WASHINGTON — Russia has deployed military aircraft to Libya to support its state-sponsored mercenaries in a bid to help reverse recent setbacks to rebels fighting to oust the U.N.-supported government.
“Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, who heads U.S. African Command (AFRICOM), said in a statement Tuesday.
Wagner, also referred to as Vagner, is the primary mercenary group funded and supported by the GRU, the intelligence wing of the Russian military. It has been active in Syria and various parts of Africa, according to Pentagon officials.
At one point roughly 400 Wagner (also known as the Wagner PMC or Группа Вагнера), elements were in Venezuela as part of the support for President Nicolas Maduro.
“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya,” Townsend said. “For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth-generation jet fighters to Libya — every step of the way. Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate, and sustain these fighters without state support — support they are getting from Russia.”
Wagner has an estimated 1,200 fighters in Libya.
The LNA is the Libyan National Army, the rebels trying to oust the coalition government of Libya that is backed by the international community; that government also employs mercenaries in its military effort. The Pentagon technically refers to mercenaries as private military contractors (PMCs).
Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt support the eastern-based Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which launched an offensive last year to seize the capital Tripoli. The internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has with extensive Turkish backing pushed Haftar back from his foothold in southern Tripoli and from some other parts of the northwest.
Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fire for the Wagner mercenaries, Townsend said. The Russian fighters arrived in Libya from an airbase in Russia after stopping in Syria, where they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin.
“If Russia seizes basing on Libya’s coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities,” Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, said in the statement. “If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank.”
The Wagner Group first became widely known by the public during its efforts in eastern Ukraine supporting separatists, boasting among other things about shooting down a Boeing 777 Malaysian Airlines passenger plane. In June 2017 the Treasury Department placed Wagner on the list of Russian individuals and entities subject to sanctions because of their involvement in the Ukraine war.
In February 2017, more than 100 Wagner mercenaries died after attacking U.S. and coalition positions in the Deir al-Zour region of eastern Syria. Pentagon officials said then that the Russians denied any involvement with the group, a contention that then-Defense Secretary James Mattis dismissed.
Wagner also operates in Sudan and the Central African Republic