Falling off the Fence: Russian Mercenaries Join the Battle for Tripoli

Andrew McGregor

October 8, 2019

Russia’s so-far ambiguous approach to Libya’s internal conflict, one of reassuring both sides of its continued support, has begun to shift with the deployment of Russian mercenaries backing “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar on the front lines of the battle for Tripoli. Despite Moscow’s search for deep-water ports on the Mediterranean coast, control of oil supplies to Europe, influence over migrant flows to Europe from sub-Saharan Africa, and preference in massive reconstruction contracts, the Kremlin has still refrained from offering Haftar unequivocal support in his attempt to conquer Libya and create a family dynasty.

Russian Mercenaries in Southern Tripoli (Libya February TV)

Haftar first began seeking Russian assistance in 2015 after being impressed by Russian military operations in Syria and promised “oil, railways, highways, anything you want” in return for military aid and diplomatic support in his battle with Tripoli’s Presidential Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA), which is recognized by the United Nations (Meduza, October 2, 2019). Moscow declined any official military support at that time, opting instead to unleash its private military contractors (PMC), beginning with the arrival of the RSB Group in 2017. Haftar met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Wagner PMC boss Yevgeny Prigozhin in Moscow in 2018 (Novaya Gazeta, November 9, 2018; YouTube, November 7, 2018). Russian officials insisted Prigozhin was at the meeting only in his capacity as caterer (RIA Novosti, November 11, 2018). But Wagner PMC personnel subsequently arrived in Libya in March of this year to carry out repairs to Russian-made military equipment (Janes.com, September 13, 2019).

A number of important documents related to Wagner PMC activities in Libya were obtained in September by the Dossier Center (funded by former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and Russian news portal The Project, in cooperation with the Daily Beast news agency (The Project, September 12). One of the more interesting documents was written or modified by Pyotr Bychkov, a trustee and African expert in Prigozhin’s Fund for the Defense of National Values (FDNV). The document outlines Haftar’s efforts to exaggerate or publicize his Russian military connection in order to awe his enemies. Haftar comes under criticism for using extortion and bribes (some $150 million provided by the United Arab Emirates) rather than military activity to ensure his campaign to bring southwestern Libya under his control (FDNV, April 10).

Russia is reportedly seeking a role for Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed during the 2011 revolution (Alarabiya.net, December 30, 2018; Bloomberg, September 25, 2019). Two Russian operatives working for the FDNV were arrested by the GNA in May on charges of political interference related to meetings with Saif al-Islam Qaddafi (Nation News, July 5). Documents obtained by the Dossier Center revealed Russian operatives were unimpressed by Saif al-Islam, noting that he had “a flawed conception of his own significance” and would require full-time Russian minders if used as a political frontman. Hedging their bets, the Russians created Facebook pages promoting both Qaddafi and Haftar. While plans to help rig elections should Haftar run in the future were outlined, it is clear that the Russians were similarly unimpressed with the field marshal (The Project, September 12).

Shortly after Haftar’s Tripoli offensive began, Russia moved to veto a UN Security Council statement calling on the LNA to halt its advance on Tripoli (France24, April 8). Haftar arrived in Moscow three days later. United States President Donald Trump made a secret phone call to Haftar on April 15 (made public on the April 19), reversing US support for the UN-recognized PC/GNA government without consulting the State Department.

A Russian briefing report dated April 6 noted that LNA officers appealed to the commander of the Russian PMC, Lieutenant General A. V. Khalzakov, for deployment of a Russian drone to find a GNA artillery battery that had inflicted serious casualties on LNA forces. The appeal was denied (FDNV, September 13).

GNA forces targeted an LNA operations room in Souk al-Sabat (35 kilometers south of Tripoli) on September 9, killing a reported seven Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries. The men were believed to be operating a howitzer battery firing on Tripoli (Anadolu Agency, September 19; Libya February TV, September 9; for the Ukrainian role in Libya, see EDM, September 6).

Russian and Sudanese mercenaries fighting for Haftar were reported to have made gains in southern Tripoli this month before being repulsed by the Islamist Sumud Brigade, led by Salah Badi (Libya Observer, September 21). Photos of Russian Wagner PMC mercenaries began to appear on local social media on September 22 (Libya Observer, September 22).

(Citeam.org)

A GNA strike on an LNA position on the Sabea frontline (south of Tripoli) on September 23 reportedly killed four LNA commanders and several Russian mercenaries (Libya February TV, September 23). The airstrike was carried out with a precision not commonly found in GNA air operations and was likely the work of Turkish Bayraktar drones operated by Turkish pilots in Tripoli. The Russians were allegedly caught in the open as they prepared to lead an assault on GNA positions (Meduza, October 2). Sources consulted by Meduza offered estimates of between 15 and 35 Russians killed in the airstrike, though an anonymous source in the Russian defense ministry claimed only one Russian had been killed. Meduza, an investigative news service specializing in Russian affairs, based its revelations on interviews with Wagner PMC fighters and commanders as well as Federal Security Service (FSB) and interior ministry forces veterans with close ties to Wagner Group.

 Vadim Bekshenyov (Citeam.org)

Further operations in the area uncovered personal belongings apparently abandoned as Russian fighters retreated. The possessions of one Vadim Bekshenyov, a veteran of the Syrian conflict, included a Russian bank card, Russian ID, printed Russian Orthodox icons, Syrian currency and a photo of a medal awarded by the Russian government for service in Syria. Evidence suggested the mercenary was a former marine in Russia’s Pacific Fleet (Defense Post, September 26; Facebook.com, September 25; Facebook.com, September 25; Citeam.org, September 27).

Russian Medal for Syrian Service on Bekshenyov’s Phone (Citeam.org)

The covert nature of the Wagner Group’s Libyan operations is reflected in the fact that neither the PMC nor the Russian government notified families of combat deaths or returned to them the bodies and decorations of deceased fighters (the usual practice) (Meduza, October 2). So far, Russian mercenary assistance has been unable to move the frontline in southern Tripoli. Russian failure in this campaign would be a blemish on Russian arms, so the Kremlin will be certain to continue to deny all knowledge of private Russian troops in Libya while keeping other political options open—however unpalatable.

This article first appeared in the October 8, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor

Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2019

Less noticed but no less important than the reported arrival of Russian mercenaries in Venezuela has been the influx of Russia Wagner Group “private military contractors” (PMC) in Khartoum to help local security forces shore up the embattled regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The leader of this northeast African state is clinging to power in the face of nation-wide protests against his rule.

Russian Mercenaries in Syria

The demonstrations started on December 19, 2018, over a three-fold increase in bread prices after a shortage of foreign currency forced the government to cancel foreign wheat purchases. Accusations are rampant that some of the hundreds of arrested protesters have been tortured and compelled to confess membership in terrorist groups (Middle East Monitor, January 14; Sudan Tribune, February 3).

Over forty protesters have been killed in the demonstrations, with the president blaming the deaths on “infiltrators” from the Sudan Liberation Movement of ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (SLM/A-AW), a Darfur rebel movement active since 2003. National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) chief General Salah ‘Abdallah Gosh accused Israel of recruiting the Darfuris to disrupt the Sudanese state (Sudan Tribune, January 21).

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity related to his repression of the revolt in Darfur. Russia was a signatory to the treaty that created the ICC but never ratified the agreement. In November 2016, Russia withdrew its signature, ending its involvement with the court (TASS, November 16, 2016). Ignoring the ICC travel ban on al-Bashir, Russia has hosted the Sudanese head of state twice: once in November 2017 and again in July 2018. When al-Bashir made an unannounced visit to Damascus last December, he travelled by a Russian military aircraft (RT—Arabic service, December 18, 2018). Russia is interested in the oil, mineral and financial sectors of the Sudanese economy and the establishment of a naval facility on Sudan’s Red Sea coast (see EDM, December 6, 2017).

Photos of alleged Russian mercenaries in Khartoum (The Times)

In January 2019, The Times published photos of men alleged to be Russian mercenaries being transported through Khartoum in a Ural-4320 utility truck, widely used by the Russian military and Russian PMCs. The report also cited witnesses who claimed Russians forcibly dispersed protesters (The Times, Newsru.com, January 10). Local sources state that the Russian contractors are training the special operations forces of the NISS, Sudan’s powerful secret police organization (Sudan Tribune, January 8).

Vasyl Hrytsak, the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), claimed that his agency had obtained the travel documents and passport data of 149 Wagner Group personnel who “directly partook in suppressing democratic protests in Sudan in early 2019.” The SSU alleged that Wagner mercenaries had been transported to Sudan on Tu-154M airliners belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense (Unian.info, Gordonua.com, January 28). The deployment was arranged by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s M Invest LLC, which obtained gold mining concessions in Sudan during al-Bashir’s 2017 visit to Sochi (Government.ru, November 24, 2017; The National, December 17, 2018).

A spokesperson from the Russian embassy in Khartoum declared that the Russian “experts from non-government structures” were not involved in suppressing the protests, adding that reports to the contrary in Western media were “outright fakes seeking to demonize our country and its foreign policies” (Reuters, January 15).

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, on January 23, that Russian military contractors “who have nothing to do with Russian state bodies” were operating in Sudan. According to the foreign ministry, their work was confined to “training staff for the military and law enforcement agencies of the Republic of Sudan” (Reuters, January 23). The statement contradicted an earlier one by Sudanese Interior Minister Ahmad Bilal Osman, who described reports of Russian mercenaries in Khartoum as “completely false… a mere fabrication intended to offend the government” (Middle East Monitor, January 14).

In late July 2018, there were reports of a group of 500 Russian mercenaries operating in a camp some 15 kilometers south of the Darfur town of Um Dafug, close to the border with the Central African Republic (CAR) (Radio Dabanga, July 31, 2018). Russian mercenaries were reported to have spent five months in the area training both Muslim Séléka rebels from the CAR and Sudanese troops. The bulk of these forces were said to have departed from the region in late July 2018 (Radio Dabanga, August 1, 2018).

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (BBC)

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur, the veteran leader of Darfur’s SLM/A-AW, expressed his concern with the Donald Trump administration’s “decoupling” of human rights issues from foreign policy and the opening this is providing to Russia in Sudan at the expense of the United States:

What is most astonishing in the context of the Kremlin’s hostile action against the U.S. and deliberate sabotage of your electoral process… is the soft pedaling towards al-Bashir’s overtures to Moscow… When Russian mercenaries fresh from Syria and Ukraine now have a foothold in both Darfur and the Central African Republic, with a mission agenda entirely contrary to that of U.S. Africa Command… your ill-considered policy towards Sudan is self-evidently not serving you well (Sudanjem.com, December 19, 2018).

Major General Al-Hadi Adam Musa, the head of Sudan’s parliamentary defense committee, said that a draft military agreement made with Russia in early January “will pave the way for more agreements and greater cooperation… possibly a Russian base on the Red Sea” (Sputnik, January 12; Sudan Tribune, January 13). The general noted that Russian naval visits could provide the sailors of Sudan’s tiny navy of Iranian and Yugoslavian-built patrol boats with training and “first-hand experience of Russia’s cutting-edge military equipment…” The agreement will allow for shore leave by unarmed naval personnel, but it forbids visits by ships carrying nuclear fuel, radioactive substances, toxic material, drugs, biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction (Sputnik, January 12).

Since its 1971 show trial of German mercenary Rolf Steiner, Sudan has maintained strong opposition to the presence of European mercenaries in Africa. While al-Bashir appears to have reversed Sudan’s position, it seems unlikely that the regime would squander what is left of its political capital by deploying white mercenaries against unarmed Sudanese on the streets of Khartoum. Such direct intervention could set back Moscow’s growing role in Africa, though Russia will likely do all it can behind the scenes to preserve a regime that has proved highly accommodating to Russian interests.

This article was first published in the February 6, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.