Recent reversals in Libya’s ongoing conflict have cast a dramatic spotlight on the evolving role of Russian and other foreign private military companies. In late May, U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, expressed alarm over the deployment of Russian military jets to support Russia’s Wagner Group, a private military company (PMC), and to bolster Libyan General Khalifa Haftar in the fight against Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Meanwhile, outside powers such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are funding PMCs and other proxy groups on Libya’s increasingly crowded battlefield, making any lasting political resolution of the crisis far less likely.
Against the backdrop of the sharpening confrontation between Russia and the West, PMCs are poised to expand their role as an instrument of Russian policy in Libya and other hotspots. Their relatively low cost make them an even more attractive tool for the Kremlin in an era when resources have been diminished by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. It is also unlikely that exposing Moscow’s shadowy practices will prompt reevaluation or embarrassment on the part of Russian policymakers. Indeed, the use of surrogates is a long-established practice in Russian and Soviet foreign policies.
The Russian volunteers who participated in the Balkan wars in the nineteenth century and the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s were similar to today’s PMCs. Since the return of surrogates to the Kremlin toolkit during Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014, PMCs have deployed in Syria, the Central African Republic (CAR), and several other countries. They act as force multipliers, arms merchants, trainers of local military and security personnel, and political consultants. Nominally private actors, they extend the Kremlin’s geopolitical reach and advance its interests. Versatile, cheap, and deniable, they are the perfect instrument for a declining superpower eager to assert itself without taking too many risks.
Wagner in Libya
The best-known Russian PMC, Wagner, is run by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Wagner first established its reputation and utility to the Kremlin as a clandestine fighting force in Ukraine and gained further notoriety in the Syrian civil war. In Libya, Wagner proved to be a flexible foreign policy tool whose ties to the Russian government can be refuted (albeit implausibly). The Kremlin has pursued several lines of effort in Libya’s civil war: maintaining its engagement with the UN–recognized GNA, backing Haftar (the GNA’s principal rival), and grooming the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam as a potential contender to run the country.
Estimates of the number of Wagner fighters deployed in Libya vary from 300 to several thousand, appearing to fluctuate depending on demand for their services. What does not vary, however, is the widely held assessment that they are there at the behest of the Russian government and are coordinating their activities closely with other Russian military personnel deployed in Libya to support Haftar’s forces.
By itself, Wagner’s deployment to Libya has not delivered outright victory to Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA). But a growing frontline presence in the battle for Tripoli, beginning in September 2019, helped shift the momentum in Haftar’s favor. According to a firsthand account by Carnegie senior fellow Frederic Wehrey, Wagner personnel improved the precision of LNA artillery and mortar rounds, exacted a damaging psychological toll with sniper fire, and enabled Haftar’s forces to seize territory for the first time. All of this fed into expectations by both GNA forces and outside observers that Haftar could possibly take Tripoli. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland described the Russian presence as a “game-changer” and a reflection of the fact that the “Russians see strategic advantage now in Libya—low risk and high gain.”
Yet Wagner’s efforts to support Haftar began to slow by January, when Turkey and Russia hosted GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Haftar for a summit in Moscow—an indication that Russia can get Wagner to dial back when it suits the Kremlin’s broader diplomatic aims. Turkey subsequently enhanced its support to GNA forces, causing further blows to Wagner. With the help of Turkish firepower and armed drones targeting Haftar’s bases and supply lines, GNA forces reclaimed much of western Libya and destroyed Russian-made air defense systems. Turkey’s escalation pushed Moscow to send fighter jets from a Russia-controlled airbase in Syria in late May to help bolster Haftar and Wagner. The situation on the ground remains fluid as various outside actors—Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, among others—try to maneuver a fast-changing battlefield.
Wagner’s deployment to Libya is emblematic of the synergistic relationship between the Russian government and the PMCs it ostensibly does not control. With the Kremlin eager to expand its international footprint and pursue an activist foreign policy, Libya initially seemed like a promising venue. Moscow was happy to fill the vacuum left by the United States and its allies, to make common cause with Egypt and the Emirates, and to position Russian firms for commercial gain. Until Turkey’s recent escalation, Russian involvement also carried few direct risks. By relying on PMCs, the Kremlin could keep costs low and maintain a degree of deniability. Any personnel losses could be shrouded from unauthorized disclosure. Moreover, the potential payoff is rich—in terms of sheer monetary gain from reestablishing Russian influence in an oil-rich country and a larger Russian geopolitical footprint in the middle of the Mediterranean at the expense of the United States and its NATO allies.
Prigozhin’s Wagner group is by far the most prominent Russian PMC and the one the Kremlin turns to most often. At the same time, a February 2018 clash with U.S. forces in Syria revealed the extent to which the Kremlin views Wagner’s government ties as deniable and its personnel as expendable. Wagner fighters and pro-Syrian government forces launched a reckless assault on U.S. and allied positions near the northeastern city Deir ez-Zor in an apparent attempt to probe their resolve to defend nearby oil facilities. U.S. air strikes reportedly resulted in as many as 300 Russian fatalities, which Russian government spokesmen denied.
As a general matter, Russian military officials do not acknowledge casualties suffered by PMCs. Wagner losses in Syria were mostly concealed from the Russian public. Russian official media present the military campaign in Syria as an unqualified success conducted with virtually no casualties. (Independent media outlets have covered the subject at significant risk: several Russian investigative journalists reporting on Russian PMCs have died under suspicious circumstances.) There are also credible reports that Wagner personnel have been involved in atrocities, including the torture and dismemberment of Syrian citizens. The lack of official affiliation with the Russian government allows Moscow to keep responsibility for such crimes at arm’s length.
Another useful feature of PMCs is their low cost. As private entities, they have considerable freedom to finance their own operations and do not impose a burden on the government budget. In the 2018 incident in Deir ez-Zor, Wagner’s objective was reportedly to seize control of the oil fields on behalf of the Syrian government—in exchange for a portion of the output. In the CAR, Prigozhin has sustained Wagner’s deployment thanks to his own business interests, which include prospecting for gold and diamonds. Moscow has even used gray-zone military activity to bolster the Russian economy. Its early support to Libya’s Haftar helped him seize oil fields in 2016, likely with the expectation that Russian companies would share in the benefits.
Wagner’s utility as an expendable and deniable tool of Prigozhin’s public-private partnership with the Kremlin was demonstrated again in Mozambique in 2019. Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi visited Russia in August 2019 and signed agreements with Putin on mineral and energy exploration and defense and security cooperation. Wagner personnel deployed to Mozambique the next month to help put down an Islamist antigovernment insurgency in the north of the country, where significant deposits of natural gas are located. The Russian PMC’s personnel were reportedly poorly prepared and trained for that campaign, suffered casualties, and made no progress against the insurgency. According to some reports, Wagner pulled out of Mozambique in March. The Kremlin has denied that any Russian “soldiers” were involved there.
Soldiers in Search of Fortune
As a formal matter, PMCs are illegal under the Russian constitution, which reserves all matters of defense, security, and foreign policy for the state. Several proposals to legalize PMCs have been made in the Russian Duma, as well as in the executive branch, but they have not made much progress.
PMCs’ lack of legal status is one of their most convenient features and is highly useful in gray-zone warfare. The Russian government can wash its hands of PMCs if their actions cause embarrassment or violate international laws or political commitments. The same factors increase PMCs’ utility in risky situations, where the Russian government’s involvement could otherwise lead to a diplomatic crisis or even a military confrontation.
These features of Russian PMCs have manifested themselves in some of their best-known deployments. In eastern Ukraine, where the Kremlin has consistently sought to portray its undeclared war as an indigenous separatist insurgency, PMCs have enabled the Russian narrative of official noninvolvement while demonstrating better combat skills and discipline than the first wave of ragtag far-right militants sent there. And when necessary, the Kremlin has been perfectly happy to use members of the Russian armed forces and special services to clean up the mess.
A Bright Outlook for PMCs
In this version of private-public partnership, the Kremlin has empowered Russian PMCs to seek business opportunities and to expand Moscow’s global reach. Wagner and several other PMCs are now branching out into cyber operations and offering political consulting services to friendly governments willing to pay in cash or in business opportunities. The Kremlin has used its diplomatic clout to facilitate Russian PMCs’ access to new markets, as it did in December 2017 when it secured an exemption from a UN arms embargo to supply light arms to the CAR. The move paved the way for Wagner to step in as an agent of Russian political, economic, and media influence in the CAR and attempt to capitalize on commercial opportunities. A Russian citizen has been appointed as the CAR president’s national security adviser. Wagner has also reportedly become involved in the CAR’s mining sector.
Will Russia’s newly strained resources force the Kremlin to turn inward and abandon its global ambitions? That seems unlikely. If anything, the pandemic-induced economic downturn may generate more volunteers looking to serve in PMCs and more opportunists like Prigozhin seeking to currying favor with the Kremlin. The spread of the pandemic could even create new global hot spots, affording the Kremlin further opportunities to capitalize on the West’s distraction by deploying PMCs in expanding its foreign policy adventures.
This publication is based on research supported by the United States European Command. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the official polices, either express or implied, of the United States Government.