The main front of the war that began on February 24, 2022 is Ukraine, but geopolitical competition is spreading on a global scenario, touching Libya, easy prey for external actors due to its persistent instability.
Although not endowed with great performing skills, Wagner’s mercenaries, the main players in the Kremlin’s African policy, are seen as an element to be contained by the US apparatus, also given the dexterity with which they have expanded their presence along the Sahel strip.
The low-intensity involvement of the North African sector is a hypothesis advanced by Moscow and Washington in an attempt to distract the counterpart from the Ukrainian front. The first has private troops in the Libyan hinterland in support of General Haftar and tries to influence the energy market and the flow of migrants from here; Washington is pressing for a quick approval of the Libyan constitution that could lead to “free” elections, in the hope that these will wear down Moscow’s posture now that it is concentrated on its doorstep.
Bypassing NATO from the south was the Russian tactic aimed at taking a position in a strategic context for the Mediterranean countries of the Atlantic Alliance, by virtue of the gradual deterioration that Russian-US diplomatic relations were going through even before the invasion of Ukraine . While the Americans were careful to corroborate their presence in the Indo-Pacific , the void they left in the Mediterranean was being filled by Moscow, which was taking a parallel position above all in Libya and Syria .
The current geopolitical contingency makes Americans and Europeans rediscover the centrality of the Mediterranean quadrant, above all as a source of energy resources. However , in recent years it has been the Russians who have taken an interest in this quadrant, showing their attention through the involvement of Wagner mercenaries in the 2019 Libyan civil war alongside General Khalifa Haftar, who was attempting to reunify the country manually, after years division between Tripoli , seat of the Government of National Unity recognized by the United Nations, and Tobruk , seat of the House of Representatives presided over by Aguila Saleh.
However, the failure of the operation did not diminish the Kremlin ‘s interestfor Libya, enough to keep some Wagner mercenaries there despite the existential conflict in Ukraine. The Russian mercenaries have taken on the role of support force for General Haftar’s troops in the control of Cyrenaica and Fezzan, a condition that gives them political leverage over the General himself and regional political players.
The Wagner group has also taken possession of some air bases in Libya, where it has positioned some Mig-29 and Su-24 which have been joined by the SA-22 anti-aircraft defense systemsin the bases of Al-Khadim and Al-Jufra. Lastly, the Wagner group has positions near the oil extraction sites, thus setting itself up as protector and controller of the country’s production capacity, almost threatening the western energy system from the south, engaged in the diversification of energy sources.
The US business is currently engaged in stabilizing the energy market to alleviate the suffering resulting from high inflation. From this point of view, the consolidation of Libya could translate into partial stabilization of the European energy market. So here is the other reason why the United States has decided to raise the stakes in the North African country.
On March 24, Biden presented to the US Congress the plan called “US Strategy to prevent conflict and promote stability” aimed at restructuring countries seriously affected by internal instability, but at the same time of crucial geopolitical importance due to their geographical position and the extraction of raw materials .
Tactic that seems to reflect the intention of maintaining and consolidating the international status quo , a substantial change compared to the regime change period. From a geopolitical point of view, a priority is to contain Russian penetration in Africa, which has also strengthened in the face of the partial withdrawal of the French contingent in some quadrants of the continent.
The main objectives of the Biden administration plan are: Prevention, Stabilization, Partnerships, Management . The document also states that the function would be to prevent the high costs of instability in the region by promoting more resilient states with more solid economies, capable of withstanding the adverse dynamics deriving from the external and internal environment.
So if before democracy seemed to be the first principle of US diplomacy, the change in external conditions – that is, the rise of revisionist powers– has produced a substantial change in American intentions. Washington needs resilient partners in the Mediterranean , capable of corroborating its regional hold so that it can most efficiently address the main strategic threat: the People’s Republic of China . Currently, the recurring elements in documents of this type are “stabilisation” and “prevention”.
Important signals also come from the head of American diplomacy Anthony Blinken and from the director of the CIA William Burns . The latter went to Libya on January 13 to meet both Dbeibah and Haftar, especially pressing the Cyrenaican general to distance himself from Wagner.
The latter has been designated by the Biden administration as a “transnational criminal organization”, a functional legal maneuver to erode its image and prestige, presenting it as an unthinkable actor. However, Washington must also face the multiple external actors who are now crucial in the Libyan question such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates– supported by the Cyrenaic actors together with Moscow.
The message is therefore addressed to all subjects with some kind of relationship with the Russians. Dbeibah instead tried to win favor with Burns by collaborating on the Abu Agila Muhammad Ma’sud case , a person involved in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988. An affair which has provoked some protests in Tripoli against Dbeibah for fear of an increase in already substantial internal interference.
Anthony Blinken clarified on March 22 that Washington is actively working to re-establish the diplomatic presence in Libya, following the closure of the embassy in 2014 following the escalation between Libyan factions that forced the Americans to move to Tunisia – an event that would confirm the growing interest of American diplomats in Libya.
Anthony Blinken also stated that he is actively working to bring the African country to elections as soon as possible, however facing some criticism from those who support a gradual path towards the elections, subjecting them to a process of state consolidation to avoid a return to civil war .
Washington therefore notifies its willingness to engage, in a reactive way, in a low-intensity counter-offensive with the ultimate aim of engaging Russia elsewhere as well, underlining the impossibility of managing different crisis scenarios when fighting in one’s own backyard. But forcing Libya too much, as already mentioned, could lead the fragile balance back towards an escalation, in which the Americans themselves would hardly be willing to get bogged down.