Russia deepens private military footprint in Libya, Africa
Since the end of the Cold War, many countries have discovered the value of deploying private military companies in lieu of regular forces to global hotspots.
The United States deployed what it calls “private contractors” to supplement its regular armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Russia has deployed private military companies (PMCs) in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Africa, an interesting development considering PMCs are banned under Russian law.
Such deployments are not without cost. Independent Russian media websites reported that 35 Russian Wagner PMC mercenaries were killed in a recent air strike in Libya during the Libyan National Army (LNA) offensive to capture Tripoli.
Wagner mercenaries provide logistical and artillery support as well as operate military drones for the LNA attempting to wrest control of the capital away from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord.
Western intelligence services estimate that several hundred Russian PMC mercenaries are present in Libya, aside from those in Syria, and many are former soldiers with combat experience ranging from Chechnya to Donetsk.
In the past 18 months, combat operations in Syria have diminished significantly, although the impact of US President Donald Trump’s startling announcement about American forces being withdrawn from northern Syria remains to be seen. In contrast, Libya continues to be the scene of significant armed clashes.
It is unclear what the Russian government expects to gain from its deployment of PMCs in Libya, which began in October 2018, but the country’s energy resources are likely an important consideration. After the initial deployment, subsequent Russian media reports stated that the PMCs offered LNA Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar assistance in protecting oil fields under his control.
A British government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, recently said that a second benefit for the Kremlin could be that, via Libyan energy sales, Russia could engage in money laundering beyond the restrictions of Western economic sanctions.
What remains unclear is how much influence Russia has over Haftar. In addition to Russian support, he is also receiving assistance from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The result of the increasing violence in Libya is that UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore warned that escalating clashes and a deepening humanitarian crisis in Libya were pushing the nation towards a return to the full-scale civil war that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
PMCs have become an increasingly useful foreign policy tool for Russian President Vladimir Putin because they provide plausible deniability in foreign relations, particularly since PMCs are illegal in the Russian Federation. Wagner, Russia’s most high-profile mercenary organisation, is controlled by an oligarch nicknamed “Putin’s cook,” Evgenii Prigozhin. Other known Russian PMC firms include Vega, Shield and Patriot.
The activities of Wagner PMC have also been a topic of interest for Russia’s opposition. In June, an investigative unit funded by exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovskii published documents purportedly detailing Russia’s ambitions to turn both North and sub-Saharan Africa into a strategic hub by reducing Western influence there. The documents detail what Wagner PMC has accomplished and plans to do in 13 African countries, including not only Libya but the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Sudan, Zimbabwe and South Africa as well.
A month after Russia and Mozambique signed protocols, approximately 200 Wagner mercenaries along with “elite troops” arrived in Mozambique. The Russian government officially reported that the PMCs and “elite troops” would assist authorities in Cabo Delgado province combat Islamic terrorists who burn villages and arbitrarily execute residents.
Ever eager to provide a diplomatic fig leaf, Russia’s intervention followed a four-day state visit by Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi, the first by a Mozambican head of state to Russia since 1991, the year that the Soviet Union ended. During the visit, Nyusi signed several agreements covering issues from energy to military assistance.
Many African governments, from Libya to Mozambique, beset by rampant corruption and rising extremism, have an asset to offer foreign governments providing assistance — raw materials. This “race for Africa” is evolving into a three-cornered affair, with China competing with the United States and Russia for influence and access.
China is in the dominant position with its economic assistance but has refrained from providing military assistance, although it does have a military base in Djibouti, alongside the United States.
Beyond a modest level of economic assistance, the United States is providing — to select countries — a small number of military specialists to fight extremism, most notably in the Sahara and sub-Saharan regions. Russian military assistance is less constrained than its two rivals.
Perhaps most significant of the agreements Nyusi signed in Moscow was a memorandum of understanding between Russian state-run oil company Rosneft and Mozambique’s Empresa Nacional de Hidrocarbonetos EP to develop offshore natural gas fields, a significant asset that many foreign companies have been bidding upon.
Russia’s growing presence in MENA and Africa is reaping financial rewards but is not without cost, as the Libyan fatalities attest.
John C.K. Daly is a Washington-based specialist on Russian and post-Soviet affairs.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.