The Rising Tide: Russia’s Expanding Influence in Libya

As Russian forces under the ‚African Corps‘ banner fortify their presence in southern Libya, a strategic challenge emerges for the West. With shipments of military supplies flooding Tobruk and Washington’s diplomatic re-engagement, tensions escalate on NATO’s southern flank. Will the counterefforts be enough to tackle Moscow’s unwavering ambitions in Libya and beyond?

An Enhanced Russian Involvement

Russian involvement in Libya began with a few hundred military instructors for General Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAF) in 2015 and 2016. This modest presence grew significantly in late 2018 by thousands of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a PMC linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin at the time. The expansion of Wagner’s presence followed persistent Russian efforts to support Haftar with weapons, equipment, and political backing. By the end of 2019, Russia had established a substantial foothold in Libya, coinciding with Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli. Despite the proximity of Russian troops to southern Europe, the US and NATO showed little reaction. The situation escalated in April 2019 when Haftar attacked Tripoli. Russian forces, primarily Wagner mercenaries, played a key role in the assault until Turkish intervention pushed them back. By the end of 2021, reports of increased Russian military activity in Libya and the Sahel raised further concerns. Russia’s strategies in Libya involved military and economic destabilization, including flooding the market with counterfeit currency. Concerns about Russian activities in Libya increased after Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022. 

Wagner’s Legacy and the Kremlin’s Strategy

The fate of the Wagner Group was thrown into uncertainty after Prigozhin’s failed coup in Russia last year. Despite this upheaval, the Kremlin was never likely to disband Wagner, given its substantial contributions to Russia’s financial, military, and political influence across Libya and Africa. After his predicted demise, his commercial and military interests were divided among Russia’s intelligence services. General Averyanov has since been active, traveling to meet key figures such as Haftar in Libya, and visiting countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, and Niger. In all these interactions, the offer remained consistent: resources in exchange for security. Wagner’s presence in Libya and Africa has not only been about military might but also about controlling narratives. Prigozhin’s media networks have been instrumental in shaping public perception and political discourse, often in favor of pro-Russian elements. With the reorganization of Wagner’s assets, the Kremlin aims to continue this strategy, using media and military power to influence regional politics and maintain its foothold in these strategic areas. 

Expansion of Russian Military Presence in Libya and Africa

Recent reports indicate that Russia has initiated the deployment of its troops under the banner of the ‚African Corps‘ in southern Libya. Cargo planes have been observed landing at Brak al-Shati, offloading scores of soldiers, while cargo ships carrying equipment have docked at the port of Tobruk. The equipment and armaments brought by the Russian Armed Forces‘ ‚African Corps‘ include a mix of light and heavy vehicles, such as pickups, GAZ, and KAMAZ trucks, along with ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft artillery. This deployment underscores Russia’s commitment to establishing a formidable military presence in Africa. 

The ‚African Corps‘ aims to establish a core structure with plans to operate across various African regions. It is a vital component of Russia’s military strategy in Africa, operating under the direct authority of the Ministry of Defense, with oversight provided by Deputy Defense Minister Yunusbek Yevkurov. It also utilizes ex-Wagner Group operatives and contractors affiliated with Russian companies operating in Africa. The formation of the African Legion, initiated in August 2023 following the death of Prigozhin, underscores Russia’s ongoing commitment to maintaining a strong presence in the region. Recruitment efforts have been extensive, spanning both Africa and Russia, and commenced in December 2023. The escalation of Russian military presence in Libya, coupled with its broader operations in Africa, carries significant implications for regional stability and global geopolitics. 

In eastern Libya, airbases such as Al-Jufra facilitate military flights, thereby positioning Russia strategically to exert influence not only in Libya but also in other African nations. Russia’s control over strategic resources, including diamond mines and oil reserves, provides a strong incentive for leveraging its military strength to expand its influence in Africa. Moreover, the deployment of the ‚African Corps‘ signifies Russia’s intention to provide security and training services to African governments, while safeguarding its own interests and investments on the continent. As Russia consolidates its foothold in the region, concerns arise regarding its strategic objectives and the potential consequences for stability and governance in Africa. 

A Strategic Challenge for the West

Russia’s footprint in Libya has expanded rapidly, with recent deliveries of military supplies to Tobruk signaling a systematic buildup of military assets. The persistent influx of armaments, presumably dispatched from Russia’s naval facility in Tartus, Syria, underscores Moscow’s unwavering commitment to its Mediterranean ambitions. This escalation challenges NATO’s southern flank and threatens Western interests, particularly in North Africa and the Sahel, where advanced air defense systems wielded by Russian operators undermine Western counter-threat operations and freedom of navigation. 

In response to Russia’s growing presence, Washington’s decision to re-establish a diplomatic mission in Tripoli after a decade-long hiatus signifies a renewed commitment to countering Moscow’s influence, aiming to challenge Russian narratives and influence on the ground while bolstering UN-led mediation efforts. However, the challenges are persistent, including migration surges, countering extremism, and promoting national reconciliation. Achieving sustainable peace in Libya requires concerted efforts from both Western powers and regional stakeholders. Diplomatic pressure, coupled with effective strategies to address political and economic grievances, is paramount for uprooting the drivers of conflict and instability.