Recent reports have indicated the Russian private military firm Wagner Group has reinforced Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) with 300 personnel in Libya. The report also suggests the mercenary group has delivered artillery, tanks, drones, and ammunition to the LNA.

Backed by Wagner, Haftar’s forces from eastern Libya who have swept through the south in recent weeks and taken control of remaining oilfields. They have now reinforced a base in the center of the country and signaled to the capital Tripoli that it may be next.

The United Nations, stunned by Haftar’s advance, is scrambling to mediate between him and Tripoli’s internationally-recognized government led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, Western diplomats say.  They fear it may be the last U.N. attempt to unify the rival administrations and end the chaos that followed the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 with free elections.

Haftar, a 75-year-old former general, is increasingly taking the situation into his own hands, backed also by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and the man to restore order.

He has not said whether he wants to march on Tripoli, which would dramatically escalate tensions. But his Libyan National Army (LNA) has hinted heavily that it might do so — if Haftar is not recognized as the country’s overall military commander, his aim since he began assembling the force in 2014.

“Some military sources say the LNA will move towards Tripoli after the announcement that the south has been secured,” read an item on an LNA website. “The same sources said there is coordination with some units inside Tripoli and its suburbs for the army to enter Tripoli.”

The capital has been rife with rumors of invasion and residents have reported seeing young people driving around playing loud songs praising Haftar from their car radios.  While several LNA units returned this month to Benghazi, Haftar’s power base, some units went to Jufra, a city in the desert straddling east and west, LNA sources say.

From there they could go home, or — the implied threat according to diplomats — move northwest towards Tripoli, should talks over power sharing and elections fail.

Haftar taps into fatigue among Libyans yearning for electricity, petrol and banknotes scarce in a country which once enjoyed some of highest living standards in the region.

For many, especially in the east, the general is the only one who can end fighting by myriad groups with ever-changing names. For his enemies in western cities and Islamists who were oppressed under the old regime, he is a new Gaddafi.

What is the Wagner Group?

Wagner Group is an unregistered Russian paramilitary company that is prohibited under Russian legislation, but still has access to military resources. The mercenary group has deep ties to the Kremlin via the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) and the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR). At present, we know Wagner is engaged in several conflicts: Syria, Ukraine, Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya, and most recently, Venezuela. Wagner serves as an extension of Russian foreign policy, a state-sanctioned force operating without the limitations and oversight of a state agency.

Russia in Africa

Russia has become heavily involved on the African continent. This should serve as a warning to the West. What is Russia undertaking in Africa and is the Wagner Group the instrument to carry out its foreign policy goals?

According to an article published by Grey Dynamics, “Wagner operates in several African states. Similar to Barlow’s EO [Executive Outcomes], Prigozhin’s Wagner is just one of several companies under the umbrella. Where they differ is that Prigozhin receives directions from MOD [Russian Ministry of Defense], and Wagner receives operational support from MOD. This approach provides Moscow with plausible deniability, which enables them to pursue foreign policy ambitions with less risk and without the same restrictions. Russia’s return to Africa is likely to continue and expand due to Russia’s identity in which it considers itself a major power and intends to establish itself as a major power in a multipolar world, as an equal to the U.S. and China.”

Russia’s development of a substantial presence in Africa, beginning with securing support from countries like Libya and South Sudan, could serve to bolster Russia’s economic wellness and would deliver a diplomatic foothold on the continent.

Plausible Deniability

The Russian regime uses the Wagner Group as part of their new hybrid warfare strategy. This might sound like a modern tactic, but the West has been conducting this type of warfare for some time. The strategy of maintaining plausible deniability via the use of non-state actors is something the West pioneered. Now Russia has hopped on the trend. Although we consider organizations like the Wagner Group to be mercenaries, they’re effectively soldiers of the Russian Army. The Kremlin recognizes that emphasizing the mercenary title only helps reinforce their plausible deniability. If a nation like Russia seeks to strike at an enemy without overtly antagonizing them or inviting the ire of the United Nations, how better to do so than to utilize a non-state actor like Wagner? The Russian state then has the luxury of claiming it had nothing to do with the group, that they are a private company outside their control, etc.

Russia intends to undermine the U.S. and its allies in Africa by providing surreptitious military support in the form of the Wagner Group. They seek to achieve what the U.S. and, more broadly, the West have failed to do in the region. They’ll build on these countries’ infrastructure while exploiting their natural resources to Russia’s benefit. Wagner offers complete, plausible deniability while winning the fight on behalf of Russia. This strategy will help create deep ties with these African nations and strengthen bilateral relationships throughout the African continent.


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