Russia reduces number of Syrian and Wagner troops in Libya

More than 1,000 Syrian and Russian mercenaries deployed by the Kremlin in Libya have been moved from the north African country, western and Libyan officials said, in one of the first signs that the invasion of Ukraine is straining Moscow’s foreign deployments.

About 200 Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-backed private military force Wagner Group, and about 1,000 Syrians whom Russia had deployed alongside them in Libya, have been pulled out in recent weeks, two western officials said. Three others confirmed the reduction.

About 5,000 mercenaries remain in the country on Moscow’s behalf, a regional official with knowledge of the deployment said. A senior Libyan official confirmed Russia had withdrawn mercenaries from his country, but provided no figures.

“At first it was the Syrians, not the Wagner Russian personnel and then it became Wagner personnel themselves,” said Emadeddin Badi, a Libya expert and senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Initiative, of the pullout. “And recently in the past couple of weeks there has been an uptick. They are still there but there is a lot less of them.”

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In recent years, the deployment of Russian mercenaries has given Moscow a foothold in north and west Africa. In countries such as the Central African Republic and Mali, the Kremlin has seized on widespread resentment at former colonial power France to bolster its influence, with Libya acting as a hub for its deployments in the continent.

But the costs of invading Ukraine have begun to strain Moscow’s deployments, with reports that about 200 Wagner fighters have left CAR.

A fighter stands next to a destroyed car in Tripoli, Libya in 2020 © Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images

Russia has scaled back its goals in Ukraine after battlefield setbacks. It has also sustained significant casualties — thought to be far greater than the 1,351 it last admitted in late March. The UK on Tuesday said that at least 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the first two months of the war.

Two of the western officials said Russia initially had no intention of withdrawing any of its forces from Libya but the decision came after it failed to make major gains in Ukraine. The UK’s defence ministry said in late March that setbacks meant “Russia has likely been forced to prioritise Wagner personnel for Ukraine at the expense of operations in Africa and Syria”.

Three of the western officials said the Wagner fighters had withdrawn for deployment to Ukraine, but it is unclear whether the Syrians will also be sent to Ukraine. Kyiv officials have said Syrian fighters had been killed alongside Russians on the front lines, but two Western officials said there was no evidence that Syrians had been deployed in Ukraine yet.

Turkey closed off its airspace to Russian military flights originating in Libya and Syria, where Russia has a large military presence, about a month ago, according to a Turkish official and one Western official, amid concerns about the transport of fighters and equipment to Ukraine.

“The Turks had some evidence to suggest that the Russians were moving both people and probably gear [from Syria and Libya] to the battle field in Ukraine,” the Western official said. Turkey publicly announced the ban on Saturday.

The US has accused Evgeny Prigozhin, an associate of Russian’s president Vladimir Putin, of bankrolling Wagner, which he has denied. In response to questions on the reduction of mercenaries he again denied having links to the sanctioned mercenary group. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Kremlin first sent several thousand Wagner and Syrian mercenaries to Libya in late 2019 to assist strongman Khalifa Haftar in his attempt to unseat the UN-recognised government. Haftar’s forces and Wagner lost and withdrew to bases in the east and south of Libya after a 2020 ceasefire — where much of the country’s oilfields are concentrated — maintaining a strategic presence on Nato’s southern flank.

Analysts say the withdrawals from Libya, which is divided between rival governments, have not changed the precarious balance of power in the country. “None of the foreign actors backing the two Libyan sides want to compromise the rekindled dialogue for the sake of launching a war in Libya against the other side,” said Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga

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