Recent statements made by the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and ceasefire calls by U.N. officials highlight a worsening humanitarian crisis in Tripoli and many other parts of Libya due to the continued military attacks by General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA).
Along with France, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and other regional powers, Russia’s shadowy Wagner Group is also held responsible for the deepening crisis in the North African country as its hundreds of mercenaries have been supporting Haftar’s fight against the Tripoli-based government since October 2018, according to a recent U.N. report.
The 57-page report by independent sanctions monitors, submitted to the U.N. Security Council Libya sanctions committee, informs that the Russian private military contractor has up to 1,200 people deployed in Libya, including combat troops and sniper teams.
The presence of the Wagner Group in Libya and its active involvement in the civil war expose an open inconsistency with regard to Russia’s official line which emboldens the two warring parties for a negotiated settlement.
In January, Turkey and Russia exerted efforts for a ceasefire in Libya both at a meeting in Moscow and later in Berlin but the claims about the continued military deployment throughout 2020 lead to questions on Moscow’s real stance.
Let’s put it clearly: Russian President Vladimir Putin once said any Russian nationals in Libya do not represent Moscow, nor were they paid by the state. Although he indirectly acknowledges the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya, Putin denies any link with his government.
But Ankara’s interpretation is different from this illustration. Senior Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have long been highlighting the Russian engagement into the Libyan conflict via the presence of the Wagner Group.
They also stress that Russia’s –direct or indirect- support to Haftar prevents the cessation of the armed conflict in Libya, a dangerous move that would eventually turn Libya into a new Syria in the Mediterranean basin.
There are claims about regular arms transfer from Syria’s ports and airports to Libya while the Russian mercenaries are leading the urban warfare near Tripoli in support to LNA’s operations.
The Wagner Group is a Russian private military contractor, owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch known to be close to President Vladimir Putin, dubbed “Putin’s chef.” Thanks to his close association with Putin, Prigozhin has become an influential businessman, operating as the main caterer to the Russian army, to the education and health institutions as well in the construction, security and media businesses.
The pro-Kremlin businessman has also expanded his investments in the field of media by setting up several online media outlets led by a “troll factory” in charge of operating social media campaigns against Putin’s dissidents. His network includes a news website, Riafan.ru, disseminating stories from the regions where the Wagner group is deployed. Plus, this site is also home to frequent baseless anti-Turkey stories.
Although he has hands in different sectors, the most important business Prigozhin is running is the Wagner Group whose name was first heard during the Ukrainian conflict in 2014. In the years that followed, the group went on to expand its operations to other hotspots, such as Syria, Libya and other conflict zones in the African continent.
2019 has witnessed an increase in the role Prigozhin and his Wagner Group have been playing in Libya. He is known to be influential in convincing Haftar to go to Moscow for negotiations with GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
An interesting aspect concerning the Wagner Group is that it has no legal status. Bills on the legalization of the private military contractors were submitted to the parliament in 2014, 2016 and 2018 but they were not adopted. In January 2018, the parliament sent a draft bill on the same matter to the government for the feedback.
The Russian government gave a negative review of the bill on private military companies. According to the documents, the provisions of the bill are contrary to two articles of the Constitution: the 13th, which prohibits public associations whose activities are aimed at creating armed groups; and 71st, which assigns the issues of “defense and security, war and peace, foreign policy and international relations” to the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation.
At a press conference in January 2018, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged the fact that private security contractors need to be taken under a certain legal status. “I think that we need to clearly fix the legislative framework so that these people are also in the legal field and protected,” he said, adding the practice of using private military contractors by countries was spreading. No doubt, one of them is the Wagner Group.