By Amy Mackinnon & Jack Detsch
The Defense Department’s inspector general found that the United Arab Emirates is financing Russian Wagner Group mercenaries—just as Trump aims to sell the UAE billions of dollars worth of arms.
The United Arab Emirates is apparently helping to finance the Russian mercenary group Wagner in Libya, according to a report issued last week by the Pentagon’s Inspector General for counterterrorism operations in Africa, a finding which is likely to complicate the United States’ close relationship with the Gulf state.
Experts have long suspected that the UAE may be using Russian private military contractors to help obfuscate its role in the conflict, but the report is the first public, official assessment of the arrangement.
Military officials have been increasingly candid in their assessments of the Wagner group’s destabilizing role in Libya, amid concerns that the Kremlin may use the conflict to establish a military foothold off of Europe’s southern shores. In July, the Pentagon’s Africa Command accused the group of indiscriminately laying landmines around Tripoli and putting the lives of civilians in jeopardy.
But the revelation that those Russian mercenaries may have been bankrolled by one of America’s closest military allies in the Middle East further complicates the calculus for Washington, and comes as Democrats in Congress have been mounting a campaign to oppose the Trump administration’s proposed $23 billion sale of F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to hold a closed hearing on the arms sale early Monday evening.
“Now there appears to be a permanent Russian presence on the flank of NATO, and it was enabled by a U.S ally,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Nine countries have provided military support to the opposing factions in the Libyan conflict, and as many as 10,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters have battled in support of the warring parties. Most notably,
Turkey has supported the Tripoli-based United Nations-backed Government of National Accord, while Russia has thrown its weight behind the renegade Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, who controls large swathes of territory in the country’s east.
While private military contractors are outlawed within Russia, a network of companies collectively known as the Wagner group has been at the forefront of Russian interference efforts abroad from Ukraine to Libya and Sudan.
The Kremlin’s increasing reliance on the group has lent its overseas operations a veneer of plausible deniability, but Wagner is deeply entwined with Russian military and intelligence structures and the Department of State has characterized it as a “surrogate for the Russian ministry of defense.”
The group was initially thought to be bankrolled by Putin-ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, although it has increasingly secured a number of contracts with foreign actors in Syria, Sudan and the Central African Republic, further blurring the lines between Russian foreign policy and for-profit motives.
“The overall impression that I have had for a very long time is that Wagner is being completely funded by foreign contracts,” said Kimberly Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard College.
While the UAE has been the biggest military backer of Haftar as part of its broader effort to quash political Islam in the region, the Gulf state’s role in the conflict has received significantly less scrutiny than Russia’s intervention.
Experts attribute this to the UAE’s formidable lobbying efforts in Washington, and the country’s role in other key U.S. foreign policy objectives, such as the maximum pressure campaign on Iran and the UAE’s peace deal with Israel, which has been hailed as a rare foreign policy success for the Trump administration.
“It doesn’t gather a lot of traction because when you mention it to U.S officials, they say well, we have other equities with the UAE,” said Emadeddin Badi, a nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Program of the Atlantic Council.
The UAE is Russia’s closest ally in the Gulf and while experts have long harbored suspicions that the two countries were closely cooperating in Libya, the emirates’ reliance on Russian mercenaries on the ground has also enabled them to obfuscate their involvement. “It’s deniability, it’s better than direct involvement,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.
The cautious wording in the Inspector General report that “The DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] assessed that the United Arab Emirates may provide some financing for the group’s operations” is likely a reflection of the political sensitivities involved.
The Trump administration has long been reluctant to call out U.S. partners in the Gulf, including the UAE, despite allegations of human rights abuses in the conflict in Yemen, and Trump has gone as far as to say that the U.S. has no interests in Libya.
“I would imagine DIA has some good information on the UAE’s support to Wagner,” said Douglas Wise, who served as deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2014 to 2016. “Having DIA issue this would be an easy and less formal and embarrassing way to chide the UAE on their behavior than a diplomatic note or a press release from DoD or the White House. It lets the UAE know that we know,” he said.
Throughout 2020, experts tracking the conflict in Libya have noted patterns that would indicate closer ties between the UAE and Russia.
In January, after Turkey’s parliament approved a measure to allow active-duty troops to fight on the ground in Libya alongside Turkish-backed mercenaries, there was a drastic increase in Russian and Emirati cargo planes–likely laden with weapons and ammunition–flying to eastern Libya and western Egypt.
Like Russia, the UAE supports Haftar, the eastern Libyan strongman who was once a CIA asset and for years lived in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
The increased Russian presence in Libya has also coincided with Emirati drawdowns, further sparking suspicions. As cargo shipments began to tick up and more Turkish troops entered the country, the UAE withdrew its equipment from the al-Khadim airbase near Benghazi and allowed Russian forces to take over the facility.
But the likely turning point for the U.S. military that led to flagging the UAE was the deployment of a dozen Russian fourth-generation fighter jets operated by Wagner in May, which was part of Haftar’s push to stop Turkish-backed forces from advancing further into the country, said Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Paris-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
“That moment incensed many within the Department of Defense, but the only facet that was made public back then was AFRICOM naming and shaming the Russians publicly,” he said. “The other facet of course was that the Americans knew full well that part of the Wagner mission in Libya was likely paid for by Abu Dhabi.”
But while the U.S. election was still up for grabs when the Pentagon first spotted Russian fighters in Libya, the Trump administration’s departure makes it easier for the Pentagon to speak up now.
“Alluding to it in May was a much tougher proposition than now,” Harchoaui said . The United Nations Panel of Experts, which reports on possible sanctionable activities in conflict zones, has reported that the UAE repeatedly violated the world body’s embargo on arms transfers into Libya.
“We’ve known that there has been battlefield coordination between the Emirates and Wagner,” said Wehrey of Carnegie. “But the funding is just one more indictment of the Emirates’ collaboration.”
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Originally from Scotland, she has reported from across Eastern Europe and was based in Moscow as senior editor for the crisis-reporting site Coda Story.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. He is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department.