Georgetown Security Studies Review

The Wagner Group’s entrenched and increasingly overt operations in Libya reflect Russia’s strategic challenge to Western influence and its ambition to solidify its geopolitical power in North Africa. By backing Khalifa Haftar, Russia has leveraged private military contractors (PMCs) to exploit global distractions and Libya’s political disarray, cementing its presence in the Mediterranean and extending its reach into Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Wagner Group’s evolution from covert operations to a pronounced military role aligns with Russia’s broader objectives of controlling strategic resources and key geographic areas that can encircle Western powers and challenge them on multiple fronts. 

The Wagner Group’s History in Libya

Functioning as an instrument of Russian foreign policy, Wagner’s presence in Libya dates back to early 2017, initially involved in demining operations. Their significant engagement began in May 2018, with around 300 mercenaries aiding the LNA in various military operations. Wagner’s influence expanded during the LNA’s offensive to capture Tripoli in 2019, with substantial financial backing from the United Arab Emirates. Despite suffering setbacks due to Turkish military intervention supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA), Wagner shifted focus to defending strategic locations in eastern Libya, constructing defense lines, and collaborating with regional militias such as the Sudanese Janjaweed and Chadian militia FACT.

Throughout its operations, Wagner employed various advanced military tactics and equipment, including drones, anti-aircraft systems, and armored vehicles. Politically, Wagner has supported Khalifa Haftar and established contacts with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, to influence Libyan politics in favor of Russia’s strategic interests. 

The Wagner Group’s expansion into North Africa, West Africa, and the Sahel has become a critical element of Russia’s foreign policy, which has expanded its footprint in the region by exploiting Libya’s political fragmentation. Despite the upheavals following the death of its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s operations have been integral to the Kremlin’s support of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

For instance, during the Tripoli offensive in 2019, Wagner was accused of using illegal booby traps and land mines and recruiting Syrian fighters to bolster Haftar’s forces. In addition, Wagner has facilitated weapons transfers, established bases, and trained LNA forces, which has solidified Russia’s role as a dominant power in the region. Lastly, Libya’s geographic location, linking Niger, Chad, and Sudan to North Africa and Europe, makes it of vital strategic importance to the Kremlin. Indeed, Wagner’s involvement in Libya has facilitated Russia’s use of Libya as a logistical hub for operations extending into the Sahel and beyond and interference in unstable and war-torn countries like Niger and Sudan. 

As Libya remains divided between the UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, and a rival administration in Benghazi, dominated by Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), Wagner’s alignment with Haftar has allowed the group to leverage Libya’s vast oil reserves and gold deposits in Africa, ranking among the world’s top fifty to reinforce Russia’s energy dominance across the Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa.

This strategic alignment with Haftar allows Russia to control and influence one of the world’s most significant oil-producing regions. By securing access to Libya’s extensive oil reserves, Russia not only ensures a steady flow of energy resources but also gains leverage over global energy markets. This control can be used to manipulate oil prices, exert political pressure on oil-dependent nations, and create economic dependencies. Furthermore, by establishing a presence in Libya, Russia can potentially disrupt European energy supplies, particularly as Europe seeks to diversify its energy sources away from Russian gas.

General Averyanov’s Leadership and Expansion Strategy

Since Prigozhin’s death, the Wagner Group’s operations in Libya have increasingly come under the direct control of the Russian Defense Ministry, as the involvement of General Andrei Averyanov and Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov shows. As the de facto leader of the Wagner Group, General Averyanov has orchestrated a series of military and diplomatic initiatives across Libya.

Since his appointment, Averyanov has been implicated in high-profile operations, such as targeted killings of opposition leaders and orchestrating attacks aimed at destabilizing rival factions. These actions serve to weaken opposition to Haftar and consolidate Russian influence in Libya. Averyanov’s strategy involves orchestrating destabilization efforts to create chaos among anti-Haftar forces, thereby facilitating the Libyan National Army (LNA) to gain ground. His strategy has been instrumental in advancing Moscow’s geopolitical goals in the region by enhancing military training programs, securing key oil fields, and providing essential resources to support Haftar’s forces.​

In September 2023, Averyanov met with General Khalifa Haftar to solidify their alliance, followed by diplomatic trips to Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Niger. Under Averyanov’s command, analysts estimate several hundred to 2,000 Wagner operatives remain in Libya, with an additional 4,600 spread across sub-Saharan Africa. These contractors run three significant airbases in the oil-rich Sirte basin, in al-Jufra, and Brak al-Shati, facilitating the movement of goods and military supplies between allies in Sudan and other sub-Saharan regions. 

In April 2024, significant quantities of military equipment, including towed artillery, armored personnel carriers, and rocket launchers, were offloaded from Russian vessels at the port of Tobruk, sourced from the Russian-controlled port of Tartus in Syria. Further talks are underway to provide Russian warships with docking rights at Tobruk, enhancing military collaboration by exchanging air defense systems and training LNA pilots.

This expansion is part of a comprehensive strategy to boost Russia’s regional naval presence. The strategic location of Tobruk, near the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean, would effectively turn Libya into a critical operational base for Russia’s African and Mediterranean military and strategic actions. Additionally, granting Russian warships docking rights at the port of Tobruk would enable Russia to exert substantial control over Libyan airspace and project military power across the Mediterranean. 

Such a development would diminish Western influence in the region, undermining the strategic and operational flexibility of NATO and the EU while bolstering Russia’s ability to challenge and counteract Western geopolitical interests.

Averyanov’s initiatives have also enabled Haftar to exert significant influence over the civil war in Sudan by using bases under his control to ship weapons to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF). These moves are part of Russia’s broader strategy to strengthen its military presence in Libya and exert influence across the Mediterranean and North Africa. By positioning itself as a formidable counterbalance to Western powers like NATO and the European Union, Russia aims to counter Western geopolitical interests in the region.

Implications for Regional Security and Western Response

The visible escalation of Russian activities in Libya presents a direct threat to Western interests and regional stability. Wagner Group’s operations now potentially include manipulating migration flows to Europe and restricting airspace rights, strategic moves that could enable Moscow to exert significant pressure on the European Union and NATO.

This manipulation is seen in Russia’s leveraging of migration through Libya, where the instability and human rights abuses in migrant detention centers contribute to a surge in migrants heading to Southern Europe, creating socio-political strain within the EU. The presence of the Wagner Group and its influence over local militias and detention centers exacerbate this humanitarian crisis. Research indicates that 20% of transit migrants in Libya come from countries like Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan, which have high asylum acceptance rates in Europe.

To curb Wagner’s influence in Libya, the United States and its allies should implement a multi-faceted strategy. This may include enacting new legislation similar to the RICO Act to increase punitive measures against Wagner’s financial operations, thereby disincentivizing their presence by cutting off financial gains. Strengthening diplomatic ties with Libyan factions aligned with Western interests, particularly the Government of National Unity (GNU), and imposing targeted sanctions on key Russian figures will further limit Wagner’s support.

Additionally, enhancing NATO’s presence in the Mediterranean and providing military assistance to anti-Wagner factions in Libya could bolster local resistance. The evolving dynamics in Libya underscore the need for a coordinated international response to counterbalance Russia’s strategic maneuvers and mitigate its growing influence. Russia’s exploitation of Libya further demonstrates that its challenge to NATO is not confined to the Eastern flank but also aims at the Southern flank. Addressing Russia’s multifaced strategy is the best option for NATO to avoid a future multi-front confrontation with Russia.


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