Federica Saini Fasanotti
In a nutshell
- The Wagner group has been crucial in spreading Russian influence in Libya
- The future of the private military company appears uncertain
- Moscow may rebrand the group, but will maintain its presence in Africa
Russia has developed a complex network of influence in Libya through the Wagner group and will likely keep using private military actors to maintain its leverage.
n August 22, a Russian delegation led by Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov landed in Benghazi at the invitation of 79-year-old Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA). The two men reportedly discussed the future role of the Wagner Private Military Company in the country, and more broadly, on the African continent.
A day earlier, Wagner group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin had announced from a remote location in the Sahel that his company was operating at full capacity with the purpose of “making Africa freer.”
New dynamics after Prigozhin’s death
On August 23, Prigozhin and some of his loyalists were killed in a plane crash close to Moscow. Some analysts have speculated about a sophisticated antiaircraft attack, while others believe an explosion inside the cabin broke off a wing and brought down the fuselage and the dozen travelers inside it.
Moscow needs the Wagner group not only for strategic reasons, but primarily for economic ones. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took the first step toward assimilating Wagner into the Russian military shortly after the attempted mutiny by Prigozhin and his men in June. Mr. Lavrov stated that the Wagner group would continue to operate in the Central African Republic, Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as in Libya. The Kremlin’s intention was likely to send a strong signal that it would maintain its presence in Africa.
Africa’s historical importance to Russia
During the Cold War, following decolonization, Africa played a significant role for the Soviet Union ideologically and economically. The new African governments, liberated from European colonial rule, also needed ideological support to appeal to their citizens. Moscow tried to spread the Soviet-era communist creed and anti-Americanism as broadly as it could.
Africa also presented Russia with an opportunity to expand its influence in the Mediterranean and other strategic hubs. The African market had great potential, especially in the arms sector. Russia now supplies arms to 21 African nations, first and foremost to Algeria. The Kremlin has long been determined to maintain a firm influence in the Maghreb, and since the 1970s at least 11,000 Russian operatives have been active on Libyan soil, even though relations between Tripoli and Moscow have often been strained.
The presence of the Wagner group alongside the LNA first became apparent at the beginning of the siege of Tripoli in April 2019. However, the group has been active there at least since 2018, controlling strategic oil fields in the Red Crescent area and providing technical support to the LNA, as well as operating alongside the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces or the Janjaweed militia group.
During the third Libyan civil war, which lasted until June 2020, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, France and Jordan also supported the LNA. However, Turkey’s military entry on behalf of the besieged Government of National Accord in Tripoli, and the subsequent failure of the operation initiated by Field Marshal Haftar, prompted the Gulf powers to take a step back.
Since then, Russia has increased its presence through the Wagner group, fulfilling several needs: controlling strategic infrastructure, advising local security forces, providing intelligence and influencing public opinion through social media. There is evidence that the group is behind an extensive social media campaign glorifying Field Marshal Haftar and other Libyan figures.
In the 1970s, Russia and Libya signed economic agreements worth billions of dollars. This economic partnership has never been abandoned, and even under the Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj there were several high-level meetings. The Kremlin was hoping to first stabilize the country and then embark on fruitful collaborations. This has been the policy of many European capitals as well. There is a significant difference, however, in how states have pursued this aim. Most European governments have relied on diplomacy, but the Russian government has preferred a more pragmatic approach through the activities of the Wagner group.
In 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reiterated his willingness to restore interrupted economic processes “put on hold ten years ago after NATO committed aggression against Libya and ruined the Libyan state” with the active support of Russian giants like Gazprom Neft, Tatneft, Russian Railways. Gazprom and Tatneft were especially relevant since Libya is extremely rich in oil and gas.
In May 2023, Libya’s National Oil Corporation and Tatneft, under an agreement signed in 2005, discovered a new field in Area 82 of Block 4, located in the Ghadames Basin south of the Libyan capital Tripoli. Russia is involved in the air bases of Ghardabiyah, Al-Khadim, Brak al-Shati, and Al Jufra, in the oil terminals of Ras Lanuf, Brega, and Es Sidr, and in the area of El Feel and El Sharara oil fields.
Libya has proven oil reserves of 48 billion barrels and natural gas reserves of 53 trillion cubic feet. As of 2020, the country was selling 63 percent of its exports to Europe. The Wagner group, by presiding over some of the most important facilities, has been able to significantly influence the country’s energy production – which added pressure on Europe during the energy crisis following Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Even if the Wagner group is dissolved and replaced, it will certainly not be a quick transition. In the past months, the GRU – Russia’s military intelligence directorate – has been trying to regain direct control in Africa, and Yunus-Bek Yevkurov’s visit to Benghazi is no accident. The SVR – Russia’s foreign intelligence service – is also interested in taking over the Wagner group’s propaganda machine.
Incorporating Wagner into the military would take away the company’s greatest advantage: operating in the shadows to do Moscow’s bidding under the guise of a private organization. Those underground operations have so far allowed extraordinary freedom to the Kremlin. Russian forces in Africa not only protect the interests of local autocrats, but also carry out nebulous but lucrative activities that fall in a gray legal area.
It is much more likely that the formula of mercenaries serving local powers will be retained. There may be a rebranding of the Wagner group, a new leader more loyal to President Putin, or entirely new companies. In any case, it will not be a straightforward process, regardless of what Kremlin officials claim.
It was reported that Prigozhin left a will requesting that, in the event of his death, command go to one of his loyalists, former military commander Anton Elizarov, known as Lotus. His will also stipulates that his business assets go to his 25-year-old son Pavel. The latest reports, however, give Andrei Troshev – retired Russian army colonel and former operative with Wagner in Syria – as the Kremlin’s pick to lead the Prigozhin legacy, proving that Russian President Vladimir Putin still has the last word.
Federica Saini Fasanotti is a military historian and specialist in counterinsurgency. Her fieldwork and research have covered, among others, Afghanistan, Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia.