Russia Supplies Combat Jets To LNA As Wagner Forces Fly Out Of Tripoli

On May 25th 2020, an estimated 1,500 Wagner Group forces (Russian mercenary group) flew out of Tripoli, after General Haftar’s Libyan National Army’s (LNA) withdrew from the capital city. Two days later, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) announced that Russia deployed 14 MiG 29 and SU-24 fighter planes to Libya, in support of the Wagner Group who are allied with the LNA. The LNA’s retreat comes after a year-long siege of Tripoli. Subsequently, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Tripoli neighborhoods reportedly killed and injured residents (on the 28th, the UN condemned this). The government warned civilians against returning to their homes due to IEDs set up by the LNA, Al Jazeera reports. A May 2020 UN report found that the Wagner Group has been in Libya since October 2018. The mercenaries aid the LNA in combat operations as well as with technical support.

Russia has maintained that it is uninvolved in the Libyan civil war and denied AFRICOM’s report that they supplied the LNA with combat jets. In an article from the U.S. Department of Defense, General Stephen Townsend, commander of AFRICOM insists their report is accurate. “Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support — support they are getting from Russia,” Townsend explained. The Wagner Group is a private military company (PMC), separate from the Russian state. However, the Wagner Group enjoys support from the Russian government; furthermore, the Jamestown Foundation considers Russian mercenary groups to be “state-sponsored/controlled forces.” Notably, the Wagner Group has operated in conflicts where Russia has significant security concerns, such as Ukraine and Syria. When Hafter visited Moscow in November 2018, he met with high-ranking military officials as well as Yevgeny Prigozhin, a likely funder of the group (profiled by The Guardian).

Emad Badi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, argued to Bloomberg that the deployment of Russian combat jets to Libya is not a “mere commercial transaction.” Instead, the jets’ deployment is “meant as a strategic move that would increase Moscow’s political capital in Libya.” Russia has substantial interests in Libya, both economically and in terms of security. Libya is home to the largest oil reserves in Africa. Per Al Jazeera, Hafter has reportedly promised Russia lucrative oil contracts in Libya’s northeastern “oil crescent,” once he gains control of the region.

Additionally, Libya is often used by migrants as a route into the E.U. With Europe overwhelmed by the migrant crisis, the Jamestown Foundation argues, Russia sees their influence over Libya (via Haftar’s LNA) as a “tool of pressure and intimidation” to wield against the E.U. With these incentives in mind, countries such as Russia and France quietly support Haftar’s LNA, while others (i.e. Turkey and Qatar) back the internationally-recognized GNA government.

Foreign actors’ involvement in the Libyan civil war has exacerbated the conflict. From January through March 2020, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSML) documented 131 civilian casualties, a 45 percent increase compared to the last quarter of 2019. Since fighting in Tripoli escalated in April 2019, BBC reports that roughly over 200,000 people have been displaced (over one million displaced since the civil war started). As previously noted, IEDs in residential areas have killed, injured, and prevented civilians from returning to their homes. Further, per ACAPS, 13 health facilities (a vital resource during the pandemic) and 220 schools in Tripoli have closed due to the conflict. The UNSML’s 2020 first quarterly report condemned “indiscriminate attacks” as well as the “targeting of civilians in civilian populated areas.”

Libya’s civil war, which started in 2014, has had a detrimental impact on civilians, with both governments displaying little concern for civilians’ safety, according to the Human Rights Watch. Earlier this month, residential areas throughout Libya “suffered indiscriminate attacks” by the LNA and affiliated forces, according to the UNSML. The UNSML condemned these attacks as a “blatant disregard for international humanitarian law and human rights law,” that could be considered war crimes. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights criticized foreign intervention in Libya. The Commission “strongly deplores the external meddling and proxy war in Libya that have continued to add fuel to Libya’s already intensifying fire of armed conflict…” a statement released last week read.

As foreign actors grapple over access to oil and military bases, civilians die from attacks on residential areas and hospital closures—even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia’s continued military aid for the LNA is harmful; civilians in Libya need humanitarian aid, not combat jets. Foreign actors allied with the LNA and GNA must respect the UN arms embargo on Libya. Resources and influence must be used to promote peace and stability—not to supply weapons and forces.

Alexa Grunow