Local Libyan Perceptions of Russia’s Wagner Corporation 

Assala Khettach, Assistant Editor of Insight, a Turkish journal on politics and international affairs, and Christopher Kinsey, Reader, Defence Studies Department. King’s College London

Ever since the early 1960s, Africa has been plagued by mercenaries. They started to apply their trade, first in the Congo, then later in Nigeria, Angola, Libya and other countries where local elites came to rely on their services. This reliance, however, tailored off towards the end of the 1970s. Then, in the early 1990s, a new and far more professional soldier of fortune emerged in Africa. Executive Outcomes (EO) was a South African Private Military Company (PMC) that helped bring an end to wars in Angola and Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, the company’s success was short lived, and both countries fell back into conflict shortly after EO pulled out. British and American PMCs also began offering their military services to various actors on the continent. The Sandline Affair, which saw the exiled President Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone turn to the British PMC Sandline International for help in returning him to power, is such a case. The American government employed DynCorp International to rebuild Liberia’s army, which for so long had been nothing more than a murderous militia competing for power with other rebel groups within the country. 

However, in the last decade a new market competitor has emerged that is also able and willing to sell its military services to African governments. This PMC is not from Africa or the West, but from Russia. Wagner Group is effectively Vladimir Putin’s private mercenary army whose sole objective is to protect Russia’s political and strategic interests and extend its influence In Africa, while allowing it to benefit economically from the continent’s strategic resources.       

Although a considerable amount has been written on African, American, and British mercenary corporations, far less is known about Wagner. This is particularly so regarding Libya, a country where Wagner is closely associated with one of the warring factions. Often PMCs have a unique relationship with the territories they operate in and the clients who employ them. Many EO mercenaries, for example, were former Angolan FNLA soldiers, while Sierra Leone and Liberia have close historical ties with the UK and US respectively. Wagner is no exception. Libya was a close ally of Russia during the Cold War era. It is not beyond anyone’s imagination, therefore, to suppose that some members of the company may have served in the country during this period. After all, over 10,000 Soviet military consultants were posted to Libya to help train its military personnel and maintain its weapon systems. These consultants lived on Soviet bases within the country. Many were part of the Soviet intelligence network. Today, a good number of these ex-Soviet consultants who worked in Libya will be assisting Wagner in the country.  

One area that is little understood is Wagner’s relationship with local Libyans. The dynamics between these two groups are not well understood, examined, or written about. This is mainly because there are few researchers with the necessary deep-rooted knowledge of Libya and the surrounding countries who are interested or simply able to write on the topic. Even those who do know Libya may not have access to the informal social networks and channels that are necessary to collect local opinions and views on Wagner. Other barriers to research include not being able to speak the language and security concerns. Finally, locals may simply not trust them. This blog hopes to address this gap in a small but novel way. Our data is drawn from different social groups across the country, collected through numerous interviews with Libyans who have experience of Wagner by either working for them, or having been affected by their activities and operations. 

As with other PMCs that have worked in Africa, Wagner has had no choice but to adapt its behaviour and interactions with locals to take account of local political, social, and cultural conditions on the ground in order to achieve its military and security aims. When its personnel do interact with locals, they tend to hide the extent of their involvement in the country’s politics and fighting. This is especially the case when Wagner’s pattern of behaviour and actions indicate that it is pursuing the Kremlin’s interests and its own economic wellbeing.

As mentioned earlier, it is very likely that Wagner’s leadership, because of the Soviet-era links, was already familiar with Libya’s geography, culture and even its language before the company became involved in the civil war. Some of its personnel may have operated in the south of the country where several Soviet bases were located. Today, these bases are part of Wagner’s strategic assets. Wagner personnel might also have fought alongside Libyan soldiers during the Libyan-Chadian war (1978-1987).  Therefore, Wagner’s ties to the military commander of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Hafter, and the LNA may not be new, but more accurately may stem from the Cold War era. Moreover, if this is the case then Wagner’s knowledge of the country will be considerable and may help account for its operational successes over the past decade. Of course, it is not only in the south where Wagner has a presence and nor is it just at military bases. The company controls transit routes between Sirte to Ajdabiya and Jufra to Sabha where some of the country’s oil fields are situated.   

Why, though, is Wagner involved in Libya in the first place? To put it in very simple terms, the Kremlin is using the company as a military tool to promote its political and economic interests in the country, primarily through taking advantage of local hostility towards the West and in particular towards France, a former colonial power in the region. Moscow is harnessing this hostility to extend its influence – using Wagner – throughout much of northern Africa. Many Africans believe France benefits from its economic ties with the region without returning the favour. The same reasoning has been used to explain Wagner’s intervention in Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony. The Kremlin believes the influence of both France and Portugal in their former colonies is waning and is using Wagner to exploit this situation. 

Wagner’s relationship with local Libyans could be described as dynamic, using them across a range of domains and tasks to meet some of its operational needs. For example, the company has used African military forces they have trained to conduct operations around Sirte and Jufra. These African forces include Chadian (Janjaweed), Malian and Sudanese personnel. But Wagner is not only reliant on local or regional forces, having also used Syrians to fight in Libya. Nor should we be surprised when Wagner engages in this type of activity. After all, their personnel are usually former Russian Special Operations soldiers who were trained to work alongside local military forces as well as operate advanced weapon systems. These skill sets are absent from local forces, while the use of advanced weapon systems is restricted to Wagner’s Russian, Kazakh and Serbian personnel only.  This approach is not dissimilar to that of US and UK Special Forces who also, in operations abroad, rely on local forces they have trained. Two of the local groups employed by Wagner are elements of the Tuareg and Tabu tribes. Their employment is usually ad hoc and directed at providing certain logistical capabilities that they are able to generate for the company. For example, helping it to maintain its military camps, while being paid minuscule salaries. These local actors are also important to Wagner in that they can help shape the company’s image among the local population as well as how the company approaches and engages with the locals. 

As with African and Western PMCs, Wagner is careful to vet the local civilians it employs. This is usually done using one of three methods. First, using a reliable person to introduce others whom he or she trusts. The issue of trust is important to locals because it acts as a form of social cohesion between different social groups. Second, it will hire locals who have volunteered to work for Wagner, and thirdly it offers pay or favours to local militias on a temporary basis for their services. The last approach is largely associated with Wagner’s operations in the south of the country. 

As mentioned earlier, Wagner trains local forces to fight on its behalf, rather than doing so itself. Again, this approach is not uncommon. EO did the same In Angola. However, EO personnel also fought alongside the Angolan soldiers it trained to ensure the training was effective, while it is not clear if Wagner does the same. Once Wagner takes control of an area it then uses mines, drones, and booby-traps as ways to deny territory to the enemy. However, Wagner’s ability to train and use local forces is, in part, dependent on finding local Libyans who can speak Russian to act as translators, or Russians that can speak the local language. 

The company is also adept at using locals to collect information to support its operations – if the price is right. For many locals, providing information for money is the only way they can help look after their families. Another important area where Wagner has been busy is with its psychological operations (PSYOPS) against local populations. These operations are designed to convey selective information to the local population to influence their actions. Often the company uses local actors on the ground to get the population to behave in the way it wants them to. For example, if Wagner wants the local population to stay away from an area where it is conducting operations, it will frequently use Facebook messaging to send misinformation to the locals, such as exaggerating the presence of mines in the area to generate fear, thus making them more compliant in following the company’s instructions.

The relationship, though, between Wagner and the local population is not all one-sided. Locals are also self-motivated to work for the company as well as other PMCs. They also work indirectly for Wagner through other Libyans who are actually employed by the company. Of course, in working for Wagner, Libyans are mostly, if not solely, driven by  money. Paid work is important in a country where unemployment is high and the economy is weak.  Working for Wagner may even be a survival strategy for some locals. In Tripoli, where a large swathe of the local population is not affiliated to either of the main political parties, exchanging loyalty for financial reward is all their motivation. 

Many Libyans no longer believe in promises made by their politicians; only in looking after their own economic interests. Tribal loyalty has been replaced by the dollar, thus making it easy for Wagner and other PMCs to buy someone’s allegiance. Loyalty in Libya has become commodified, and Wagner is making the most of this situation. Even Hafter is guilty of putting his own economic interests first.  His employment of Wagner is more to do with him wanting to first use them to exploit economic opportunities in the country before doing anything else. Even tribal groups seeking to improve their security and protect their way of life have turned to Wagner. The Tuareg and Tabu, for example, took the opportunity to work closely with the company to enhance their overall security situation, even though the two tribes are in constant dispute. From Wagner’s perspective this has given them access to a militia force that it can train and use to advance its own and Moscow’s economic interests in the region. 

While the previous paragraphs suggest that many locals either support Wagner or are prepared to tolerate its presence in the country because of the economic opportunities the company provides, the picture is actually a bit more complicated. Most Libyans in the West and South of the country do not engage with Wagner and are unanimous in their rejection of any foreign military force operating in the country to assist any of the political parties and their militias. They also believe that PMCs constitute an additional problem in the interior of the country. They want to be free from outside interference, including from PMCs. With this mindset present, as long as Wagner remains in Libya the chance of establishing peace is remote. 

But more widely, peace in Libya is a long way off for the simple reason that Wagner benefits from the very chaos that is responsible for perpetuating the continued conflict. Locals believe only they can stop the cycle of violence that has brought the country to its knees, while Wagner only contributes to military tension and local arms races between political parties and their militias. This, in turn, leads to more fighting that Wagner then benefits from.

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