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A nation must think before it acts.
The Russian state-affiliated private military company known as the Wagner Group has proven adept at leveraging instability or weak institutions to further Russian influence abroad. Throughout 2020, the Russian Federation and Wagner have worked to support and enable Khalifa Khaftar, a warlord fighting against the Government of National Accord (GNA), the United Nations-recognized government in Libya, to consolidate territory. Mimicking its actions in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Sudan, Wagner has established bases and deployed troops that help Khaftar further Russian interests in North Africa. In times of diminished U.S. leadership, Khaftar’s position in Libya will allow Wagner and the Russian state to take advantage of the instability plaguing the region, specifically the Sahel, and potentially result in a Russian naval base on the Mediterranean.
Civil war has wracked Libya since 2014, after a 2011 intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) led to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. The conflict soon attracted the attention of regional powers, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) backing Khaftar in the oil-rich east with weapons and money, seeing him as a strident anti-Islamist. Turkey, meanwhile, emerged as a vociferous supporter of the GNA in Tripoli, ostensibly wanting to support a Muslim Brotherhood-friendly government, but motivated by underlying Mediterranean energy politics.
Russia saw another angle: Using Khaftar to project power in North Africa, Russian firms have solidified energy deals in eastern Libya, and Vladimir Putin has made overtures to Khaftar about establishing a Russian port at Benghazi. Consequently, in 2015, Russia hosted Khaftar on a diplomatic visit and began providing him small assistance. In 2018, rumors surfaced of Russian intelligence providing money, arms, and training to Khaftar’s forces. And, in 2020, Wagner opened bases in support of Khaftar containing Russian-made SA-22 air defenses, Russian military IL-76 cargo aircraft, and 1,200 Wagner fighters. These Wagner fighters galvanized Khaftar’s efforts in early 2019, indicating the significance of Wagner to his campaign. Wagner support, however, prompted increased Turkish involvement, ultimately breaking Khaftar’s siege of Tripoli and stalemating the conflict.
Despite Khaftar’s failure to capture Tripoli, due to an influx of Turkish arms, drones, and Turkish-sponsored Syrian fighters, an October 23 ceasefire has seen each side of the conflict cement their gains, with the GNA in the west (holding Tripoli), and Khaftar hunkering down the east. Khaftar did not attain total control of Libya, thanks to the Turkish effort, but still comfortably occupies a considerable portion of Libya’s east and center. Although not the preferred outcome for Khaftar, this state of flux enables Russia to maintain an active presence, especially now that the ceasefire has earmarked regions of influence. Wagner also recently occupied and established air defenses at the Sirte airport, which is paramount to logistics in central Libya. Regardless if Khaftar controls the entirety of Libya, Wagner has access to bases in the east and center, and now controls a significant airport, facilitating increased logistical capabilities throughout North Africa. The Russian state has already made overtures across the Sahel’s porous borders to Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Using its infrastructure and leverage in Libya and following its model of surreptitiously working in areas of instability, Wagner now finds itself in the position to follow Russia into the Sahel, expanding Russia’s presence in yet another region overlooked by the United States.
Gaddafi’s fall allowed mercenaries of the Tuareg tribe to disperse across North Africa with the former despot’s arsenal and declare the autonomous state of Azawad in Northern Mali. After certain Tuareg elements aligned with Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Dine, France intervened at the behest of the Malian government in Operation Barkhane. However, the terrorist groups proliferated, eventually consolidating as either the Al Qaeda-affiliated Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) or the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). In the tri-border area of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, these groups have seized control of gold mines, cattle herds, and local resources, all while fighting between one another and against state security forces, a UN peacekeeping mission, and the increasingly unpopular Barkhane contingent of 5,100 French soldiers.
Russia has also ramped up bilateral efforts with Sahelian states, having agreed to counter-terrorism and military training efforts with Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali from 2017-2019. In August 2020, Russia did not hesitate to endorse the post-coup Malian government, meeting with the leaders of the August 2020 coup a few days after its success and agreeing to supply arms to its military. Increased Russian activity comes while the United States intimates a drawdown in valuable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to Barkhane. Following previously practiced doctrine, Russia is closing bilateral arms deals to fill a power vacuum, and, through Khaftar and Wagner, Russia can access Al Khadim airfield in Northeastern Libya, Sirte airport, and bases and logistics networks in Central Libya. Under the ceasefire, Khaftar has retained these areas, providing Wagner and the Russian state a launchpad from which to spring into the Sahel.
Russian activity and positioning in Libya, CAR, and Sudan prove prescient for Russian actions in the Sahel. In CAR, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Wagner, negotiated diamond mining contracts with both the government and rebel groups, employed Wagner for security at the mines, and helped install a former Russian military intelligence officer, Valery Zakharov, as President Faustin Toudéra’s national security advisor. In Sudan, likewise, Wagner helped prop up the doomed Omar Bashir regime while providing security for the Prigozhin-owned gold mining company M-Invest. Finally, in Libya, the Russian Federation called for peace, while channeling logistics and Wagner support to Khaftar, an inherent contradiction showing how Wagner allows the Russian state to exploit instability.
Ungoverned areas around the border of Niger and Mali prove fertile for Prigozhin’s blueprint of surreptitiously furthering Russian foreign policy. Employing counterterrorism and security for mining companies as justification, Wagner can easily funnel fighters from Libya to the Sahel, via the Sirte airport or other North African logistical hubs. Then, Wagner mercenaries could find jobs working security for some newly minted Prigozhin-affiliated gold mining firm in Northern Mali or Niger. Concomitantly, Wagner’s presence would allow it to become involved in stability operations against JNIM and ISGS and in training local forces with Russian weaponry, an effort already undertaken by Wagner in CAR.
As Malians have increasingly railed against Barkhane, seeing it as a vehicle for French neocolonial ambition, Russia has noticeably situated itself with the sentiment of the Malian people. Despite this alignment, in October 2020, Russia and France announced a desire to intensify cooperation on counterterrorism. As Malians view Barkhane as increasingly neocolonial, a helping hand in the form of a Russian troop presence would come as a welcome overture by the French government and act as a vehicle for further Russian influence. Already having established influence and cemented resource deals by playing Russian state and Wagner dynamics off of one another in Libya and CAR, Russia finds itself in a similar position with Mali and other Sahelian states.
Increased Russian access to Libya also weakens southern Europe’s security amidst a tension-filled European Union. First, Wagner’s importance to Khaftar enables Russia to potentially establish a warm-water Mediterranean port. Second, Russia can play a role in weaponizing Libyan migration to Europe.
Russia has already made overtures to Khaftar about a port at Benghazi, where a Russian presence could threaten freedom of movement approaching the Suez Canal, through which 12% of global trade passes yearly. Rebuffed by the United States when trying to build a port in Djibouti, Russia turned towards Sudan, announcing the opening of a logistical support naval base in mid-November 2020. Like Libya, Russia has cultivated close ties with many elements in the Sudanese government over the past 20 years. Viewing North Africa as a gateway to increase its regional influence, a Benghazi port would allow Russia a new outlet of power projection on NATO’s southern flank. Hitherto, NATO has primarily focused on Russia’s western borders, and a Russian port on Europe’s southern flank would circumvent these NATO considerations, upending thinking in a possible great power competition.
Tracing the steps of Gaddafi, Russia’s clout with Khaftar could also see Libyan migration re-weaponized. In 2010, Gaddafi stated that “Europe would ‘turn black’” unless Italy paid him USD 6.3 billion per annum. Gaddafi predicted that unchecked migration to Europe, which eventually occurred in 2015, would elicit severe European backlash; it even became a critical issue in the 2016 Brexit vote. Russia, or Wagner, encouraging the flow of immigrants from Libya would again provoke convulsions across the EU. An EU peppered by nationalist leaders, spurned by increased immigration, works in Russia’s favor, as Russia can take advantage of an increasingly divided EU, as seen by elements of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline negotiations. Probably imagining Khaftar would resume Gaddafi’s harsh anti-immigration policies, France used to lend subtle support to Khaftar. Though Russia and France found themselves both supporting the same rebel regime, France intended to ensure security to its south, while Russia has positioned itself to leverage that security for its own benefit.
Recent Russian action in North Africa comes after the United States shunned the region following its role in the fall of Gaddafi. President Abdel El-Sisi drew Egypt closer to Putin, and Russian activity in Libya has gone largely unchecked since 2016. Russia has also made overtures to Morocco and maintained its close relationship with Algeria, showing no signs of slowing down its activity. An expansion into the Sahel and a naval base in Libya remain the logical next steps.
While Russia’s influence expands, the United States has hinted at drawing down its West African forces. Russia assisting France in counter-terrorism operations does further U.S. interests, but Russian counter-terrorism assistance accompanied by conditions, such as Wagner mercenaries training Malian soldiers in Russian arms, comes at the U.S.’s detriment in North and West Africa. Undue Russian influence over the Malian army could draw Mali into an expanding Russian sphere of influence in North Africa, which could see the United States disadvantaged in natural resource markets and a quickly growing population with massive developmental opportunities. Wagner’s success would also become another case of Russia illegally leveraging mercenaries as a proxy for state power. Moreover, a Russian naval base at Benghazi would grant Russia a Mediterranean outlet that menaces the Suez Canal or NATO’s southern flank. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently visited North Africa, attempting to rectify U.S. indolence in the region with a few military cooperation agreements. However, it will take reinvigorated U.S. development assistance and cooperation with allies and North and West African diplomatic attention to not see Russia subsume North Africa.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.