By Nick Wadhams
The Trump administration stepped up its criticism of Russia’s involvement in the Libya conflict, accusing the Kremlin of providing weapons and other support to mercenaries from the Wagner Group and Syrian militias siding with strongman Khalifa Haftar over the UN-recognized government.
Russia is trying to expand its presence along the Mediterranean Sea and in Africa more broadly, and its involvement is only making the situation worse, three State Department officials told reporters in a briefing Thursday.
“Libya has become the next venue for Russia’s malign efforts to exploit regional conflicts for its own narrow political and economic gain,”
Deputy Assistant Secretary Christopher Robinson told reporters. “It simultaneously engages in activities that undermine a political peace process and widen the conflict.”
Robinson and the other officials said Russia is using the Wagner Group, a private Russian militia run by an associate of President Vladimir Putin, as a “low-cost and low-risk” instrument to advance its goals.
Photos on social media and other evidence show Wagner Group forces in Libya have “really advanced equipment” that illustrates the Kremlin’s involvement, he said.
Russia’s government has denied links to the Wagner Group. A United Nations panel of experts said 800 to 1,200 Russian mercenaries, including snipers, have been actively operating in Libya since 2018 and are effectively a “force multiplier” in the conflict.
While President Donald Trump at one point last year voiced support for Haftar’s “significant role in fighting terrorism,” his administration has since backtracked.
The remarks from the State Department officials are part of an ongoing campaign by the administration to ratchet up its condemnation of Russia’s role in both Libya and Syria, as well as more broadly.
The officials said Russia is also trying to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to sow doubt about its origin and suggest it was spread by U.S. troops.
Russia is also working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer equipment, along with Syrian militia fighters and forces that may be coming from a third country, into Libya, Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting Islamic State, told reporters in the same briefing.
Last month, Libya’s United Nations-backed government stepped up its campaign to reclaim territory lost to Haftar after taking back several key towns.
Recent intervention by Turkey on the side of the government has changed the course of the war, though the violence hasn’t abated.
— With assistance by Samer Al-Atrush, and David Wainer
Nick Wadhams – National Security Reporter, Bloomberg.