The US released surveillance imagery on Tuesday purporting to show Russian aircraft operating in Libya to support mercenaries of the infamous Wagner Group, a murky Russian-operated private military contractor, which has been fighting on behalf of former army officer Khalifa Haftar in his effort to topple the United Nations-backed government in the capital, Tripoli.
“For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict,” Stephen Townsend, a general in the US Africa Command, said in a statement. “Well, there is no denying it now.”
Neither the Kremlin nor Mr Haftar have responded to the accusation.
Gen Townsend accused Russia of flying advanced fighter jets to Libya to provide close-air support for Wagner fighters and Mr Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces, a collection of tribal militias loyal to him. The US military said the planes travelled earlier this month from an airbase in Russia to Syria, where they were repainted to “camouflage” their origins before heading to Libya.
Citing satellite imagery, news outlets have for days noted the appearance of half a dozen MiG-29 Mikoyan and two Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jets in eastern Libyan bases used by Wagner.
Mr Haftar, a former CIA asset, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and France, has fought a years-long war to conquer the oil-rich north African country.
"Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favour in Libya,” Gen Townsend said. “They are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner.”
NEWS: Russia deploys military fighter aircraft to Libya
"For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now." - Gen. Townsend
Photos: https://t.co/raTal1LKPa pic.twitter.com/dVtsWKPYZ5— US AFRICOM (@USAfricaCommand)May 26, 2020
The accusations by the US come at a pivotal point in Libya. Mr Haftar had been winning the war to take control of Tripoli until Turkey forcefully intervened six months ago with fresh deployments of advanced drones, anti-aircraft batteries and Syrian mercenaries, slowly turning the tide of the battle.
In recent days, Mr Haftar lost a key airbase and was chased from frontline positions outside Tripoli. In the past several days, hundreds of Wagner mercenaries, likely bankrolled by Mr Haftar’s patrons in the Arabian peninsula, were forced to flee and allowed to escape via transport planes from the city of Bani Walid following negotiations between the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
This latest debacle came days after a spokesperson for Mr Haftar threatened to unleash an unprecedented air assault in Libya.
While Russia publicly supports the UN-brokered government, it has intervened forcefully on behalf of Mr Haftar, whom it sees as a figure who could unite the fractured country.
If Russia seizes basing on Libya's coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial capabilities. If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe's southern flank.
US Air Force General Jeff Harrigian
In a phone conversation on Tuesday about Libya with a leader of the African Union, Russian diplomat Mikhail Bogdanov called for “African solutions to African problems”, according to the Russian ministry of foreign affairs.
While the US state department and the Pentagon have vocally supported the UN-backed government in Tripoli, the White House – eager to kowtow to Arab dictators friendly with Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner – has repeatedly if half-heartedly sided with Mr Haftar in the conflict.
However, following Mr Haftar’s latest defeats, even the White House appears to be distancing itself from the warlord, who had promised his backers victory within weeks when he launched his Tripoli offensive more than a year ago.
US Air Force General Jeff Harrigian warned European nations growing increasingly friendly with the Kremlin that a Russian presence in Libya could pose a long-term security challenge by potentially giving it the ability to curtail military actions by other countries in north Africa.
"If Russia seizes basing on Libya's coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area-denial capabilities," he was quoted as saying. "If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe's southern flank."
But some European officials worry that recent victories by Turkey and its Libyan allies would only provoke a further Russian escalation.
“Most allies prefer to approve [Turkish intervention], for they see it as the best option against Russia,” said one Nato diplomat. “But Russian interference follows Turkish interference.”