Chapter 10: Russia and Africa: Expanding Influence and Instability
After a year-long siege of Tripoli in western Libya, warlord Khalifa Haftar and his forces beat a hasty retreat in mid-2020 from their collapsing front lines to territory controlled by his proxy coalition of tribal groups and militias in central and eastern Libya. Along with them were an estimated 1,200 Russian mercenaries with the Wagner Group. They were in Libya as part of a Russian gambit to carve out a zone of influence in this geographically strategic territory linking Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Russia has been supporting Haftar’s forces with snipers, Mig-29 and Su-24 fighter jets, SA-22 surface-to-air missile, anti-aircraft systems, and hundreds of flights delivering military logistics since 2019. Despite the military setback, and subsequent ceasefire and formation of a fragile Government of National Unity, Russia is on track to achieve its key objectives including gaining revenues from oil fields in eastern Libya, naval access to deep-water ports in the eastern Mediterranean, and establishing itself as a powerbroker in a region bordering NATO’s southern flank.
Libya provides a vignette of how Russia pursues its strategic goals in Africa: expanding geopolitical influence through low cost ventures that hold economic windfalls for Moscow and President Vladimir Putin’s close associates. In this way, Russia’s strategy in Africa is both opportunistic and calculating. It is opportunistic in that it is willing to take risks and quickly deploy mercenary forces to crisis contexts when the opening presents itself, similar to what Moscow did in Syria. It is calculating in that it aims to expand Russia’s power projection including over strategic chokeholds in the eastern Mediterranean and Suez Canal that could affect NATO force deployments in times of crisis.