Reports are surfacing that the United States believes that the unarmed drone, which was brought down recently near the Libyan capital of Tripoli, was shot down by Russian air defenses.

General Stephen Townsend of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), was quoted by Reuters as saying that the Russian air defense operators “didn’t know it was a U.S. remotely piloted aircraft when they fired on it.”

“But they certainly know who it belongs to now and they are refusing to return it,” he continued. “They say they don’t know where it is but I am not buying it.” 

“This highlights the malign influence of Russian mercenaries acting to influence the outcome of the civil war in Libya, and who are directly responsible for the recent and sharp increase in fighting, casualties and destruction around Tripoli,” Townsend said.

U.S. Air Force Colonel Christopher Carns, a spokesman for AFRICOM, stated that either Russian private military contractors or Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army, were operating the air defenses when the American drone was mistook for one of the opposition and shot down.

The U.S. drone was shot down outside of Tarhuna, 40 miles southeast of Tripoli. It appears that the drone was downed by Russian military contractors manning Russian air defense systems. However, the Russians are playing the “plausible deniability” game and argue that there aren’t any contractors in Libya; that any Russian nationals in the country are there strictly as volunteers. 

Of course, it is a well-known fact that Russian nationals, who work in Libya and elsewhere in the world, are shipped from a Russian military base and arrive in their destination in Russian military aircraft. They are sent home the same way. 

It is also known that Russian “volunteers” from the Wagner Group are fighting alongside Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army in the ongoing Libyan civil war. Reports from former Russian contractors estimate that there are currently several hundred Russian contractors in Libya. Hafta’s army is trying to dislodge the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

Since the 2011 ouster of former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, there has been a non-stop civil war with many parties aiming to rule the oil-rich nation. Hafta, with Russian backing, has pushed from the eastern side of the country all the way to the outskirts of Tripoli in the west. 

Fighting against Hafta’s Libyan National Army is a hodgepodge of militias that are often embroiled in fighting each other.

Since April, there has been little movement in the battle that rages outside Tripoli’s suburbs. 

The Russians are trying to consolidate their power in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East as the United States is withdrawing from the region. They’re also looking to counter the ever-spreading Chinese influence. 

Putin is deftly using the chaos in Libya to play both sides: He has publicly met with the internationally recognized government; at the same time, his proxy forces from the Wagner Group support Hafta’s army, which effectively controls about 60 percent of the country. From Putin’s perspective, it is a win-win situation.

The United States has very little involvement in the country. Libya is one of the places that President Trump characterized as “shithole countries” or where there is nothing but sand and death.

The U.N. has a presence in Libya, but it is weak and virtually non-existent outside of Tripoli. 

With a national government that has an army weaker than most of the militias fighting against it, or may turn on it at any time, the situation in Libya isn’t likely to change anytime soon.