In April 2019, Khalifa Haftar, the militia commander whose forces control much of eastern Libya, began an assault on the capital, Tripoli, in an effort to topple the country’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). But instead of a swift, decisive victory establishing Haftar as Libya’s undisputed leader, the offensive resulted in a stalemate. Militias from across western Libya came together to repel Haftar, slowly pushing his forces back into the southern outskirts of the capital. For the next six months, the fighting ground on like this, with drone strikes, artillery barrages, and mortar fire creating a humanitarian crisis but no clear advantage for either side.
Then, in September, hundreds of Russian mercenaries arrived to support Haftar and shifted the battlefield momentum in his direction. Since 2015, Moscow has been gradually ramping up its engagement in Libya, where it sees economic opportunities and a chance to expand its influence at the expense of Western powers. It now supplies Haftar’s forces with antitank missiles and laser-guided artillery and supports them with paramilitary fighters from the Wagner Group, a shadowy military contractor that does the Kremlin’s bidding in a growing list of countries in Africa and the Middle East. Buoyed by the Russians’ tactical expertise, Haftar’s forces are now making slow territorial gains in the capital—and pushing the war into a new and more dangerous phase.