Emanuele Rossi

According to confidential information gathered by Formiche.net , large quantities of Russian heavy military equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, are arriving in Libya on the eastern side of the country. That is, the one more or less militarily controlled by the warlord of Benghazi, Khalifa Haftar . 

The field marshal’s connections with Moscow are known, a rank he self-assigned when he tried to overthrow the UN government in Tripoli, in a season of Libyan history (April 2019, October 2020) that appears distant but could easily return as a future scenario — in a moment of institutional stalemate like the current one, which has lasted for at least three years.

According to the information received, those Russian weapons could be destined for Haftar, but some members of the Libyan security forces explain that they are rather sophisticated equipment for the Haftarian militia (which since 2014 has called itself the Libyan National Army with a programmatic ambition already in the name, but which is also made up of militiamen without experience and skills). This element is among the most interesting: could it mean that those weapons will end up directly used by the Russians?

In January 2017, Haftar boarded the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov which had traveled — not without unexpected events — from Murmask to Syria, and signed a cooperation agreement with Moscow. Already at that time, there was speculation that Russia wanted to move the Syrian model to Libya — and it was probably the Turkish military intervention to protect Tripoli that complicated the plans. 

The generalissimo has an operating agreement through Wagner, a private military company that is restarting its activities in a new form, after the leader and founder Yevgeny Prigozhin had dared to rebel against Vladimir Putin (and coincidentally died in a plane crash a few months later ).

At this moment, Wagner is part of a network of private military companies (PMC, Private Military Company) that follow the directives of Andrei Averyanov , general of the GRU, the military intelligence that leads Russian hybrid warfare operations – but according according to a recent report by Rusi, operations are shared by various agencies, regardless of whether they are commercial penetration or security assistance, smuggling to evade international sanctions or migrant trafficking (all activities that Russian PMCs carry out in Africa).

If the presence of these companies in Africa – such as Convoy and Redut, active in Ukraine – is fundamental, their presence in Libya is even more so. The country has a geo-strategic centrality, located in the middle of the Mediterranean and deeply connected to the central-Sahelian area (where the Russians are present with PMC companies in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan) .

Since the rebranding after Prigozhin’s death, the PMCs are called “Expeditionary Corps”, which on the continent become “Africa Corps”. In Libya, it is estimated that there are 800 Russian contractors, while around 5 thousand are active in other countries on the continent. They are distributed in three Libyan bases: one in the Sirte oil basin, one in al Jufra and one in Brak al Shati.

These posts are used by both Haftarian and Russian forces and often become logistical hubs for Moscow’s African network. For some time now, the possibility of Russia opening a naval base in Tobruk has also been discussed , which would allow it to have another shore in the center of the Mediterranean, after the base in the Levant, in Tartus, Syria. Haftar reportedly spoke about it during a recent visit to Moscow .

The Libyan military strengthening that the sources speak of must therefore be placed in this context. Russia is now strategically stabilized in eastern Libya, which acts as a ” gateway ” between the Mediterranean shores and central African areas. 

This presence can have consequences to the Russian advantage and to the disadvantage of its rivals. If being in Libya (or elsewhere in Africa) allows Moscow to participate in the exploitation of the natural resources in which those countries are rich, it can also cause damage to the European Union (and ultimately to NATO). 

According to what was declared in March last year by Defense Minister Guido Crosetto , for example, Russian activities would have favored the increase in migratory flows from eastern Libya – both for business, also linked to Haftar’s children , and to destabilize the countries of Southern Europe such as Italy, which from a political point of view is particularly affected by the immigration issue.

Russian activity in Libya is certainly on the increase: the embassy in Tripoli reopened on Thursday and the consulate in Benghazi could begin operations in the coming months. In general, the risk of strengthening the Russian presence in Libya is therefore the opening of a new front along the southern flank of NATO, also using Haftar’s ambitions as instrumental. 

“If certain information turned out to be true, the risk would not only concern the potential opening of a new military season in Libya,” explains Karim Mezran , director of the North Africa Initiative of the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council. 

“It would potentially be combined with the Ukrainian war, the destabilization of the routes that go up the Red Sea and the chaos of Balkan areas such as Kosovo: that is, a further front, this time Mediterranean, to weaken NATO”.


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