In Libya, Wagner's reach reflects Russia's staying power

Members of the self-styled Libyan National Army, loyal to the country's east strongman Khalifa Haftar, patrol a street in central Benghazi on 6 July 2017. [Getty]
9 min read
25 August, 2021
Analysis: The arrival of Russian mercenaries changed the war in Libya, with the Wagner group key to cementing Moscow's influence in the country.

The chaos caused by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the entry of the Taliban into Kabul has drawn attention away from other regional conflicts. 

But recent media reports, such as a BBC investigation into Russia’s shadowy Wagner mercenary group in the Libyan civil war, show that developments in North Africa and the Sahel continue to pose a challenge not only to geopolitics but also to regional security.

Information uncovered from a Samsung tablet left by a fighter, including the group’s links to the Russian military and allegations of war crimes, indicate that the future role of Russia's mercenary forces will continue to be significant.

These forces - and with them the Kremlin - are making serious efforts to obtain a stronger foothold in Libya, with analysts anticipating a new military escalation in the coming months, including by General Khalifa Haftar.

"The arrival of mercenaries changed the war in Libya and showed once again Russia's influence across different conflicts"

The BBC's investigation, published in early August, provides interesting details of the activity of Wagner mercenaries. The Samsung tablet contained information about military and strategic objectives during General Haftar's 2019 offensive to capture the capital Tripoli, during which he received support from the UAE, France, and Russia against the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in western Libya.

The tablet also proves the participation of Russian mercenaries in that campaign, and it is no coincidence that within their community the BBC's investigation triggered varied reactions, ranging from denying or disputing the data, to making fun of it and downplaying the revelations.

Moreover, information from the report proves that Russia regularly transfers fighters from areas such as the Caucasus, Syria, and Ukraine to Libya and other areas of Africa. The owner of the tablet is reportedly a 36-year-old Russian called Fedor Metelkin from the North Caucasus, who joined Wagner five or six years ago in the early period of the group’s rise.

Geopolitics on the big-screen

While Moscow’s objectives can be ascertained via military, media, and intelligence reports, cultural propaganda tools, such as films, can also provide valuable insight – and one, in particular, stands out.

On the 1st May 2020, the film ‘Shugaley’ was released in Russia in a pre-planned campaign ahead of the one-year anniversary of the arrest in Libya of the Russian consultant and sociologist Maxim Shugaley.

He was detained by GNA soldiers from the Tripoli-based internationally recognised government and was thrown into Mitiga Prison. The arrest caused a stir on social media, and people close to the Kremlin accused the government in Tripoli of "terrorism."

The film portrays Maxim Shugaley as an action hero who confronts the chaos of the Libyan civil war. According to the film’s plot, Maxim Shugaley and his translator Samer arrive in the war-torn country after an official invitation from Libya to conduct research.

Russian soldiers Syria - Getty
Wagner forces have operated in a number of global conflicts, including in Syria. [Getty]

While clearly not a critical success, ‘Shugaley’ is a tool of influence in a political and military sense and charts the events that underscore Moscow's attempts to bolster its influence in Libya.

In fact, the true story, which has remained largely hidden from the public, is worthy of a thriller itself. It has everything - including spies, mercenaries, geopolitics, and an attempt to make the son of a deposed dictator president.

In April 2019, as the war in Libya reached Tripoli during Haftar’s offensive, the real-life Maxim Shugaley travelled to meet the man he hoped to be the next Libyan leader.

Saif al-Islam, the son of Muammar Gaddafi and considered his successor, had been in the Zintan area of western Libya since 2011, when his father was killed during the Libyan revolution. A fugitive from an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation, Saif al-Islam had long planned to return to the helm of the country.

Contrary to the film’s synopsis, Maxim Shugaley was not officially invited by the Libyan government. In April 2019, however, he was in Tripoli, where he was undertaking several tasks ordered by the Kremlin.

The first was to research public opinion about Saif al-Islam. The second was to negotiate the support of local politicians and military commanders in Tunisia, and the third was to meet Saif al-Islam himself.

This became known thanks to notes kept by the Russians which were later seized by GNA forces and handed over to two Russian media sites, Dossier and Project.  Copies were made available to Bloomberg and The Daily Beast, which released the information publicly in March 2020.

The documents shed light on Moscow's attempts to build a network in oil-rich Libya at a time when the United States was absent from the region.

"The BBC investigation shows Wagner's links to the Russian military as well as allegations of war crimes"

Vying for influence in Libya

While Russian eyes were on Afghanistan and Central Asia at that time, the Kremlin had long considered how it could manoeuvre in Libya, which was seen as a natural continuation of efforts to set up a presence in the Mediterranean following the 2015 intervention in Syria.

“Moscow is still very much interested in geo-economic and geopolitical gains that could be yielded by Libya like lucrative contracts in food deliveries, arms deals, construction and infrastructural projects,” Sergey Sukhankin, a Senior Fellow with the Jamestown Foundation and a leading researcher on Russia, told The New Arab.

Although Gaddafi's fall pushed Moscow aside, leaving Italy, France and regional powers vying for influence over the past decade, the Kremlin's official line is that it works with all sides in Libya. Initially, the Russian government kept contact with both sides of the civil war, while encouraging Saif al-Islam to become a future president in the belief that he would bring stability and secure Russian interests in the country.

By September 2019, however, Russia had turned its support towards Khalifa Haftar, a former close friend of Gaddafi and a military commander with conflicting relations with the United States.

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“Moscow does not want to repeat Soviet mistakes on the continent, when one actor was preferred,” Sukhankin said. This had “turned out to be a deeply erroneous strategy that decreased the room for manoeuvre for the Soviets”.

Russia's defence ministry had been in contact with Haftar for years, even inviting him aboard a Russian aircraft carrier off Libya in 2017.

The man who eventually persuaded the Kremlin to support Saif al-Islam is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Putin and a major sponsor of Wagner's operations. He also has a personal interest in oil and gold mining in Africa.

Maxim Shugaley had already appeared in a BBC investigation into interference during elections in Madagascar, and documents obtained two years ago in Libya show his role in Prigozhin's companies and that the businessman himself was in contact with Saif al-Islam.

Eventually, Maxim Shugaley was arrested along with his aide in 2019, before being released a year later in December 2020. His mythologising in Russia is part of a larger campaign by the Kremlin to defend its interests in Libya and the region, but also to justify its intervention. Wagner mercenaries are central to this.

Not leaving anytime soon

Although Moscow has officially denied any connection to Wagner, many investigations over the past two years show the opposite. Moreover, making an action film about Shugaley and the Saif al-Islam operation hints at Russia's objective for a prolonged stay in Libya.

The recent BBC revelations and the discovery of the Wagner tablet prove the theories about the role of mercenaries and the Kremlin's wider policy, while linking it to earlier revelations in the campaign to support Saif al-Islam and the role of people like Shugaley.

The arrival of mercenaries changed the war in Libya and showed once again Russia’s influence across different conflicts. For example, the ammunition used by snipers south of Tripoli during the 2019 Tripoli offensive shows similarities to that used by Russian snipers in eastern Ukraine, where they support the local anti-Ukrainian proxies.

Haftar made political and military appointments in defiance of Libya's government [Getty]
Russian mercenaries are believed to have participated in Khalifa Haftar's military campaigns. [Getty]

This is not surprising; Moscow has transferred Wagner fighters to Libya from Syria who had also previously fought in the Donbas area.

According to various estimates, Wagner has between 1,000-12,000 members in Libya, who have a key role on the battlefield and in Haftar's activities. One of the most common mistakes made is to consider Wagner only as a mercenary company. In reality, its commanders are connected to Russian intelligence services.

The group also receives regular supplies from Russian military planes – four such flights were registered alone in mid-August – while mercenaries have taken part in the construction of the Sirte-Al-Jufrah axis defence lines and oversee prisoners, who are often interrogated and tortured.

The other of Wagner's tasks is to protect the interests of Russian businesses, such as oil reserves and mineral mining. However, Russia's role in Libya does not end with Haftar. Moscow prints Libyan banknotes and delivers them to Benghazi just as the Russians also do for the Assad regime in Syria.

To date, every leaked document and investigation leads to the conclusion that Russian mercenaries will not end their role in Libya or elsewhere anytime soon.

According to leading researcher on Russia, Sergey Sukhankin, although Moscow is “slowing down a little bit, Russia is not out of Libya”. This is in no small part due to the presence of Wagner.  

"Moscow is still very much interested in geoeconomic and geopolitical gains that could be yielded by Libya, like lucrative contracts in food deliveries, arms deals, construction and infrastructural projects"

While the campaign in support of Saif al-Islam has so far stalled, his name is back in the media headlines, and this suits the Russian efforts to undermine the government in Tripoli.

The Russian state is making significant efforts to set up a presence in the areas it wants, and Wagner is one of its main tools. The signals are clear that the Russians sent their men, including military personnel, to Libya long before Haftar's offensive in 2019.

They also have serious ambitions in Chad, Niger, and the Central African Republic (CAR), and Libya is a springboard for their presence. Russian military planes are still arriving in Libya, and bases like Al-Jufrah have been reinforced.

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The data on the tablet, as reported by the BBC, shows that the information available so far is that Russian forces are capable of torturing and killing if necessary to cover the tracks of hybrid warfare tools such as mercenaries. There are also Special Forces officers among the mercenary circles, and the two structures are deeply connected.

According to Sukhankin, the Kremlin has no plans to withdraw from Libya any time soon, and it is anyone’s guess how many more tablets with information on them exist in Wagner’s areas of operation in southern and eastern Libya.

For the moment, Russia does not want an escalation in Libya, Sukhankin says, but the main reason is that their attention right now is on other areas, such as Afghanistan. The signals are clear, though, that the Kremlin is well-prepared for future tensions.

Ruslan Trad is the author of 'The Murder of a Revolution' and co-author of 'The Russian Invisible Armies'. His journalistic work is focused on PMCs, Syria, and conflict zones. 

Follow him on Twitter: @ruslantrad