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Libya Could Be Putin’s Trump Card

Global oil markets have already felt the pinch of Libyan oil shutdowns helped along by Russian mercenaries.

By , a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at Navanti Group, an analytics firm.
Teams carry ammunition cleared from civilian settlements south of Tripoli, Libya, on July 22, 2020. Militia affiliated with the warlord Khalifa Haftar's armed forces and mercenaries from the Russian security company Wagner Group trapped multiple mines and handmade explosives in the area.
Teams carry ammunition cleared from civilian settlements south of Tripoli, Libya, on July 22, 2020. Militia affiliated with the warlord Khalifa Haftar's armed forces and mercenaries from the Russian security company Wagner Group trapped multiple mines and handmade explosives in the area.
Teams carry ammunition cleared from civilian settlements south of Tripoli, Libya, on July 22, 2020. Militia affiliated with the warlord Khalifa Haftar's armed forces and mercenaries from the Russian security company Wagner Group trapped multiple mines and handmade explosives in the area. Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

When Wagner Group operative Vladimir Andonov, callsign “Vakha,” was killed fighting in eastern Ukraine in early June, a Ukrainian soldier unknowingly put an end to a string of war crimes stretching to Libya. The Wagner Group is a network of mercenaries operating under the rubric of a Russian private military contractor; as a participant in the Kremlin’s indirect military adventurism from Ukraine, to Syria, to the southern outskirts of Tripoli, Libya’s capital, Andonov had been implicated in extrajudicial killings.

Since entering combat operations in Tripoli in September 2019, Wagner’s presence there has swelled to roughly 2,000 mercenaries, including both Russian fighters and auxiliaries recruited from Syria. Andonov’s trajectory and fate in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine appear to support recent media reports that Wagner has drawn down its presence in Libya, pulling out hundreds of Wagner fighters to fight on Ukrainian battlefields since Russia’s February invasion. These reports have been read as Russia downgrading its global quasi-state, mercenary-led deployments in order to commit fighters like Andonov to its struggling campaign against Ukraine.

But to interpret tactical reshuffles, like those that brought Andonov to Libya and then back to Ukraine, as a sea change in Russia’s Libya posture is a misreading of the situation. Wagner fighters remain entrenched in and around key military bases and oil facilities in Libya as guns-for-hire for Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). They are an important part of Haftar’s campaign to wrest control of the Libyan state from Tripoli-based governments and forces. Wagner’s dug-in posture in Libya is consistent with Russia’s broader resolve: to pressure European NATO member states into different political outcomes by controlling proximate energy sources and sowing instability on their borders.

When Wagner Group operative Vladimir Andonov, callsign “Vakha,” was killed fighting in eastern Ukraine in early June, a Ukrainian soldier unknowingly put an end to a string of war crimes stretching to Libya. The Wagner Group is a network of mercenaries operating under the rubric of a Russian private military contractor; as a participant in the Kremlin’s indirect military adventurism from Ukraine, to Syria, to the southern outskirts of Tripoli, Libya’s capital, Andonov had been implicated in extrajudicial killings.

Since entering combat operations in Tripoli in September 2019, Wagner’s presence there has swelled to roughly 2,000 mercenaries, including both Russian fighters and auxiliaries recruited from Syria. Andonov’s trajectory and fate in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine appear to support recent media reports that Wagner has drawn down its presence in Libya, pulling out hundreds of Wagner fighters to fight on Ukrainian battlefields since Russia’s February invasion. These reports have been read as Russia downgrading its global quasi-state, mercenary-led deployments in order to commit fighters like Andonov to its struggling campaign against Ukraine.

But to interpret tactical reshuffles, like those that brought Andonov to Libya and then back to Ukraine, as a sea change in Russia’s Libya posture is a misreading of the situation. Wagner fighters remain entrenched in and around key military bases and oil facilities in Libya as guns-for-hire for Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). They are an important part of Haftar’s campaign to wrest control of the Libyan state from Tripoli-based governments and forces. Wagner’s dug-in posture in Libya is consistent with Russia’s broader resolve: to pressure European NATO member states into different political outcomes by controlling proximate energy sources and sowing instability on their borders.

Russia has maneuvered itself into a position where it has cheap, plausibly deniable operators who both are essential to the survival of a key Libyan actor and boast significant autonomous capabilities at NATO’s backdoor. This strategic card may ultimately prove more important to Russian President Vladimir Putin than his struggles in Ukraine.


With proven oil reserves pegged at 48 billion barrels and natural gas at 53 trillion cubic feet, Libya is a potential energy giant on Europe’s doorstep. The country boasts 39 percent of Africa’s total oil reserves. In 2020, it sold 63 percent of its exports to Europe (primarily Italy, Spain, and Germany), with production hitting over 1 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2021. Since 2020, Wagner has moved into position to obstruct both current outputs and any future effort by a European Union looking to curb energy dependence on Russia to tap Libya’s energy potential.

Wagner’s efforts to support Haftar’s seizure of Tripoli, the institutional center of the Libyan state, collapsed in May 2020 following Turkey’s intervention. Operatives redeployed to an array of oil facilities and nearby military bases in both central Libya and the southwest. The mercenaries established fortified positions to resist attacks from western Libyan and Turkish forces on behalf of the LNA while simultaneously establishing the capability to put a chokehold on Libya’s most strategic production and export facilities.

In July 2020, the Libyan National Oil Corporation announced that Wagner forces had effective control of production at the Sharara oil field in southwestern Libya, the country’s largest, with 300,000 bpd capacity. The company further raised the alarm over deployments at other facilities including Ras Lanuf petrochemical complex, Zillah oil field, Es Sider port, and Zuetina port, where the National Oil Corporation stated that Wagner landed a military aircraft, inspected the facility’s airstrip for military use, and moved into worker housing. In tandem, Wagner attained de facto control over a network of military and air bases stretching from Qardabiya near Sirte to Brak near Sabha, bringing in MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter aircraft from Russia, throwing up extensive berms and fortifications between these positions (clearly visible from satellite imagery), and establishing air defense systems. By the beginning of 2021, Wagner had established itself in a prime position to intervene in and influence Libyan oil production in southwestern fields and the Oil Crescent. Such capacity was clearly seen in the July 2020 takeover of Sharara, when Wagner forces entered the field to enforce an LNA-imposed oil blockade.

European Union leaders have expressed interest in investing in Libyan energy infrastructure to reduce dependence on Russian gas, but Wagner’s presence positions the Kremlin as a spoiler in these future calculations—or at least a card to play in negotiations. In addition to threatening NATO’s southern flank with a multipronged deployment—particularly as many oil facilities come equipped with the runways and infrastructure to offer some military utility—Wagner’s stance atop Libya’s prized low-sulfur sweet crude reserves has provided the Kremlin with the strategic depth to squeeze European customers. This comes amid tight global energy markets since the invasion of Ukraine and Europe’s impending winter gas supply crisis.

Global oil markets have already felt the pinch of Libyan oil shutdowns as Wagner’s LNA hosts seek to stymie the Tripoli-based government’s access to oil revenues. Most recently, since April 18, LNA-aligned protesters have forcibly closed southwestern oil fields of Sharara and El Feel, as well as ports at Zuetina and Marsa al-Brega, before expanding to the oil terminals at Ras Lanuf and Es Sider and Sarir oil field in early June. Judging by most reports, the blockade has slashed Libyan oil output from around 1.2 million bpd to 300,000 and 400,000 bpd. Though the shutdown comes from Libya’s political crisis—a standoff between Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and LNA-backed, parallel Sirte-based Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha—it’s safe to say Wagner forces deployed around the facilities have demonstrated tacit approval as the blockade drags on.

The timing doubtlessly serves Moscow. Especially in current energy markets, taking almost a million barrels off the market every day further dials up the pressure on Europe’s energy crisis, negating an alternative tap of oil and gas for countries considering a shift away from Russian energy. Russia’s political influence is palpable in the standoff: Moscow is the only capital to formally recognize Bashagha’s government, and when an article by Bashagha appeared in the United Kingdom’s Times newspaper in early May criticizing the invasion of Ukraine, he was forced to backpedal and deny ever having written the piece.

The shutdown, even without direct involvement, should come as a wake-up call to NATO member states concerned about Russia’s political and economic power projection on its borders. It underscores how, in recent years, the Kremlin has seized an opportunity to become an insurmountable actor in Libya’s political trajectory. Weaving itself into the security architecture of the LNA, Wagner helps perpetuate and accelerate trends that harm European interests.

Yet a further point that Wagner exploits is that some European states, chiefly France, view the LNA as a stabilizing force and bastion against terrorist activity. This perspective muddies the waters over what Europe’s collective interests are, and it raises questions in capitals like Paris over whether the benefit of Wagner’s role in preventing the atomization of Libya’s security sector outweighs the dangers of Wagner’s threat to NATO. In this way, Wagner’s deployment in Libya—a country where conflict lines already shed light on European states’ conflicting geopolitical interests—has served to highlight divisions between European capitals. If Libya’s conflict escalates, even if actors like the U.K. and Italy opt to back Turkey against Wagner, then the nature of NATO member states’ divisions on Libya means such an effort will likely be piecemeal.


Ultimately, Wagner’s presence in Libya amounts to a passive destabilizing influence even without engaging in open conflict, and it demonstrates the Kremlin’s strategic depth in the country. The reemergence of parallel governments in March offered Wagner opportunities to actively destabilize the country through support for an LNA offensive, but Wagner does not have to fight in order to stoke instability. Its very presence has been a politicized and polarizing issue that helps drive the east-west divide. Forces from each side simultaneously demand that the others’ mercenary backers leave in the framework of the October 2020 cease-fire agreement, but the LNA simply has to point to the presence of Turkish military and Syrian mercenary forces in the west to shut down that argument. Meanwhile, reports of Wagner atrocities against civilians during the Tripoli campaign of 2019-2020—including planting of anti-personnel mines and extrajudicial killings—add further fuel to this fire. At the same time, Moscow can quietly use its Libya deployments as anchors to project power into the African continent and exploit security gaps left by European and U.S. adversaries—Russia has used an air base at Khadim, near Benghazi, as a logistics hub to move staff and equipment to Mali.

Of course there is also a constant risk of escalation to more direct action, be it against oil facilities or other areas of political or economic interest to the Kremlin’s adversaries. The nature of the relationship between Wagner and the LNA has been a key point of debate among observers and analysts: While some have suggested that Haftar has commanded control over Wagner forces by restricting their deployments, others have maintained the LNA has no control of Russian forces, pointing to Wagner’s unilateral withdrawal from Tripoli after Russia struck a backroom deal with Turkey in 2020. Discussions with eyewitnesses suggest that the latter is the case, with Wagner forces operating largely independent from the LNA chain of command.

An example raised by multiple eyewitnesses goes back to early June 2020, when Wagner artillery shelled Wadi Jarif—a small river valley to the west of Sirte—as Tripolitan forces advanced under air cover from Turkish Bayraktar drones. As hundreds of families reportedly fled, some locals petitioned the LNA’s Sirte Operations Room to intervene, but LNA officers were powerless to stop the onslaught. The episode speaks to Wagner’s tactical independence and is further corroborated by reports of LNA personnel requiring permission to enter Wagner bases and reported concerns among some pro-Haftar officers that Wagner forces would not leave, even if requested by the LNA, under the tenets of the October 2020 cease-fire. This independence has major implications for any threat assessment of Russia’s posture in Libya: Rather than being beholden to their LNA allies, Wagner operators have significant latitude to pursue Moscow’s geopolitical agenda in Libya.

This tactical autonomy has also galvanized local opposition to Wagner’s presence. Eyewitnesses interviewed in Sirte report outright opposition to Wagner’s presence in the area, particularly as its defensive fortifications have cut off locals from their homes and Wagner violence has killed family members, all fueling outrage among local tribes over the presence of a foreign force on their ancestral lands. While undermining the LNA’s relations with local tribal constituencies in Sirte’s fragile social fabric, this dynamic raises the question of when local frustration could morph into more active forms of resistance against the Wagner presence. Libyan social media is awash, for instance, with anti-LNA accounts sharing images of Wagner mercenaries on the move in their communities, with some going as far as to share the exact coordinates of buildings and locations allegedly associated with Wagner.

Aside from demonstrating the challenges faced by Wagner operators on deployment, signs of local resistance speak to a broader point: Wagner is synonymous with the foreign intervention that has eroded Libyan sovereignty since 2011. During this time, splits and divisions among NATO states on Libya policy have helped drive a conflict that Russia has effectively exploited to enhance its strategic depth vis-à-vis NATO, furnishing Wagner with a combination of tactical independence and political relevance in Libya that is a boon to the Kremlin. On duty at their bases in the Libyan desert, Kremlin proxies like Andonov continue to turn up the heat on Europe.

Robert Uniacke is a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at Navanti Group, an analytics firm. Twitter: @RobertUniacke

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