Putin gains influence in oil-rich Libya as US struggles to oust Wagner Group

(Bloomberg) – As the United States mulls reopening its embassy in Libya, Vladimir Putin’s new ambassador is preparing to take up his post in the capital, extending Russian influence to an oil-producing country on the doorstep of Libya. Europe.

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Russia’s Wagner Group, a private military company controlled by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, already has access to key oil facilities and backed last year’s months-long blockade that hit exports at the height of the crisis. energy crisis triggered by the invasion of Ukraine.

Read more: Libya’s political chaos aggravates a global oil supply crisis

Moscow’s decision to reestablish its diplomatic presence in Tripoli – the western seat of the UN-backed government – is the clearest sign that Putin is seeking to make inroads beyond his traditional support for military commander Khalifa Haftar in the East.

The developments have raised concerns in the United States, which has dispatched a slew of senior officials to counter Putin’s advances in an OPEC member that European governments are courting as a potential alternative to Russian energy.

Among them are CIA chief William Burns, who visited Libya in January, speaking to rival governments east and west and later meeting with officials from neighboring Egypt, who also backed Haftar.

The US priority is an attempt to oust around 2,000 Wagner mercenaries who backed Haftar’s failed 2019-20 campaign to capture Tripoli and have since helped tighten his grip on oil supplies in a country that’s been struggling. is home to 40% of Africa’s reserves.

“The status quo is inherently unstable,” US special envoy to Libya Richard Norland said in a phone interview, warning of unspecified efforts to exploit internal divisions and thwart UN efforts to organize elections. “Our message is that you will only achieve legitimacy through elections.”

But the United States is at a disadvantage in Libya, where it has no troops or diplomatic presence. Although US officials say they are working to reestablish their own embassy, ​​the decision remains politically tense for Joe Biden, who was vice president during the NATO-backed rebellion that toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 — and Libya’s subsequent descent into chaos. Read more: Why Libya goes from one crisis to another

The US embassy was closed in 2014 when Libya descended into civil war. An attack on the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi had already killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in 2012, fueling a domestic political uproar that complicates any potential decision to return.

This has left the United States with waning influence as it attempts to manage the situation from a distance.

The renewed international rivalry in Libya comes as Russia makes further gains in the Middle East at the expense of the United States. Traditional Arab allies have refused to comply with US efforts to isolate Putin, going so far as to reestablish ties with Kremlin-allied Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabia annoyed the White House late last year when OPEC+ – a cartel of oil producers led by Riyadh and Moscow – drove up global fuel prices by cutting crude production

Meanwhile, China’s role in brokering a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran has highlighted the broader erosion of US authority.

hostage to oil

Although their numbers have dwindled since the invasion of Ukraine from more than 4,000 men, Wagner’s forces are present at four military bases in Libya, according to Libya-based think tank Sadeq Institute and Navanti Group. , which advises private clients and US government agencies. . The paramilitaries also have access to some of the country’s most important energy facilities, including the largest oil field, Sharara, and the Es Sider crude oil export terminal, according to their field research. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, did not respond to a request for comment. on Russia’s Libyan policy or on the role of Wagner’s forces in this North African country.

Mustafa Sanalla, the former head of the Libyan National Oil Company, or NOC, accused Wagner and the United Arab Emirates of involvement in Haftar’s oil blockade in 2020. A subsequent blockade in 2022 ended in the ousting of Sanalla in favor of a figure more favorable to the East.

“The shutdown was of course mainly due to the domestic policy of distributing oil revenues,” said Robert Uniacke, senior analyst at Nanti in Libya. “But I don’t believe it could have gone the way it did without Wagner’s role in supporting (Haftar’s forces) and projecting military power in the areas around the oil installations. “

Moscow’s efforts to restore the influence it lost with Gaddafi’s demise have not always gone smoothly. Haftar’s assault on Tripoli and efforts to elevate the late dictator’s son, Saif al-Islam, to the presidency have failed.

Putin now appears to have been content with a business-as-usual policy, a situation that potentially leaves Libya’s oil exports hostage to Russia, which is feeling the pressure of sanctions on its own crude sales.

In an interview with Bloomberg, new NOC chief Farhat Bengdara praised Haftar’s forces for their “great efforts to secure” the oil fields. He said Libya plans to open new blocks to international companies in 2024 and increase production from 1.2 million to 2 million barrels per day within five years. Most oil analysts doubt the NOC can achieve this without more political stability.

“Our impression is that the West is trying to stabilize Libya to ensure that more of Libya’s oil and gas reaches European markets,” said Moscow-based Middle East analyst Elena Suponina. “The Kremlin understands that the United States wants to use all means to weaken Russia’s influence in Libya and one of our tasks is not to allow that to happen.”

Wagner’s possession of warplanes and air defense systems also complicated American efforts to counter the group. Haftar is counting on them to protect him and repel opposing Libyan militias.

Gleb Irisov, a former Russian Air Force officer who served in 2019-20 at Syria’s Khmeimim airbase, used by Moscow to supply Wagner’s forces in Libya, said he personally saw up to 20 Soviet-built MiG-29 fighter jets plus attack helicopters delivered to Libya.

As Wagner’s influence expands in Sudan, where the United States says it has delivered surface-to-air missiles to the Rapid Support Forces at war with the military, the Biden administration is stepping up the pressure.

Last month, the United States imposed sanctions on a man accused of overseeing Wagner’s operations in Mali. He alleges the group is circulating weapons across Africa to support Putin’s campaign in Ukraine – where the paramilitaries have also fought.

The United States has repeatedly imposed sanctions on Wagner and his leadership structure, including Prigozhin. These efforts have so far done little to shake the group’s operations, including its efforts to deepen its presence in several countries in Africa and the Middle East. In the absence of military intervention, we do not know what will happen.

“These have been proclaimed as American goals: No. 1 kicks out Wagner and No. 2 ensures that elections take place in 2023,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libyan expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. . “Nothing is going to materialize, mainly because the United States is not really going to try.”

–With help from Demetrios Pogkas and Tom Hall.

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