Libya Is a Testing Ground for Russia-UAE Cooperation in the Middle East

In a little more than a month, on Dec. 24, Libyan voters will go to the polls to elect a new president, and after a decadelong civil war it is probably stating the obvious to say that they face tough choices. Among the candidates they can vote for are Gen. Khalifa Haftar, an accused war criminal backed by Russia and the United Arab Emirates, and Saif Gadhafi, the son of a murdered dictator and an accused war criminal himself, who has also been courted by Russia and the UAE. 

The other three presidential candidates all have foreign backers of their own, including the U.S., U.K., Egypt, France, Italy and Turkey. But what makes Haftar and Gadhafi’s bids so much more worrying are their connections to the Wagner Group, a network of Russian-backed military contractors that has also reportedly received backing from the UAE. If either Haftar, Gadhafi or both advance to the second round of voting, there is a decent chance one of them could win the presidency. Either way, that sets up the very real prospect of the Wagner Group entrenching its position in Libya, and a possibility that Abu Dhabi and Moscow will deepen their cooperation across the Middle East.

As it is, there is plenty to suggest that Russia and the UAE are already heavily invested in using foreign forces to maintain their influence over political outcomes in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and second city, Benghazi, which is Haftar’s longtime eastern stronghold. Besides a series of United Nations reports alleging UAE backing for Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries in Libya, there is mounting evidence to suggest that U.N. and U.S. suspicions about joint Russian and Emirati support for Russian fighters with the Wagner Group in Libya is more than just idle speculation. 

In fact, I spent the past year working with my colleagues Oliver Imhof and Jack Margolin to see what more could be unearthed about the Russia-UAE-Wagner Group connection. Although rumors about Emirati financing for the Wagner Group swirled for months after the start of Haftar’s pivotal offensive on Tripoli in the spring of 2019, when we started our investigation in March of this year, there wasn’t much of a trail to track. Beyond the sighting of Chinese-made drones specially developed for the Emirati military and media stories about well-armed Russian-speaking men in military fatigues running to or from various battles, it was hard to connect the dots from such a remote distance. 

But then two things happened that made us rethink our strategy. First, Foreign Policy published a scoop in November 2020 about an obscure Pentagon report that seemed to corroborate allegations about Emirati financing for Russian mercenaries in Libya. Then about two months later, The Times of London broke a story about the U.S. capture of a Russian-made Pantsir S1 anti-aircraft missile battery in Libya. That led us to probe satellite imagery, customs records, flight data, social media posts and traditional media accounts about casualties incurred by Russian mercenaries as well as damage to Pantsir platforms. Though we didn’t necessary find a smoking gun in all the data we sifted through, there is lots to suggest that Emirati-Russian cooperation in support of the Wagner Group warrants much more scrutiny. 

Russia appears to have built a durable model for conducting war on the cheap in North Africa, and it has likely done so with help from a key U.S. ally—the UAE.

Based on our assessment of the Wagner Group’s ground operations during the Tripoli offensive, and a review of flight and procurement data as well as military-technical agreements between the UAE and Russia, one place to start is Russia’s defense logistics pipeline to the UAE and its potential onward connections to Libya. The UAE has shelled out at least $734 million for the production, deployment and maintenance of a fleet of Russian-made Pantsir S1 anti-aircraft batteries over the course of a series of military-technical agreements that span 30 years.

Our analysis also found that a string of costly airstrikes on Pantsir S1s—likely operated by a combination of Wagner Group and Emirati operatives in cooperation with Haftar’s Libyan National Army—led to major battlefield reversals in Libya that ultimately forced Haftar to the negotiating table last year. The losses not only forced Russia to modify and upgrade the Pantsir to be more resistant to drones, but also to revamp its approach to air defense deployments. 

Having learned all this, we began to wrap up our investigation this summer, just as Russia and Turkey inked a tentative agreement calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Libya. Only a couple months later, fresh reports surfaced in early October about a proposed deal between the Wagner Group and Mali’s military junta to expand the group’s operations to the Sahel region. All this is especially concerning given that a U.N. fact-finding mission has now reportedly determined that Wagner Group operatives have been implicated in war crimes in Libya. 

What we found was far from definitive proof of direct UAE financing for the Wagner Group, and more research is needed to fill in some of the known unknowns about the logistics pipeline from Russia to Libya. But in light of the upcoming elections in Libya, one of the most important takeaways is that Russia appears to have built a durable model for conducting war on the cheap in a strategically significant part of North Africa, and it has likely done so with help from a key U.S. ally—the UAE. Whoever wins Libya’s presidency and comes out on top in Tripoli, whether it’s Haftar, Gadhafi or one of their rivals, they will have a lot to contend with when they take power.

Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every other Friday.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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