“A BIG MESS IS BEING PREPARED”: WHY RUSSIA IS BUILDING UP ITS MILITARY PRESENCE IN LIBYA

Thousands of military personnel and mercenaries from Russia were transferred to the African country

Since the beginning of the year, Russia has been building up its military presence in Libya. Career military personnel of the Ministry of Defense are being transferred there under the guise of mercenaries, as well as recruits of the “African” direction of the Wagner PMC. Where the Russian military is based in Libya, what they are doing there and what interests they are pursuing, Vyorstka found out together with the All Eyes on Wagner project with the participation of Radio Liberty and the Sistema investigative project.

The Russian military is concentrated in the territory controlled by Khalifa Haftar

According to our information, the active transfer of Russian military personnel and mercenaries to Libya has begun in the past three months. The military contingent is concentrated mainly in the east of the country – in the territory controlled by the Kremlin’s ally, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar. The western part of the country and the capital, Tripoli, are controlled by the UN-recognized Government of National Accord.

According to All Eyes on Wagner’s source in Libya’s security agencies, at least 1,800 Russian troops have arrived in the country over the past two weeks. Some of them were sent to Niger, the rest remained in Libya awaiting further instructions.

Russian military in Libya

Exercises of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar on March 16, 2024. Photo: official libya_military channel on the social network X.

The interlocutor of “Verstka”, one of the military who arrived in Libya, said that he, along with several hundred servicemen of the special forces, was redeployed from Ukraine at the beginning of the year. Several thousand more fighters of the Wagner PMC of the “African direction” and professional military personnel arrived in Libya from February to April.

At the same time, the servicemen themselves in conversations with journalists note that they are in Libya unofficially: they are present in the country as representatives of a private military company. They do not specify which one.

Since the beginning of March, the Russian military and Russian equipment have been found at least ten points in eastern Libya. As Vyorstka and All Eyes on Wagner found out, Russian troops are based both around large military bases – Jufra, Ghardabiya, and near smaller ones – Waddan and Al-Marj.

Russian presence in Libya, May 2024

Some of the Russian servicemen who arrived, according to Vyorstka’s sources, are engaged in instructing and training local military personnel and recruits of the “African direction”. Others perform pinpoint combat missions: for example, they cover the transportation of military equipment.

“There has never been such a fuss, there are tectonic shifts here,” says a source from the military in Libya. “I think a big mess is being prepared.”

The Russian military began to appear near military facilities in Libya more and more often
The increased activity is also evidenced by data on the location of Telegram messenger users near military facilities in Libya. On March 5, one of the Russian military “lit up” near the Gardabia airbase in the vicinity of Sirte, a city on the Mediterranean Gulf. His account was registered under the name “Andrey”. A few months earlier, the owner of the account was in Mulino, Nizhny Novgorod region, where the Russian military is being trained to participate in the battles in Ukraine.

Almost two weeks after the Andrei appeared at the Gardabia airbase, the Libyan National Army organized an exercise there, which included the use of several Pantsir anti-aircraft missile systems – the maps show a small runway where the air defense installations were located.

The next group of Russian soldiers in the city of Al-Marj came into view. On March 17, their photos appeared on Libyan social networks. We confirmed the geolocation of the images by comparing the buildings and structures captured on them with photos from space.

Representatives of the Russian PMC in Al-Marjah, March 2024

In early May, two more Russian soldiers were spotted in Dzuffra – Vyorstka recorded them from the geolocation data of telegram accounts. Among them is the same “Andrey”, which in March was at the Gardabiya airbase – there it stayed at least until April, and by May it moved to Jufra. By this time, he had changed his nickname in the messenger from “Andrey” to “Curw”.

The second Russian who ended up at the base in Dzhufra in early May is a 26-year-old native of the Vladimir region, Pavel Vavilov, convicted of theft. He could get into the military sphere in recent years: back in 2020, judging by leaks, Vavilov worked as a security guard, and before that as a taxi driver. Many fines for traffic violations were issued in his name, and several enforcement proceedings were opened for debts on utility bills. Vyorstka found another of his phone numbers linked to another Telegram account. In the photo in this profile, Vavilov shows a car with “LPR” license plates.

Transfer of weapons and vehicles

Over the past few weeks, the supply of Russian weapons and transport from Syria to Libya has become more frequent.

On March 30, the Military Informant telegram channel published several photos of the Libyan National Army exercises. The Russian armored personnel carriers “Tiger” SBMVPK-233136 in a five-door modification got into the frame. Judging by the emblems of the units on the front doors, the vehicles were delivered to the 106th Sirte Brigade of the Libyan National Army. It is commanded by Haftar’s son, Saddam Haftar.

In addition to photos, a video of the exercises was also posted on the channel. After comparing the relief, buildings and monuments in the frame, we found out that it was filmed between the Jufra airbase and the city of Waddan in southwestern Libya.

The Russian military near the Jufra base

Russian equipment enters Libya by sea. One of the interlocutors of “Vyorstka” from among the military clarified that he personally visited the “military port” and escorted the equipment from there to the “military bases”.

In a number of cases, Russian military equipment and weapons are delivered to Libya from the Syrian port of Tartus. On April 2, two Russian landing ships were spotted there – “Alexander Otrakovsky” and “Ivan Gren”. On April 6, the same ships were off the coast of Crete. On April 8, they arrived at the port of Tobruk in Libya. One of them even got into the lenses of the cameras of Libyan journalists. The ships were carrying vehicles and weapons: one of the installations is similar to the Soviet 2S12 “Sani” mortars. According to investigators, this was the fifth delivery of Russian equipment over the past month and a half. According to satellite images, the “shuttle” flights of the Otrakovsky and Gren continued after April 8. In a photo of the Planet.com service, taken on April 11, both ships can be seen in the port of Tartus. In the April 14 image, the Ivan Gren is seen moored in the port of Tobruk.

Russian military in Libya

Large landing ships “Alexander Otrakovsky” (above) and “Ivan Gren” in the port of Tartus, April 11, 2024

Russian military in Libya

Large landing ship “Alexander Otrakovsky” in the port of Tobruk, April 14, 2024

The transfer of Russian weapons and transport was also mentioned by an expert on Libya, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, Jaalel Kharchaoui. He also wrote about the redeployment of Russian military personnel to the Brak al-Shati military base. According to him, the number of Russian-speaking personnel of the base has increased by about a quarter in recent weeks. We have confirmed the presence of the Russian military in the area.

In early May, we discovered a telegram account in the immediate vicinity of the base. He was registered to a Russian number under the nickname “Arkan”. The owner of the account is 28-year-old Russian Maxim Kukol. In the phone books of other users, he is recorded as “Thug”. Until 2021, Kukol, judging by the leaks, was not associated with the military sphere. He lived in Sochi and worked in different years as a security guard, storekeeper, loader, handyman. Vyorstka did not find information about his employment after 2021 in the public domain. In 2022, Maxim Kukol already lived in the Voronezh Region and got rid of previously issued loans.

Back in March 2024, journalists from the All Eyes on Wagner project did not find Russian accounts on the base. The situation has changed in recent weeks.

Russian military in Libya

Exercises of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar on March 16, 2024. Photo: official libya_military channel on the social network X.
The Russian military continues to arrive at the Syrian port, which has become a kind of point of redistribution of resources. This is confirmed by the geolocation data of users on the territory of the port of Tartus. One of them is a 19-year-old Navy serviceman Anton Zaikin. In January and February, Zaikin was in the port area of Baltiysk, Kaliningrad region, and in early May – in Syrian Tartus.

Syrians have also been spotted in Libya

In addition to Russian equipment and soldiers, the Syrian military is probably also being sent from Syria to Libya. Together with a 28-year-old Russian, in the area of the Braq al-Shati airbase, Vyorstka found another telegram account linked to a Syrian phone number under the nickname “Saif0987766”.

On March 7, another Syrian account under the nickname “Laith” appeared near the Benin airbase. This base is known as the air logistics center of the Wagner PMC, and now the Afrika Korps, subordinate to the Ministry of Defense.

Another Syrian account with the nickname “Khadora1” was found at a base in the Al-Haroba area along with Russian Telegram accounts.

The true names of the account owners could not be established. They also did not respond to Vyorstka’s requests to confirm their identity.

Russian military in Libya

Technical elements that confirm that the account is @KHADORA1 Syrian. The first screenshot (left) shows an account with a phone number and one of the stories. The second is a story with a drink: social networks and the name of the café where the drink was bought are marked on the glass. The third and fourth screenshots show the drink itself and a group of cafes in Damascus.

The Kremlin’s interests in Libya

Libya has been in a state of civil war and political instability since 2011 – after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Several groups share power in the country: the west of the country with the capital Tripoli is under the control of the UN-backed Government of National Unity, and the east is controlled by Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army he controls.

Turkey, the United States and a number of other countries have repeatedly accused Russia of interfering in the Libyan conflict, including with the use of Wagner PMC forces. Journalistic investigations have also confirmed the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya since at least 2019. According to experts, the Kremlin has been supporting Haftar since about 2018.

In 2023, the first public talks between Russian officials and the Libyan commander after the start of the invasion of Ukraine took place: in August, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov flew to him in Libya. And already in September, Haftar himself met with Putin in Moscow. After this meeting, the media repeatedly reported on the Kremlin’s plans to build a Russian naval base in Libya. It was going to be built in the same Tobruk, where Russian military cargo from Syria arrives.

In January 2024, shortly before the start of a large-scale transfer of forces, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov visited Libya again. His meeting with Haftar took place at the headquarters in Benghazi – not far from this city, between neighboring Kaminis and Suluk, according to Vyorstka’s sources, a new training base for the Russian military is already operating.

According to sources of “Vyorstka” and All Eyes On Wagner, the Russian contingent in Libya is managed by four commanders who were previously in Syria. They, in turn, are subordinate to Yunus-Bek Yevkurov.

“I think that the Russians are betting on a war inside Tripoli between militias, so they will move on to this plan,” the military interlocutor fears.

Another source notes that the current supply of Russian equipment and the transfer of military personnel should replace the forces of the Wagner PMC in Libya and prepare the possibility of transferring people to other countries of the African continent.

Jalel Kharchaoui, in a conversation with All Eyes On Wagner journalists, explained that Libya meets many of Russia’s strategic interests in the region.

“Libya offers extremely valuable access to the Mediterranean, serves as a southern flank to put pressure on NATO and the EU, and strengthens dialogue with other key Arab countries. Importantly, it also serves as a gateway to sub-Saharan Africa, offering a strategic pathway to countries such as Sudan, Niger and beyond,” the expert said.

According to him, the Kremlin’s cooperation with the Haftar family allows Russia to achieve these goals while minimizing costs.

“Roughly speaking, in material and monetary terms, the Haftar family rewards Moscow for the fact that it is already doing exactly what it needs,” Karchaoui said

The increased military activity in the region may also be related to the upcoming presidential elections, the first in the country’s history. In order to avoid the continuation of the war, the UN demands a vote. Previous attempts to organize elections were thwarted due to the aggravation of the military conflict.

Check Also

Hezbollah-Israel clashes intensify as fears grow of all-out war in Lebanon

The situation on the Israel-Lebanon border is worsening, all while US efforts to reach a …