What Is Russia Doing in Libya? Pentagon Warns of Escalation As Putin Sends Fighter Jets

The U.S. has accused Russia of upping the stakes in Libya by sending fighter jets to support Russian mercenaries fighting there, as rival factions struggle for control of the war-torn nation more than nine years after rebels first rose up against late dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Russian President Vladimir Putin—along with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—is backing strongman Khalifa Haftar, who heads the Libyan National Army (LNA). He is fighting the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which is now being supported militarily by Turkey and diplomatically by the U.S. and other Western nations.

U.S. Africa Command (Africom) released a statement Tuesday detailing what it said was the deployment of Russian MiG-29 fighter jets to the Al Jufrah air base in central Libya. Africom said the planes left Russia and stopped in Syria—where they were "repainted to camouflage their Russian origin" before continuing to Libya.

Africom did not say when the jets arrived in the region, but suggested they had been deployed to support Russian mercenaries employed by the Wagner Group—a private military company owned by Putin associate Yevgeny Prigozhin that has sent fighters to Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela, Sudan and the Central African Republic, among other nations.

Wagner troops—who have reportedly suffered casualties in recent days as GNA forces push into LNA-held areas—have been withdrawing from the front lines south of the capital Tripoli, according to the GNA. Fighting has intensified since Haftar launched an offensive to take Tripoli in April 2019.

Russia has denied direct involvement in the Libyan conflict, but Wagner forces are often sent to areas in support of Russian interests. As ostensibly private troops, they give the Kremlin deniability even though they are largely backing Russian goals.

"Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya," said Africom commander General Stephen Townsend. "For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now."

Townsend continued: "Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support—support they are getting from Russia."

The deployment of Russian jets marks a new stage in the conflict, and a new willingness from Haftar's backers to show they mean business. Claudia Gazzini, a Libya expert at the Crisis Group, told Newsweek their appearance "is a big development" and goes beyond the violations of the 2011 UN arms embargo and drone deployments reported on both sides to date.

Rather than an offensive, the Russian jets—as many as 14, according to the Pentagon—appear to have been deployed to discourage GNA forces from continuing their counter-attack into central Libya. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday the time is right for a ceasefire and some form of power-sharing to end the conflict.

Still, even if the planes are not there for an imminent offensive, they could be used to support LNA and allied units defending against GNA attacks. The jets could also be used for strategic bombing behind the front lines, attacking GNA infrastructure and endangering civilians too.

Africom warned that Russia's actions risked prolonging the conflict and exacerbating "casualties and human suffering on both sides."

Those nations backing the two factions are keen to retain influence in a post-conflict Libya, which despite years of chaos still offers valuable strategic access to the Mediterranean Sea. Russian access to Libyan ports along with those in Syria—secured thanks to Moscow's backing of President Bashar al-Assad in his brutal civil war—could give the Kremlin another power base there.

Libya is still home to the largest oil reserves in Africa, even though years of turmoil have greatly degraded the ability to extract the natural resource. Nonetheless, a more stable nation offers a valuable long-term source of oil.

Anton Mardasov of the Middle East Institute suggested that it is premature to suggest Russia is planning to a Syria-style intervention in Libya. Nonetheless, he said Moscow would like to "make up for the investments it lost as a result of the Gaddafi regime's downfall in 2011" and retain leverage over what comes next for the country.

Libya—which Gazzini described as a "free-for-all"—offers the opportunistic Putin a chance to frustrate U.S. strategy, and exploit a key foreign policy failing of President Barack Obama's administration.

Though the U.S.—along with its NATO allies—provided air support for rebels battling Gaddafi, the country quickly fell into chaos once the dictator was dead. NATO seemed to have no plan and no will to stick around, making Libya yet another failed foreign war for the West and another propaganda win for its rivals.

The commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, General Jeff Harrigian, warned in the Africom statement that increased Russian influence in Libya would be a strategic challenge for the U.S. and its NATO allies.

"If Russia seizes basing on Libya's coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial capabilities," he said. "If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe's southern flank."

Libya is an "easy opportunity for Russia to make a bold move," Gazzini said. It plays into the broader rivalries in the Mediterranean, for example in Syria where Russia and Turkey are also backing different sides in the northwest of the country.

Turkish drones that inflicted significant damage to Syrian forces during last year's Idlib offensive are also supporting GNA troops in Libya, destroying Russian hardware with seemingly little difficulty. Now, Russia is demonstrating its willingness to invest in Libya and wield its influence.

The deployment will be costly for Russia, which has already spent vast sums in Syria and is now grappling with the coronavirus slowdown and historically low oil prices.

"I wonder who's picking up the bill for all of this," Gazzini said. "I doubt this is entirely Russian funded," she added, suggesting that other Haftar backers such as Egypt and the UAE will likely have given the green light to and be helping fund the fighter deployment.

This article has been updated to include comments from General Jeff Harrigian.

Russia, Libya, fighter jet, Africa Command, US
This photo, provided by U.S. Africa Command on May 26, 2020, shows a Russian fighter jet somewhere in Libya. U.S. Africa Command
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