US defense and US Africa Command (AFRICOM) officials believe that Russia inserted a paramilitary group in Libya to support Khalifa Haftar and position itself on the southern flank of NATO, according to the US-based newspaper Washington Examiner.
“They’re acting out on US strategic interests in North Africa, but at the same time, doing it at a low cost, and if they mess up, then the Kremlin has plausible deniability,” a defense official told the newspaper.
The official said it is really about access in Libya for Russia and about having access to the ports, to the oil, as well as having a reason to be in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“When we talk about Russia, we have to be specific that it’s really the military contractors from Russia, the Wagner Group are there, and it’s really not the Russian government, the Russian military, that is in Libya,” the official clarified.
He explained that when Russia is pressed by the United Nations on their influence and impact in Libya, they would be quick to say that they are not really present there.
Since the U.S. departure from Libya following Haftar’s attack on Tripoli in April 2019, Russia has been strengthening its military partnership in Libya, said Kimberly Marten, chairwoman of the political science department at Barnard College, speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum Tuesday.
“There have been reports that they are people who are sharpshooters,” she said of the elite Wagner mercenaries operating on behalf of Haftar in Libya, adding that they have really been the pointy end of the stick, making a big difference in what Haftar is able to do.
Another defense official told the Washington Examiner that the Russian private military contractor has been in Libya and other parts of the African continent since early 2018.
The Washington Examiner said that one report indicated that Saudi Arabia financed more than 2,000 Wagner mercenaries in a failed attempt by Haftar to take Tripoli in late 2019.
“The command sees Russia increasingly using private military contractors for military training and security assistance, which offers Moscow greater flexibility to achieve its geopolitical and economic goals,” AFRICOM Navy Lt. Christina Gibson told the Washington Examiner in a statement.
The senior defense official said that Russia’s presence in Libya is even more dangerous than the threat posed by ISIS remnants operating in the south of the country.
“What worries me the most is that these paramilitary groupsare becoming deployed closer and closer to where the US military does have interests,” the US official said, adding that with Russia supporting Haftar’s forces in eastern Libya and the US supporting the UN recognized government in Tripoli, a military conflict between the US and a thinly veiled Russian force depends on one man – Putin.
“I think the big question here is, just how risk acceptant is Putin going to get?” She added.
A UN-appointed mission to Libya said on Monday there are “probable mass graves” yet to be investigated, possibly as many as 100, in Tarhouna where