The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has confirmed the deployment of Russian fighter aircraft to Libya which it says is to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground there.
According to the AFRICOM statement, the Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fires for the Wagner Group PMC that is supporting the rebel general Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in its fight against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). LNA is based in Benghazi while GNA is based in Tripoli.
The statement added that the fighter aircraft arrived in Libya, from an airbase in Russia, after transiting Syria (Hmeimim Air Base) where they were “repainted to camouflage their Russian origin”.
GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha has earlier said that Russia had sent at least six Soviet-made Mig-29 fighter jets and two Su-24 groun attack aircraft to Haftar’s forces. Turkey is militarily backing GNA while Haftar is supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt.
“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 U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, AFRICOM commander. “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.”
The AFRICOM statement accuses Russia of employing “state-sponsored Wagner” in Libya to “conceal its direct role” and to afford Moscow “plausible deniability of its malign actions”. It said that Moscow’s military actions have prolonged the Libyan conflict and exacerbated casualties and human suffering on both sides.
“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 U.S. Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander, U.S. 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, the statement accused.