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NEWS | Nov. 24, 2020

Russia’s Escalating Use of Private Military Companies in Africa

By R. Kim Cragin and Lachlan MacKenzie Strategic Insights

Russian fighter jets were recently deployed to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors
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Russian fighter jets were recently deployed to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground there. The Russian fighter aircraft arrived in Libya, from an airbase in Russia, after transiting Syria where it is assessed they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin. “The world heard Mr. Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” said U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander, U.S. Africa Command. (Date taken = date uploaded to DVIDS)
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 201123-D-BD104-001

In May 2020, fourteen unmarked Russian Mig-29 and Su-24 combat aircraft appeared in the possession of Russian paramilitaries in Libya. This transfer was unprecedented. While outdated, the aircraft have air-to-air and ground-attack capabilities similar to the United States (U.S.) Air Force F-15 and A-10. Why would Moscow send this equipment to a ragtag group of former military personnel moonlighting in Libya? As the United States military refocuses its attention on strategic competition with great powers, it will need to answer not only this question, but also broader questions related to how and why Russia utilizes its proxy forces.

Russia’s Use of Proxy Forces in Africa

Over the past three years, Russia has increasingly relied on Private Military Companies (PMCs) to function as its proxies in Africa. PMCs are for-profit organizations that provide combat, security, and logistical services for hire. The Wagner Group is the most infamous Russian PMC. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin and the Kremlin, runs the Wagner Group. It is headquartered next to a Russian military intelligence base in Southern Russia and has approximately 6​,000 ​fighters. Wagner Group contractors took part in the annexation of Crimea alongside regular Russian troops and were heavily involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine from the outset of the conflict. Beyond Ukraine, thousands of Wagner Group contractors have also fought against Syrian opposition forces in support of the Assad Regime during the Syrian Civil War.

In Africa, Russian PMCs are active in Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar, Mozambique, and Libya. They first arrived in Africa in 2017 under a contract with the Libyan Cement Company. Soon thereafter, the Russian PMCs​ expanded their presence into Sub-Saharan Africa. Table 1 below summarizes the activities of Russian PMCs by country. A check mark indicates that Russian PMCs are engaged in a specified activity in each country. The table illustrates the range of roles adopted by these PMCs in Africa and highlights the extent of Wagner activities in Libya.

Table 1. 

 

Training Local Forces

Providing Security for Russian Business

Supporting Political Meddling

Participating in Combat

Receiving Official Military Equipment

Transfers

Sudan

 

 

CAR

 

 

Madagascar

 

 

Mozambique

 

 

 

Libya

 

 

In every country except Libya, PMC forces operate without the apparent support of the Russian military forces or heavy Russian military equipment. Instead, the PMCs often train local forces, protect the interests of Russian companies, and periodically support Russian disinformation and electoral interference campaigns. In Sudan, for example, Wagner Group forces – which were first spotted there in December of 2017currently provide training for the Sudanese armed forces and may provide protection for Russian-owned gold mines. Wagner Group forces also assisted Russian political advisors in their efforts to suppress the 2018-2019 protests. It is unclear how many PMC contractors are presently active in Sudan, but prior to the April 2019 overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir, there were as many as 500 Wagner contractors in Sudan. In CAR, PMC forces believed to be affiliated with the Wagner Group – which arrived in January 2018 – train the local armed forces to use Russian-supplied small arms, protect Russian-operated diamond mines, and serve as bodyguards and advisors to the Central African​ president. Estimates of how many PMC troops operate in CAR vary widely from 175 to over1,000. In Madagascar, Wagner Group contractors have been active since April 2018. They train the local armed forces and provide security for Russian political strategists who interfere in local elections. There are indications that Wagner Group contractors are also involved in protecting chromite mines owned by a Russian company.

PMC actions in Mozambique most closely resemble their activity in Libya. In Mozambique, like Libya, Russian PMC forces are actively involved in fighting, but they still appear to operate without the support of heavy Russian military equipment. In September of 2019, approximately 200 Wagner Group contractors arrived in Mozambique to assist the local government in its fight against Islamist insurgents. Wagner forces brought at least one helicopter, but there are no indications that the Russian government supplied the helicopter, and it is possible that the Wagner Group purchased it independently. Since their arrival, PMC forces have fared poorly in Mozambique, and at least seven contractors have been killed in combat against insurgents. While there are some reports that Wagner has withdrawn from Mozambique because of these losses, the Wagner Group’s current status in Mozambique is unclear. As in other African countries, Russia is engaged in political interference and natural resource extraction in Mozambique. But while the Wagner Group has been linked to political meddling in Mozambique, Wagner forces do not appear to be directly involved in natural resource extraction efforts.

Russia’s Use of Proxy Forces in Libya

Along with many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Libya erupted into violent protests as part of the Arab Spring in 2011. Then-President Muammar Al-Gadaffi threatened to quell the protests with his military, and NATO responded with an aerial campaign. The NATO intervention helped rebel forces overthrow and kill Gadaffi in October 2011 but left no legitimate successor in his place. Since then, rival militias have competed for control of Libyan territory. The two main factions are the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), and the Libya National Army (LNA), led by warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Ten countries are actively engaged in Libya’s ongoing civil war. Italy, Qatar, and Turkey support the GNA, while France, Chad, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Russia support the LNA. While each of these countries provides varying degrees of support to its side, the UAE, Egypt, Russia, and Turkey have been the largest suppliers of military aid to their preferred combatants. The UAE, Egypt, and Russia have provided the LNA with PMC forces, billions of dollars in funding, air support, and military equipment. More recently, since January 2020, Turkey has supported the GNA with mercenaries and military equipment, including drones and air defense systems.

Russia’s involvement in this chaotic civil war appears to be driven by a desire to re-establish geopolitical influence and pursue financial gain. Gaddafi was a historic ally of the Soviet Union and Russia. His regime had major contracts with Russia related to infrastructure projects and weapons purchases, but these contracts were voided when Gaddafi was overthrown.  As a result, Russia lost billions of dollars in revenue. Through backing the LNA, Russian leaders thus have an opportunity to recover this lost revenue. In addition, Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, and many European countries rely on Libya for oil. If Russia were to gain control over Libya’s oil, it would provide Russia with leverage over Western Europe. Some scholars and U.S. defense officials believe that Russia’s interest in Libya is also related to Libya’s strategic location on NATO’s southern flank. Prior to Gadaffi’s overthrow, Russia and Libya had basing agreement​s whereby Russian Navy ships could dock in Libyan ports. Russia might hope to revive these agreements and station troops in Libya to increase its access to and influence in the Mediterranean.

Russian PMC activity in Libya breaks most dramatically from the pattern of Russian PMC activity elsewhere in Africa. Specifically, the deployment of heavy military equipment marks a significant shift from Russian PMC activity elsewhere on the continent. Although Russian PMC forces were active in Libya in 2017, the bulk of them began to arrive in Libya in September of 2019. These forces (estimates range between 1,200 and 2,000 contractors) train LNA forces, repair LNA military equipment, support social media disinformation campaigns, and fight on the front lines against GNA forces. Wagner troops have been observed using Russian-made equipment--such as mortars and Kornet anti-tank missiles--that is typically reserved for the Russian armed forces. This Russian military equipment was part of Gadaffi’s arsenal and was present in Libya prior to the arrival of Wagner PMC forces, so its precise origin is unclear.

Following the Wagner Group’s defeat around Tripoli in the spring of 2020, however, Russia began to deploy previously unobserved heavy military equipment to support Russian PMC forces in Libya. On May 26th, USAFRICOM announced that Russia had deployed fourteen unmarked Mig-29 and Su-24 combat aircraft to the Al Jufra Air Base in Western Libya. Then, on July 24th, USAFRICOM announced that Russia had deployed armored vehicles and advanced air defense systems into Libya. Wagner forces are using this equipment in their fight against the GNA, though the equipment is unlikely to shift the course of the war.

Implications

While the instability in Libya has raised alarm for its neighbors, the nature and extent of Wagner Group activities has three important implications for U.S. national security. First, Russia’s level of support for the Wagner Group in Libya demonstrates that Russia is willing to use PMCs to fight in direct contravention of U.N. resolutions and international law. Russia deployed PMC forces and weaponry to Libya, despite a UN arms embargo on the country. This behavior has been observed in other locations--most notably in Ukraine and Syria--but it is particularly problematic in Libya because it entails the provision of high-end military equipment for the exclusive use of PMC forces, rather than Russian military forces (and affiliated PMC forces) as in Ukraine and Syria.

Second, the recent escalation of Russia’s intervention in Libya underscores that Moscow maintains both the will and the capacity to intervene with heavy military equipment beyond its immediate sphere of influence in Eastern Europe to secure strategic footholds further afield. In this sense, Russian engagement in Libya is categorically different from that in Ukraine. Although Russia has clear national security interests in Ukraine (Ukraine borders Russia​ and the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol), Russia’s interests in Libya are not immediately relevant to Russian national security. It is also distinct from Russia’s intervention in Syria, where a combination of several factors--including Russian anxieties over the imminence of the Assad regime’s collapse, terrorist threats emanating from Syria, and the emerging legitimacy of foreign-backed regime change--likely rendered the conflict of higher strategic concern to Moscow.

Third, the situation in Libya highlights the geopolitical complexity of the new era of great power competition. The United States seeks “a stable, unified, and democratic Libyan state that can partner with it to defeat terrorism and stabilize energy production” and has continued to call for an end to foreign interference in Libya, adherence to the UN arms embargo, and the achievement of an enduring political settlement. The United States has also voiced its support for UN-led negotiations and has announced sanctions on individuals contributing to Libyan instability.

In this strategic environment, however, the United States cannot assume that traditional allies will always support its policy initiatives. Ten countries – each with independent foreign policy goals – are actively fighting against each other’s interests in Libya. NATO allies, such as France, Italy, and Turkey, fight on opposing sides of the conflict and cooperate with powers with which they might normally compete. Arriving at an acceptable outcome in conflicts like Libya will require the United States to spend considerable diplomatic and political capital to reconcile the divergent interests of so-called “middle powers.”

Russia has employed PMC forces to advance its interests in Ukraine and Syria and is now doing the same in Africa. Russian PMC activity in Africa is not yet a direct threat to U.S. security interests and the risk of clashes between U.S. and PMC forces is currently low. The transfer of heavy weapons and conventional airframes to the Wagner Group, however, presents an audacious turn in Moscow’s approach. As it pursues a negotiated settlement to Libya’s civil conflict, the United States should continue to designate and sanction the front companies and individuals that support the Wagner Group’s malign activities, just as it designated the Wagner Group itself in 2017. At the same time, U.S. policy makers should recognize that PMCs will likely be an enduring policy instrument for Moscow and consider establishing and clarifying redlines for Russian government material transfers to, and political support for, Wagner Group activities.           


Dr. R. Kim Cragin is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at National Defense University (NDU).  Lachlan MacKenzie is a research intern at NDU. The views expressed in this piece are the authors' own and do not reflect the official policy of NDU, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.