Isabel van Brugen

Russia has rapidly expanded its military presence in Libya, an investigation has found, sparking alarm at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and the West amid the war in Ukraine.

Citing sources within Libyan security agencies and the Russian military, the independent Russian site Verstka, the All Eyes On Wagner Project, and the U.S.-funded media outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, found that in the past few weeks alone, at least 1,800 Russian soldiers and mercenaries were deployed to the north African country, with some transferred on to neighboring Niger, where tensions are brewing between Moscow and Washington.

Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has maintained a covert presence in Libya following the NATO-backed ousting of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Washington has accused Moscow of using its mercenaries in Libya to interfere in conflict in the country.

After a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Libya’s eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar in late September 2023, Bloomberg reported that a defense accord was being laid out that would see Moscow expand its military presence in eastern Libya, and could lead to a naval base.

At the time, Jonathan Winer, a former U.S. special envoy to Libya said that the U.S. was taking the threat “very seriously.”

“Keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean has been a key strategic objective—if Russia gets ports there, that gives it the ability to spy on all of the European Union,” he said.

Newsweek has contacted Russia’s Foreign Ministry for comment by email.

Hundreds of soldiers from Russian special forces units, accompanied by thousands of mercenaries and regular troops, were relocated from Ukraine to Libya at the beginning of the year. Russian military personnel and equipment have been seen at bases in at least 10 locations in eastern Libya since March, the investigation found.

A source from the Russian Ministry of Defense told the All Eyes On Wagner Project, that he had visited Libya on numerous occasions prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“He says there has never been so much noise, tectonic shifts are brewing here. He thinks ‘great chaos is brewing,'” the project said.

Some of the most recent arrivals from Russia and Ukraine have been taking part in targeted combat missions. Others are training local forces and new recruits for the Wagner Group, the investigation found.


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