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How Wagner's revolt could impact Russia's influence in Libya

How Wagner's revolt could impact Russia's influence in Libya
6 min read
06 July, 2023
Analysis: Wagner has been a critical tool for securing Russia's geostrategic interests in Libya, but the recent mutiny has cast doubts over the group's future operations in the country.

Russia's infamous Wagner paramilitary company has been involved in various global conflicts, including those in Ukraine, the Middle East, and Africa.

However, the recent failed mutiny by the group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, raises questions about the future of the group's extensive network of military and commercial activities in these regions, particularly in Africa.

The failed rebellion highlighted internal issues within the Wagner group and cast doubts on their effectiveness and reliability as a paramilitary force. It could also potentially lead to a loss of trust and credibility for Russia, making it difficult for Moscow to maintain its presence and influence in Africa and other regions where they have been active. 

In recent years, Russia has used the Wagner Group's services to advance its objectives while avoiding direct military engagement and maintaining plausible deniability.

The recent fallout between Prigozhin and President Vladimir Putin, which resulted in the Wagner leader’s exile to Belarus and the subsequent dispersal of his extensive mercenary network, has cast doubt on the future stability and coherence of the entire framework. While some have joined him in exile, other members are being forced to enlist in the Russian military.

The potential withdrawal of Wagner fighters from Africa, particularly in Libya, is expected to impact Russia's geostrategic interests significantly. Russia has been strategically using Wagner fighters to bolster its presence and pursue economic and political benefits in the country. The replacement of Wagner forces in Libya, therefore, may present certain challenges.

Russia's approach to Libya is multi-faceted, as it involves a range of interests spanning geostrategic, economic, political, and military considerations. One of the primary objectives of Russia's involvement is to establish a prominent foothold in the Mediterranean region.

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“The Wagner group found Libya a significant opportunity to establish a presence in Africa, especially considering Russia's limited involvement in the continent at the time,” Andreas Krieg, associate professor of security studies at King's College London, told The New Arab.

“The accomplishments of the past five years are quite significant. Russia's presence in the region is not solely focused on expanding its influence, particularly in the security sector through the Wagner group.”

Wagner has played a crucial role in Russia's involvement in Libya. The mercenary group became involved in the Libyan theatre in 2019 by aligning themselves with militia leader Khalifa Haftar.

Their intervention was intended to provide support for Haftar's offensive against the government based in Tripoli, which is internationally recognised.  A 14 month-siege of Libya’s capital ended in failure, and Wagner fighters redeployed to an array of oil facilities and nearby military bases in both central Libya and the southwest.

The mercenary group became involved in the Libyan theatre in 2019 by aligning themselves with militia leader Khalifa Haftar. [Getty]

Despite Haftar's so-called Libyan National Army's failure to capture Tripoli, the assistance provided by Wagner fighters had been significant in maintaining control over eastern and southern parts of Libya. This control allows him to exert influence over key oil fields and infrastructure, giving him leverage in negotiations and a source of revenue to fund his military operations.

“Moscow aims to access strategic resources and establish partnerships with various companies. The system consists of multiple companies rather than a single entity interconnected within the network. In the field of logistics, they are involved in the extraction industry, which is loosely connected to the Russian state and integrated into the network of production and environment,” Krieg said.

“The events mentioned have had great importance for Russian statecraft. They marked the start of operations in Africa and established a strong presence, primarily by establishing a base in southern Libya. This base continues to serve as a crucial strategic point for expanding further into Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Haftar’s forces, however, are somewhat fragmented. Without these foreign fighters, mainly Wagner mercenaries, the LNA as a collection of militias and mercenary organisations would be unable to maintain its hold on eastern Libya.

“The LNA is and remains a militia, comprising a network of loosely affiliated militia groups. Despite referring to themselves as an army, the reality is that these groups are diverse and revolve around Haftar, his family, and his inner circle. Their lack of training, direction, and expertise in urban combat made them reliant on external support, particularly from Wagner,” Krieg told TNA.

The Wagner Group's involvement was strategically significant, as their knowledge and capabilities, especially in urban warfare, provided an advantage to the LNA.

Without the intervention of Turkey, including the deployment of Turkish drones, it would have been exceedingly challenging for the Tripoli government to have withstood the LNA-Wagner offensive in 2020.

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Without an alternative foreign security umbrella, the withdrawal of Wagner would pose a significant threat to Haftar's influence in eastern and southern Libya. The absence of the mercenary outfit would not only weaken Haftar’s military strength, but it would also create a power vacuum that Tripoli’s forces could potentially exploit. 

Moscow has used the Wagner Group to pursue strategic goals in Libya and beyond. The objectives include Moscow's aim to consolidate its geostrategic presence in the country, including military bases across Libya, such as Jufra and Al-Khadim. These bases not only allow Russia to project power in the region but also serve as a means to counter Western influence in North Africa.

By strategically establishing a robust presence in Libya, Russia has the potential to safeguard and advance its economic and energy interests. Ensuring control over Libya's energy infrastructure is of utmost importance.

One practical approach to achieve this objective involves exerting influence over Sirte, a strategically positioned coastal city that serves as the gateway to the country’s oil fields. Since 2020, Wagner fighters have reportedly remained entrenched in and around key oil facilities in Libya, such as Ras Lanuf, Sidra oil terminals, and Sharara oil field in southwestern Libya, the country's largest, with a bpd capacity of 300,000.

The failed mutiny raises questions about the future of Wagner's extensive network of military and commercial activities in the Middle East and Africa. [Getty]

Furthermore, Wagner's presence in Libya has directly supported its activities in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Mali. For instance, in 2022, Russia used an air base near Benghazi, called Khadim, as a logistics hub to transfer personnel and equipment to Mali.

In recent years, Moscow has strategically positioned itself as a significant player in Libya's political landscape through the Wagner group, which has been and will likely remain an important tool for securing Russia’s geostrategic interests.

Wagner fighters reportedly remain active in eastern Libya and the country's south, and as yet it's unclear whether they will integrate into the Russian armed forces or continue operating as a private military company.

However, their presence in Libya suggests that Russia is committed to maintaining its influence in the region and will continue to use the Wagner Group as a means to achieve its objectives. 

Ferhat Polat is a researcher at the University of Exeter, specialising in North African geopolitics and security and focusing on Libyan affairs. He is regularly invited as a commentator on news channels. He has written a number of essays and articles on geopolitical issues, which have been published in various journals, newspapers, and digital outlets. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Ferhattpol