Russia increases its presence in Libya, to the great dismay of Westerners

Piece by piece, the strategic structure outlined by Moscow in North Africa is being consolidated

Russia increases its presence in Libya, to the great dismay of Westerners

Piece by piece, the strategic structure outlined by Moscow in North Africa is being consolidated. The Russian presence in Libya, already tangible from 2019 in the form of paramilitary units (ex-Wagner), has experienced a sudden acceleration since the beginning of the year which has not escaped helpless Westerners. . “Russia has been transferring Russian soldiers and fighters to Libya for three months,” concludes a note published Friday, May 10, by All Eyes on Wagner.

This international collective investigating Russian networks in Africa adds that “the delivery of military equipment and vehicles from Syria to Libya constitutes the most visible aspect of [this] increased involvement”. Citing the figure of 1,800 Russians now deployed across the country, All Eyes on Wagner notes that two Moscow naval vessels – landing ships – leaving from the Syrian naval base of Tartous reached the port of Tobruk on April 8 in Cyrenaica.

Supporting photos, the collective of investigators affirms that vehicles and weapons were unloaded, such as 2S12 Sani mortars or BTR and BM armored transport vehicles. This would be “the fifth delivery” of this type to Tobruk in 45 days. Western diplomatic sources contacted by Le Monde confirm this rise in Russian power in this pivotal state in North Africa, junction of the Machrek and the Maghreb.

“The increase concerns equipment more than men,” adds a diplomat from a European state. These latest movements in Libya, he adds, are part of “a global Russian breakthrough” which aims to “install pro-Moscow governments throughout East and West Africa. All that is missing is Chad to cut Africa in two. » Which Chad is also the object of eager desire on the part of Russia.

Projection platform

If Libya is crucial in this African offensive, it is because it operates as a platform for projecting equipment and men towards neighboring states: Sudan in civil war, Niger and Mali – and further south Burkina Faso. Faso –, led by juntas close to the Kremlin, and potentially Chad. The strategic node of this new system is located in Djoufra, a Libyan district located 350 km south of the Gulf of Sirte, where equipment and men arrive from Tobruk before being rerouted to the regional theaters coveted by Moscow.

The big news is that “the Russian state is no longer afraid to show its direct involvement in Libya,” notes Jalel Harchaoui, associate researcher at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. When Wagner entered Libya in 2019 by supporting the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) of dissident Marshal Khalifa Haftar – the “strong man” of Cyrenaica (East) – in its vain assault on Tripoli, Moscow was in the official denial. This era is over as Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Evkurov has already made four visits to Benghazi, Khalifa Haftar's political and military base, since August 2023.

This Libyan marshal, who established an authority in Cyrenaica parallel to the government in Tripoli, himself traveled to Moscow at the end of September, where he met Vladimir Putin. Since then, the Russian presence has become more conspicuous as the African branch of the former Wagner mercenary group, decapitated by the disappearance in August 2023 of its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, was taken over by the defense ministry of Moscow under the new Africa Corps label.

Political challenge

Faced with this Russian push in Libya, the alarm is ringing in Western chancelleries which are seeking in vain to respond. In addition to the risk of Moscow's influence spreading to the regional periphery, the United States and Europe face two challenges. The first is to see a Russian military presence take root on the coast in the form of a naval base, in Tobruk or Sirte, which would pose a direct threat to NATO forces in the Mediterranean. Sirte would represent a nightmare scenario for Westerners in that the city, located at the junction of Cyrenaica (East) and Tripolitania (West), is only 600 km from the coast of Sicily.

The project of a Russian base in Sirte is also an old design that Moscow failed to impose on Muammar Gaddafi in the years 2009-2010. The city is today under the control of Haftar, under whose umbrella Russian paramilitaries are active locally during military maneuvers alongside the Libyan marshal's ANL, All Eyes on Wagner researchers noted. . During an exercise on March 16, Russian Pantsir anti-aircraft systems were displayed at the Ghardabiya air base on the outskirts of Sirte.

The other challenge is more political. Because beyond its military influence in Cyrenaica (Tobruk, Sirte) and in southern Fezzan (Tamanhint, Brak-al-Shati), Moscow engages in all-out diplomatic activism, including in Tripoli – a city supposed to be rather under the tutelage of the Turks – where its embassy reopened at the end of February. The new ambassador Aydar Aghanin, a perfect Arabic speaker, is increasing his meetings with Libyan political personnel of all persuasions.

By combining military assets and diplomatic capital, Russia is garnering resources for the future. “Moscow is likely to assert itself as a conciliator, the privileged interlocutor of the Libyan factions,” anticipates Jalel Harchaoui. Worse still, as migratory flows from Sudan and Niger cross regions controlled by Marshal Haftar, and therefore de facto by Russian paramilitaries, Moscow will ultimately strengthen its hand vis-à-vis the European Union.