Washington has accused Russia of covertly deploying at least 14 fighter jets to Libya last week to back the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army of east-based renegade commander Khalifa Haftar in his campaign to oust the government from Tripoli and the Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground in Libya.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the US Africa Command said its assessment showed that Moscow recently deployed military fighter aircraft to Libya in order to support the PMCs, operating on the ground there.
“Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fires for the Wagner Group PMC that is supporting the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) fight against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord,” Africom said, adding that the Russian fighter aircraft arrived in Libya, from an airbase in Russia, after transiting via Syria where it is assessed they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin.
The Africom’s statement came a few hours after the withdrawal of mercenaries to the airport of the town of Bani Walid, abandoning all front lines in Tripoli.
The statement corroborated last Thursday’s tweet from Fathi Bachagha the Interior Minister of the Government of National Unity. He announced that at least eight Russian military planes have landed in eastern and southern Libya from Syria. They are Mig 29 and Sukhoi 24.
“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner,” said US Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander, US Africa Command.
“For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth generation jet fighters to Libya — every step of the way.
Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support — support they are getting from Russia.”
Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions.
Moscow’s military actions have prolonged the Libyan conflict and exacerbated casualties and human suffering on both sides, Africom said, adding that Russia is not interested in what is best for the Libyan people but are working to achieve their own strategic goals instead.
“The world heard Mr. Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” Townsend said.
“If Russia seizes basing on Libya’s coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities,” said US Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander, US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa. “If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank.”
Russia’s destabilizing actions in Libya will also exacerbate the regional instability that has driven the migration crisis affecting Europe.
In Moscow, an official of the Defense Committee in the Russian Parliament denies the American accusation, adding that Russia is calling on all parties to the conflict in Libya to engage in dialogue.