The last time Russian forces tried to topple an internationally recognized government it was in a country far from Eastern Europe and on a far smaller scale than today’s war in Ukraine. But what I saw in Libya was no less terrifying for civilians and similarly corrosive to national sovereignty—a testing ground, of sorts, for the conflict now raging in Ukraine.
That includes the use of mercenaries, which U.S. officials say President Vladimir Putin is resorting to as regular Russian forces falter, the death toll among Russian troops rises, and atrocities take center stage. In the fall of 2019, I was reporting from Tripoli as roughly one thousand fighters from the so-called Wagner Group—a private military company that essentially functions as Putin’s secret arm—and some regular Russian military personnel joined the militia forces of a Libyan warlord in an effort to oust the sitting government.
But Libyan civilians bore the brunt of the Wagner onslaught. Entire families had died in the dust-strewn ruins of homes obliterated by Russian shelling. Months later, mines and booby-traps emplaced by Wagner fighters would kill dozens more.
All of this prompted little pushback in Western capitals. Worse, two U.S. allies, France and the United Arab Emirates, abetted the Russian-led attack on Tripoli with diplomatic and military support. And while the invasion failed to overthrow the Libyan government, its aftermath left Russian military forces firmly entrenched in airbases and oil facilities in southern and eastern Libya.
In Ukraine, Russia appears to be repeating its Libya playbook. After failing to decapitate the Ukrainian government and seize the entire country, Moscow has pivoted to shearing off swaths of territory and freezing Ukraine’s conflict into a stalemate that stymies Kiev’s economic and democratic progress and its integration with the West. And in late March, Pentagon and Western intelligence services reported that up to a thousand Wagner fighters, hardened by battle in Libya and an even bloodier intervention in Syria, are redeploying to Ukraine.
There, Wagner will find a foe that is far more competent and better equipped than Libya’s militias and one that has already shattered the morale of Russian conventional forces. But by throwing more manpower into the Ukraine war, along with air defense systems and artillery, these mercenaries could still undermine the prospects for a durable peace and sow the seeds for future conflict. Specifically, by shoring up pro-Russian forces in the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk in southeastern Ukraine, they could help wrest enough land from Ukrainian government control to create a new reality on the ground that gives Putin newfound leverage.
But to the extent they violate the rules of war—targeting civilians, or committing abuses like those uncovered on the outskirts of Kyiv, where reports say Wagner operated—Putin’s mercenaries will intensify an already atrocity-ridden campaign, and make it more likely that rank-and-file Russian soldiers will act with more brutality. But they are also likely to stiffen Western resolve in Ukraine. What the Wagner Group did in Libya without drawing much of an outcry—along with its even more destructive campaign in Syria and its murderous meddling in Africa, epitomized by a reported massacre in late March of hundreds of civilians in Mali by Wagner and Malian government forces—will not go unnoticed in Eastern Europe.
Putin’s adventures in the Middle East and Africa constituted his bid to expand Russian global influence, whittle away the U.S.-led international order, and nudge the world toward greater multipolarity—all while reaping economic spoils. They were successful in part because they happened in regions of the world that were deemed less important to Western policy interests and that, in the view of some Western elites and media outlets, were long accustomed to proxy wars and bloodshed and were “less civilized” than Europe.
His attack on Ukraine has thankfully produced an admirable commitment to action by the U.S. and its European allies, including sanctions on Russia and the provision of military and humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainian people. But the contrast between this degree of Western mobilization toward Ukraine—evident most starkly in Europe’s welcoming of Ukrainian refugees—and the West’s previous indolence toward Russian abuses of non-Europeans is morally bankrupt. It underscores the need, at the very least, for a more inclusive notion of interdependent human security, between the countries of the Global South and the Global North.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A former U.S. military officer with tours across the Middle East and Africa, he is the author of The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018). He is writing a history of African and Middle Eastern resistance to European imperialism during the interwar period for Liveright / W.W. Norton.