Despite rumours that Russia’s Wagner will fight in Ukraine, analysts expect the paramilitary group to stay in Libya. 

Russia’s Wagner Group, a shadowy paramilitary organisation tied to the Kremlin, has played a significant role in Libya, supporting renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in the country’s civil war.

Western observers had begun wondering in recent weeks whether Wagner forces would be withdrawing from Libya to instead focus on supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Although Moscow might need to adjust and reconfigure its mission in Libya, there is good reason to expect the Russians to continue their campaign, which has served to shape the security architecture of Libya’s east, where Haftar is based, and entrench itself.

“Before February 24 [when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began], there was no indication that the clandestine Russian mission [in Libya] was withdrawing, shrinking, or anything of the sort,” Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher specialising in Libya, told Al Jazeera.

While there are some unconfirmed reports that Russian mercenaries have been withdrawn from the country to fight in Ukraine, the majority have remained.

“The number of [Russian] fighters who made their way to Ukraine would probably be tiny as the Kremlin wants to have a stake in Libya’s future and needs these foreign mercenaries to maintain their hold on the country,” said Ferhat Polat, a Libya researcher at the TRT World Research Centre.

Sustaining a military presence in Libya is key to Russia’s agendas elsewhere on the African continent, especially in the Sahel region.

“You clearly have reliance on the perennial and permanent character of the Russian footprint in Libya. It wasn’t about to shrink,” said Harchaoui. “Even the reduction, the modest drawdown of probably 300 or 400 individuals is not the end of the mission. It doesn’t presage, announce, or augur capitulation.”

The Russians have built up a presence in Libya that makes Haftar structurally unable to detach himself from Moscow.

“There’s no NATO plan to remove Russia [from Libya],” explained Harchaoui. “The reason is, because Haftar is the only security architecture for huge parts of Libya — the eastern half mainly. Haftar is someone that you cannot preserve if you go after the Russians. If you forcefully remove the Russians, you will automatically and inevitably weaken Haftar.”

Turkish-Russian balancing act

Turkey, one of NATO’s militarily most powerful member states, will keep a close eye on ways in which the war in Ukraine might affect Russia’s influence in the Maghreb.

Although Ankara and Moscow have supported opposing sides in Libya, they also maintain a relationship based on “adversarial collaboration” that allows them to pursue economic, political, and military goals in their respective areas in the country and elsewhere.

Reports indicate that Ankara has made several efforts at dialogue with Bashagha in recent weeks, including inviting him to Turkey and agreeing to push Bashagha’s rival, the United Nations-backed prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, into negotiations. Bashagha and Dbeibah both claim to lead Libya’s legitimate government.

Russia, facing economic, military, and diplomatic pressures at home, is far less likely to entertain Haftar waging another large-scale offensive.

“The decisive failure of the LNA offensive on Tripoli … will likely deter a major Russian military intervention in Libya going forward,” said Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

Over the years, Haftar and his allies have become renowned for their demands. Amid this year’s tense environment, this could trigger a surprisingly firm response by international actors who have not forgotten that Russia is ingrained in Libya by Haftar’s side.

Despite that, Moscow is likely to hang on in Libya irrespective of the war in Ukraine, as it is in the interests of a number of countries, including Western allies and partners, to not change the balance of power in the country.

“Egypt, the UAE, Israel, and France don’t want that [a weakening of Haftar],” said Harchaoui. “These [countries] influence Washington, which cares deeply about Egypt. Egypt is a very populous nation and this notion of altering the equilibrium in eastern Libya is seen as a destabilising threat for a nation that has a population of 103 million.


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