By Nicoli Due-Gundersen
Moscow is working with private militias from the Wagner Group on a new hybrid-style approach to conflict zones as it looks to increase its influence with leaders and secure access to key energy resources.
As Syria’s Bashar al Assad should know, Putin’s friendship does not come for free.
In exchange for supporting Syria’s embattled president, the Kremlin has demanded significant control of Syria’s hydrocarbon fields through development contracts and preferential treatment for future energy deals.
The Kremlin’s presence in Syria has been unofficially bolstered by the Wagner Group, a private military firm that has supported Assad alongside the Russian armed forces while also capturing and guarding Syria’s oil and gas fields.
“Wagner became the Kremlin’s main tactical group in Syria. Because the Syrian army can’t do the job on their own,” explains Ruslan Leviv of the Conflict Intelligence Team. “[N]ot a classic private contractor [but]… an unofficial arm of the Defense Ministry.”
Arab media describes the Wagner Group as a ‘shock force’ doing Assad and Putin’s dirty work, entering conflict zones to stabilise them just enough to extract resources and leaving just as quickly.
This pattern of supporting oil-rich but unstable dictatorships has seen the Wagner Group enter Sudan and the neighbouring Central African Republic to train militias and court leaderships in exchange for resources.
The use of the Kremlin’s armed forces and the commercial Wagner Group (funded by Putin’s allies) is blurring the lines between private and state forces, creating a new trend of hybrid warfare.
It is this aggressive trend that bolsters Assad, and now Libya’s strongman Khalifa Haftar is receiving the same patronage with similar strings attached.
Haftar controls eastern Libya’s oil territories and seaports, the very zones that the Wagner Group has deployed to since 2017 to train militias and guard oil facilities.
The Wagner Group’s latest intervention builds on its battle experience in Syria, continuing Russia’s pattern of allowing mercenaries to directly engage in armed combat alongside Russian Forces and African militias.
At a recent lecture for my book, The Privatization of Warfare, journalists in the audience argued that the Wagner Group activities were breeding a new form of warfare to the point that a new term was needed to describe such hybrid activities:
A private militia on paper but centralised by the state, in essence no longer a private military company but a hybrid military company, working for commercial clients while indirectly supporting state interests abroad.
“The Wagner Group,” explains Geopolitical Monitor Analyst Jose Miguel Alonso-Trabanco, “[is] a transnational paramilitary company that informally acts as a proxy force fighting on behalf of the geopolitical agenda of one of the world’s greatest powers in unconventional battlegrounds.”
And, Alonso-Trabanco insists, the Wagner Group will only continue to expand.
Effectively an extension of Russian foreign policy, it has a powerful ally at the UN that has vetoed major political accusations against Assad, including ending 2017 investigations into Syrian chemical attacks.
In exchange for Haftar cooperating with Wagner Group’s mercenaries and guaranteeing Russian influence over Libyan oil flow, Haftar is buying himself an ally on the UN Security Council that will empower his militancy as it has Assad’s.
This transactional relationship is already evident from a recent meeting between Putin and Haftar, in which Haftar reportedly requested Russia’s influence in lifting a UN-imposed embargo against his Libyan National Army.
In April of this year, Putin did indeed leverage his influence with the Security Council by blocking a Security Council statement intended to condemn Haftar’s Tripoli offensive.
The Kremlin has also printed dinars for Haftar’s control of Libya’s central bank.
In addition, Wagner Group’s activities are complemented by reports that Russia is running a web of political schemes to help Haftar elevate his political stature, including advocating the rigging of elections should he run for president.
Libya has the largest reserves of oil across Africa.
As with Syria, Putin is eyeing how the rebuilding of infrastructure, including energy depots across Libya, will grant him influence over the most significant energy hub in Africa.
In a twist of irony, just as Gaddafi warned that his overthrow would turn Libya into a terrorist haven, Putin now warns that Libya is becoming home to Daesh militants from Syria’s Idlib.
“[The] infiltration of militants into Libya…is a threat for everyone because from Libya they can go anywhere. Let’s not forget about it,” Putin declared.
Of course, this trump card has also been played by Syria’s Assad, who has insisted in interviews that the West’s support of anti-Assad forces is to blame for both the growth of extremist groups and the so-called refugee crisis.
Similar language by leaders with dissimilar goals. Assad wants to survive.
Putin may not truly be interested in curbing immigration from Libya, but he does want to spread Russian influence across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Even as Russia has distanced itself from Haftar’s recent offensive against Tripoli, the Kremlin continues to consider leverage.
Moscow will maximise opportunities to play mediator, explains Max Suchkov of the Russian International Affairs Council.
“In all of this, Moscow will stick to the golden rule of Russian diplomacy: position yourself in a way that makes you the go-to for all the parties regardless of your own engagement with each of them.”
Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian political analyst, emphasises that for Putin, Haftar is simply a means to an end.
Putin doesn’t want just to play mediator; he wants geostrategic control in Libya.
“If Haftar fails to win control of Tripoli… and his hold on much of Libya’s natural wealth weakens as a consequence, the Kremlin will be actively seeking others to empower so it can get back into the country’s oil and gas sector and seek opportunities for a naval presence.”
This latter ambition is reflected in Russia’s position across Syria, which includes a substantial airbase and the Tartus naval base, expanding Putin’s reach in the Mediterranean Sea.
Gaddafi styled himself as the King of Kings of Africa. Perhaps Putin sees himself as a Tsar with even greater regional ambitions, and it is through the use of mercenaries, Russian armed forces and regime patronage that he will expand his energy hubs.
When it comes to such hybrid warfare, it is not only the Wagner Group and the Russian armed forces but also militant leaders like Assad and Haftar who, for the right price, serve as an extension of the Kremlin’s foreign policy across the Arab world.
Nicolai Due-Gundersen is a PhD candidate at Kingston University, London after four years living in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He is a political commentator on Al Jazeera, Radio Sputnik and Voice of Islam and has lectured at Kingston University, the University of Jordan.