Libya - Russia's Wagner Group Makes Further Inroads

29 February 2024

Moscow is expanding its "security for resources" blueprint in Libya under the lead of the new Wagner Group's General Andrei Averyanov. What does this mean for the democratic transition?

Years of war and chaos, an ongoing political stalemate, the devastating flood in September 2023, and the absence of a democratic path have made Libya prone to the influence of foreign militias, such as the Russian Wagner Group.

The Wagner Group has had a foothold in Libya since 2018.

However, according to a recent report by the London-based military think tank Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, Russia is about to step up efforts even further in the form of an "Entente Roscolonial" -- a group of states that actively seek to assist Russia -- in the Middle East and Africa.

The politically fragmented yet oil- and gold-rich Libya on the Mediterranean Sea is a prime candidate for this kind of new "Russian colonialism."

The country has been split under two rival administrations since 2014. Libya's west is under the administration of the Government of National Unity, an internationally recognized UN-brokered provisional government based in Tripoli under Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. It is backed by Turkish militias.

The eastern administration is the Tobruk-based Government of National Stability of Prime Minister Ossama Hamad, who is backed by the Libyan National Army under General Khalifa Hiftar.

"The objectives of Wagner in Libya have been mainly to get access to oil revenues more or less indirectly through supporting Hiftar's armed forces, but also to ensure that it can access the broader African continent," Tim Eaton, senior research fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House, told DW.

"In that sense, Libya has been functioning as a bridgehead," he added.

Resources for security

The Wagner Group was founded in 2014. For years, it was run by the Russian millionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin who used to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin until he staged a rebellion against the Kremlin in June 2023.

Two months later, Prigozhin died in a plane crash. Since then, the Wagner Group has been assigned to Russia's military intelligence.

The group's new leader, General Andrei Averyanov, is suspected of overseeing foreign assassinations and playing a role in destabilizing European countries.

The mercenaries now under his command in Libya have been rebranded as the "Expeditionary Corps."

"By replacing Prigozhin with someone who is closer to the regime and has a background in Russian intelligence, the operations of the Wagner Group have become tied more openly to Moscow," Hager Ali, a researcher at the German think tank GIGA Institute for Global and Area Studies, told DW.

Whereas previously the Kremlin was able to deny any affiliation with the militia's activities, Averyanov "chips away at that plausible deniability, because now it really is more of a direct extension of Russia's interests in Africa and the Middle East," she said.

However, Ruslan Suleymanov, an independent Russian Middle East expert based in Baku, told DW that not every Wagner fighter is content with the new lead.

"To this day, there are difficult negotiations with former Wagner fighters to sign a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defence," he told DW.

Still, one of the first people Averyanov met in his new role last September was General Hiftar.

Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to what can be summarized as "security for resources" deal, the RUSI-report stated.

Wagner fighters continue to support Hiftar and are in turn allowed to keep using the strategically located country for the transit of arms, drug smuggling and to run three Libyan air bases.

These bases allow Russia to bring gold that was mined under Wagner's lead in Libya to Russia which is heavily sanctioned due to its attack on Ukraine.

"Wagner has also been transporting portable surface-to-air missiles, ammunition, fuel and other cargo from Libya to Sudan's Rapid Support Forces, who are at war with the Sudanese Armed Forces," also a recent analysis by GIGA's Hager Ali stated.

For Libyans, however, having Wagner mercenaries in the country, also means "serious human rights abuses including torture, mass rapes, and extrajudicial killings," the EU already concluded in December 2021.

Wagner likely to derail democratic transition

The last attempt to hold elections in Libya failed in December 2021. Since then, none of the parties have been able or willing to agree to steps that would overcome the political stalemate.

In February, Abdoulaye Bathily, the UN special envoy for Libya, urged Libya's leaders again "to put their self-interests aside and come to the negotiating table in good faith, ready to discuss all contested issues."

Otherwise, he warned, "the fragility of its institutions and the deep divisions within the nation represent grave risks to its stability."

However, Hager Ali has no hope that Libya could return to an electoral or demographic path as long as the Wagner Group is present.

"The Wagner Group runs disinformation campaigns online," she said, adding that Wagner can interfere in the electoral preparations, intimidate voters through violence, and can even help rig elections.

And for Libya, Ali said, "where you still have political parties that need to establish a voter base and make decisions about the electoral process itself, disinformation is hugely detrimental to the integrity of any electoral process."

Edited by: Rob Mudge

AllAfrica publishes around 400 reports a day from more than 100 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.