel belonging to the Russian state-backed military company remained in Libya to preserve Moscow’s interests.
There are many strategic reasons for Russia to deploy the Wagner Group to Libya. One of them, and from which many of Moscow’s interests flow, is the geographic position of Libya itself. The Maghrebi country is used as a stopover for Wagner fighters being sent to Mali, whose government has recently favored Russian irregular forces over the French military that originally had an agreement to operate in the former colony before being asked to leave. The company’s presence in Libya allows Moscow to build a military presence in the Mediterranean. Russia can occupy bases in-country, like the Qardabiyah, al-Khadim, and Jufra. Having access to these facilities, Russia can easily rotate personnel in African countries, like Chad, Mali, and the Central African Republic (CAR).
Through Wagner, Russia aims to form a logistics bridge in North Africa to facilitate the transfer of equipment and personnel to the Sahel, Sub-Saharan Africa, and even to Ukraine. Additionally, a presence in Libya offers Russia multiple options for naval and air bases that could host forces beyond the Black Sea.
Wagner also offers Russia some foreign policy distance and even plausible deniability in the event of war crimes or other liabilities resulting from PMC operations abroad. Russia can officially deny it is operating in another country while actively doing so.
Moscow seeks a client state in Libya which buys it geopolitical influence. Of course, Russia has natural resource interests in Libya and throughout Africa, as do other great powers. Wagner was used to tighten the grip of Khalifa Haftar in the oil industry, which Moscow hopes to take advantage of. Wagner troops have been spotted in the oil fields, as well as the oil-rich eastern region. Using Wagner mercenaries, Russia also seeks to revitalize the oil industry in Libya.
Furthermore, Russia could try to disrupt energy supplies bound for its main competitors. The presence of the group could also be used to pressure NATO into different political outcomes with the control of energy sources and through sewing chaos on its borders, as Libya is a key hub for refugees and economic migrants bound for countries like Italy. And obviously, the Kremlin might try to frustrate any efforts by the European Union to curb energy dependence on Russia.
Libya itself can be used as a proving ground for the Wagner Group, where it can experiment with new tactics and operational doctrines to implement for future operations.
There are numerous broader implications to Wagner’s involvement in Libya. One of them is that it makes Russia a key stakeholder in the stability of North Africa (and in turn Africa more broadly). For any lasting peace to occur in Libya, those states invested in supporting Haftar’s LNA or the Government of National Accord (GNA) would need to involve the Russian government in that process. As such, the use of Wagner in Libya has helped Russia acquire additional capital within the UN Security Council and the international community.
Wagner’s presence in Libya is also part of a broader strategy of the Russian state to impose high costs on disengagement by some Western states from operations in Africa. The nominal PMC can theoretically fill power vacuums that Western disengagement from Africa (including Libya) leaves behind, in ways that benefit Russian geostrategy. Indeed, Russia has already taken advantage of this in light of France’s pullout from Mali where it was previously engaging in counter-insurgency, with Wagner now fulfilling that role instead.
Irregular operations in Libya are also a potential means to institute a revenue model for the Russian state at a time when its treasury is being significantly depleted due to Vladimir Putin’s prosecution of the broader invasion of Ukraine, which has come with significant Western sanctions. Continuing to provide services to Haftar in exchange for payment, securing resource extraction sites, and cashing in on illicit activities such as fuel smuggling, Wagner can combine influence peddling with the generation of much-needed income (in light of falls in oil revenue upon which the Russian state is reliant).
Continued activity in Libya increases the chances of Russia acquiring a warm water port, which is critical to its naval strategy and ambitions at projecting its power abroad. Given Russia’s acquisition of a port in Tartus, one can assume that any port acquired in Libya would be used to build on such power projection. It would also considerably enhance Russia’s outward-facing posture and contribute to logistics that would prove to be an invaluable aid to other existing operations elsewhere in Africa.
Wagner is proving to be a huge geopolitical booster for Russia in Africa. The company gives it tremendous access to African territories and resources. Moscow can exploit this by moving its forces to the Mediterranean and Central Africa. Libya gives access to both. One of the most important interests here is access to warm waters. Should Wagner consolidate a stronger position in Libya, and allow Russia to control key resources, the European Union will face bigger energy challenges.
When it comes to using Wagner in Libya, Russia’s use of irregular forces is part of a designated effort to capitalize on the vulnerabilities of Western foreign policy towards Africa. Exploiting a power vacuum left by Western disengagement in Libya, Russia has used its support of Haftar to take advantage of the US’s relative pullback from the state post-Gaddaffi. This tracks with the same sort of thinking that motivated Wagner to get more proactively involved in Mali and CAR as its key rivals disengaged from these regions as well. As in many other states where it operates, Wagner’s activities in Libya also open up sources of revenue—such as resource extraction and illicit activities—for key elites within the Russian state.