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Russian warplanes in Libya could open new phase in Middle East’s biggest proxy war

Satellite image shows Russian fighter jets recently deployed to Libya.
Satellite image shows Russian fighter jets recently deployed to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors operating on the ground there.
(U.S. Africa Command)

The warplanes, a mix of at least 14 MiG-29 fighters and Su-24 fighter-bombers, appear to have taken off from a base in Russia sometime in the middle of May and flown to Hmeimeem, Russia’s airbase on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. There they were repainted, their Russian Federation Air Force markings obscured, before flying more than 1,200 miles and landing in eastern Libya, in territories controlled by Russia’s ally, strongman-in-waiting Khalifa Haftar.

The deployment, which the Pentagon revealed this week and Moscow denied, is the latest in a series of escalations that have seen all types of weapons — Turkish and Emirati drones, Russian anti-aircraft systems, Jordanian-made armored vehicles — enter Libya’s Mad Max-like battlefields, in often-blatant disregard of a nine-year-old arms embargo.

But it has rattled the U.S. and other Western powers that have largely ignored the conflict. They fear a new phase opening in the Middle East’s biggest proxy war, with Russia encroaching on Europe’s southern flank. Many see Moscow applying much of the same playbook it used in Syria, another war-ravaged Middle Eastern country where it has established a regional foothold.

“The crisis is deepening. … I won’t mince words: We are facing a ‘Syrianization’ of Libya,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a hearing in his country’s senate Wednesday.

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In Syria, Russia wields its air power — along with Spetsnaz special forces and Kremlin-backed mercenaries — to bolster President Bashar Assad against his Turkish-backed rebel adversaries. In return, it has cemented its military presence with airbases spread around the country along with a perch on the Mediterranean, and gained preferential treatment in economic deals with the Syrian government.

Moscow now appears to be making similar inroads in Libya. There it supports Haftar, a 76-year-old general and U.S. citizen who pitches himself, together with an uneasy coalition of militias under his command that calls itself the Libyan National Army, as the only figure able to unite the country.

In the battle for regional influence, coronavirus worries make Middle East countries vulnerable to disinformation campaigns.

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“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa,” U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said in a statement Tuesday. He added that the warplanes had been deployed to support the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-backed military contracting company that has done work for the Russian government in both Libya and Syria.

Accompanying Townsend’s statement were 15 images depicting what the Pentagon said were the Russian fighters in flight to Libya as well as satellite imagery of the planes on Syrian and Libyan bases.

“There is no denying it now,” Townsend said. “We watched as Russia flew fourth-generation jet fighters to Libya every step of the way.”

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Russian officials rejected the accusation.

“If there are any airplanes in Libya, they are Soviet, not Russian,” Viktor Bondarev, Russia’s former air force chief, who now heads the defense and security council in the upper house of parliament, said in a statement Wednesday. “The statement of the AFRICOM commander about Russia’s shipping MiG-29 fighter jets is more like crazy talk.”

That same day, Libyan National Army spokesman Ahmad Mesmari insisted at a news conference that the planes were older models that had been put back into service by local technicians.

“We categorically deny the arrival of any modern planes. … These need contracts and massive budgets and also the approval of the international community, which imposes an arms embargo on Libya since 2011,” Mesmari said.

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Yet that embargo, critics say, would hardly form a deterrent to Moscow or any of the other outside actors embroiled in Libya’s internecine civil war.

Ever since the NATO-backed ouster of Col. Moammar Kadafi in 2011, Libya has spectacularly fragmented, with foreign nations backing rival militiamen and turning the country into a “bazaar for mercenaries, death and destruction, or an experiment field for weaponry,” Stephanie Williams, the U.N. deputy special pepresentative to Libya, said in an interview.

Last year, Haftar, who controls Libya’s east, launched an assault — with support from the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Egypt and France, and at least the tacit blessing of the U.S. — on the capital, Tripoli, the seat of the U.N.-backed government, whose main backer is Turkey.

It was a campaign he pursued using plenty of foreign hardware, much of it gifted by his sponsors. Libyan National Army forces, including mercenaries from Chad, Sudan and elsewhere, advanced on Tripoli atop Emirati-supplied mine-resistant vehicles, while Chinese Wing-loong drones flew above them to pound the capital. Haftar’s militias patrolled the coast off Libya using a repurposed Irish navy frigate.

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The U.N.-recognized government has called on its backers, too, with Turkey shipping squadrons of drones and its own armor to pro-government militiamen facing Haftar.

“We’ve been very blunt on the failure to uphold the arms embargo,” Williams said, adding that countries had continued to violate it even during and right after an international conference in January on Libya in Berlin, where world leaders had pledged to respect the injunctions on arms.

“The more these countries violate the arms embargo, the more Libyan people suffer. This has to stop now,” she said.

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The alarming entry of Russian air power into Libya comes with the U.S. “absent from any effort to enforce international norms,” Jonathan Winer, a special envoy to Libya under President Obama, said in an interview Thursday.

“Let’s pretend that Donald Trump wasn’t president. I can tell you, as a former State Department official, the U.S. wouldn’t be sitting by saying, ‘Oh, my! People must be violating the arms embargo, but we’re not going to say who, or do anything about it,’” he said. “That has been the approach of the Trump administration. The Russians have moved into territory the U.S. has left open.”

A senior Western aid official working on Libya, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be able to speak freely, agreed.

“The U.S. has a very indistinct policy on Libya. But they’re also not willing to directly engage some of the primary backers like the UAE,” the official said. “They’re really not willing to have that conversation on the most senior level where it needs to be had.”

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The same applies to European countries.

“The sad thing is that the whole Libya file was an opportunity for the Europeans to coalesce. Frankly, it’s Europe’s national security which is directly threatened,” the aid official said. “Whether it’s a matter of terrorism and weapons and trafficking of human beings; this directly affects Europe.”

That lack of engagement may change with the Russian planes’ arrival. Haftar and his backers are currently on the back foot. Earlier this month, government-aligned fighters backed by swarms of Turkish drones drove Haftar’s forces out of Tripoli’s periphery; those included Wagner Group mercenaries, who were reported to have been evacuated to Libya’s eastern regions.

U.S. Africa Command believes the Russian jets will be used to provide “close air support” to further Wagner Group offensives in Libya. But with Haftar’s ranks in disarray, they’re more likely meant to defend areas still under his control from a possible Turkish-backed government offensive, said Frederic Wehrey, a former U.S. military attache who served in Libya.

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“So what’s the Russian game with these jets? It’s to improve their negotiating position to stave off further Turkish encroachment to the east, but you can’t say that this is the cavalry coming to the rescue,” Wehrey said.

That would echo a similar understanding Russia and Turkey have forged in Syria, where they have crossed swords but also cooperated in a detente that has excluded Western powers as well as the U.N.

A Russian-Turkish detente in Libya, the richest nation in Africa and home to the world’s 10th-largest oil reserves, would have far-reaching consequences for the U.S. and Europe, said Maj. Karl Wiest, an Africa Command spokesman.

“It is possible that when the smoke clears in Libya, Russia has basing access on Europe’s southern flank, and potentially long-range missile systems as well,” Wiest said. He added that over the last seven years, Russia has sold almost $9 billion in arms to its African partners, making it the top arms dealers for the continent.

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Still, despite the Pentagon’s opprobrium, there’s little expectation that the U.S. or European nations will bring real pressure on Russia or the United Arab Emirates, an ally of the U.S. that diplomats say is the financial backer of Russia’s incursion.

“That may change with Russia becoming more assertive,” said a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "[But] if you look at the broader picture, at the economics, our relationship with Abu Dhabi is more important than the Libya policy. “


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