Russians are expected to quit Libya despite the Ukraine conflict

Russians are expected to quit Libya despite the Ukraine conflict

Russians are expected to quit Libya despite the Ukraine conflict

Russians are expected to quit Libya despite the Ukraine conflict

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The Wagner Group, a secretive paramilitary organization linked to Russia’s government, has played a key role in Libya’s civil war, helping renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

In recent weeks, Western watchers began to question if Wagner soldiers would leave Libya to focus on assisting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Despite the fact that Moscow may need to alter and restructure its role in Libya, there is reason to believe that the Russians will continue their effort, which has helped create and consolidate the security architecture of Libya’s east, where Haftar is based.

“Before February 24 [when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began], there was no indication that the clandestine Russian mission [in Libya] was withdrawing, shrinking, or anything of the sort,” Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher specializing in Libya, told Al Jazeera.

“It was rather quiet. The Libyans who live near [Russian] bases got used to seeing some Russians at the grocery store. Some camps, bases, and air bases are known to be fully controlled by Russians,” Harchaoui added. “In those particular cases, even the LNA itself sometimes needs to get permission before entering the base.”

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While there have been unconfirmed allegations that Russian mercenaries have been pulled out of the nation to fight in Ukraine, the bulk has remained.

“The number of [Russian] fighters who made their way to Ukraine would probably be tiny as the Kremlin wants to have a stake in Libya’s future and needs these foreign mercenaries to maintain their hold on the country,” said Ferhat Polat, a Libya researcher at the TRT World Research Centre.

Maintaining a military presence in Libya is critical to Russia’s other African goals, particularly in the Sahel region.

Russian planes, for example, moved armed people and arms from Syria to Mali via an airbase near Benghazi in late 2021 and early 2022.

“You clearly have reliance on the perennial and permanent character of the Russian footprint in Libya. It wasn’t about to shrink,” said Harchaoui. “Even the reduction, the modest drawdown of probably 300 or 400 individuals is not the end of the mission. It doesn’t presage, announce, or augur capitulation.”

It’s crucial to assess how vital Russia’s position in eastern Libya has become, not just to Haftar and his allies, such as parliament-appointed Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha, but also to other external entities interested in the North African country’s unclear future.

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The Russians have established a foothold in Libya that prevents Haftar from detaching himself from Moscow substantially.

The complete withdrawal of the Russian military from the country would upset the power balance that has kept Haftar in control in the east for so long. The Russians have tremendous amounts of leverage in Libya, with at least three airbases, military camps, and spies on the ground, which no significant state is eager to severely decrease.

“There’s no NATO plan to remove Russia [from Libya],” explained Harchaoui. “The reason is, that Haftar is the only security architecture for huge parts of Libya — the eastern half mainly. Haftar is someone that you cannot preserve if you go after the Russians. If you forcefully remove the Russians, you will automatically and inevitably weaken Haftar.”

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