“If there are Russians in Libya, they are not representing or paid by the Russian government,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in January. In reality, the total number of Russians (paid for, trained, and transported by the Russian government) in Libya as part of the Wagner Group is unknown but rumored to be around 1,500. They remain active and are beefing up their numbers around Libyan oil fields under the control of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in direct violation of the UN embargo.
In a confidential May report, sanction monitors for Libya said that the Wagner Group had up to 1,200 people deployed in the country. That was before Wagner increased its numbers and seized the aforementioned oil fields and production facilities.
Between Wagner and other recruited militias Russian proxy mercenaries now number close to 5,000 troops, according to U.S. estimates.
Wagner Group troops have seized control of Es-Sider, Libya’s largest oil depot, which contains two of Libya’s biggest oil facilities. It is the country’s most important port for oil exports.
In April, Wagner was accused by Libya’s Interior Minister, Fathi Bashagha, of carrying out a chemical attack in the country. Bashagha said the Russian mercenaries used a nerve agent against GNA forces in Salah Al-Din area in southern Tripoli. US Africa Command (AFRICOM) accused Wagner of sowing the areas that they withdrew from with landmines and booby traps that have killed 61 and wounded 113 people. The Russians have scoffed at these reports as “crazy talk.”
AFRICOM continues to show that the Russian Federation continues to violate U.N. Security Council Resolution UNSCR 1970 by continuing to provide military equipment and troops to the front lines of the conflict in Libya.
AFRICOM released several satellite images, which clearly show that Russia supplied Wagner forces operating in Libya with fighter aircraft, military armored vehicles, air defense systems, and supplies. The U.S. tracked 14 SU-24 attack aircraft and MiG-29 fighters that flew from Russia to Syria and then to Libya. Their Russian markings were painted over to conceal their identity.
“Imagery reflects the broad scope of Russian involvement,” said Army Brig. Gen. Gregory Hadfield, AFRICOM deputy director of intelligence. “They continue to look to attempt to gain a foothold in Libya.”
The Russians are also carrying out cargo flights. According to a report given to the United Nations from independent sanctions monitors, from November 2019 through July 31, Russia conducted 338 cargo flights. These supplied General Haftar’s forces in direct contradiction of the U.N. sanctions. The cargo flights were departing mainly from the Hmeimim airbase in Syria.
In a transparent effort to conceal their identities, these cargo aircraft turned off their aircraft transponders when entering Egyptian or Libyan airspace. Transponders allow the aircraft to be tracked. However, they are still easily traced.
Yet, Russia isn’t the only country that has been violating the U.N. arms embargo. The report stated that besides Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Qatar have also breached the arms embargo on Libya.
The independent report blasted the above countries for either conducting or allowing breaches of the arms embargo to continue.
The Russians flaunted the embargo and stepped up their support beginning early this year. The U.N. report stated, “that direct Russian Federation military logistic support to ChVK Wagner, and possibly the other Russian Federation based private military companies… significantly increased from January 2020 to June 2020.”
“Since the more direct engagement by Turkey in December 2019 and the United Arab Emirates in January 2020, arms transfers to Libya by those two member states have been extensive, blatant, and with complete disregard to the sanctions measures,” the report stated.
It added that the other nations listed aided in the breaching of the U.N. sanctions by not inspecting “cargo of suspicious commercial vessels or aircraft destined for Libya for which there were reasonable grounds.”
In a surprise to no one, the U.N. report stated that “The arms embargo remains totally ineffective.”
Libya descended into chaos and civil war in 2011 after the ousting and killing of longtime dictator Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. Since then, the country has been divided between factions vying for power: Haftar’s faction in the east and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west. Each is backed by rival foreign powers.