Is Russia’s lucky streak in Syria and Libya finally running out? The Kremlin has gambled big on proxy warfare in both countries, deploying thousands of private military contractors with the so-called Wagner Group to back its favorite strongmen. But after a recent run of misfortunes for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the head of the breakaway Libyan National Army, it is starting to look like Russia may not be able to cash in real wins in the Middle East and North Africa anytime soon.
The most significant sign that Russia’s support for private paramilitaries in Libya may be a losing bet for the Kremlin came earlier this week. The U.S. military’s Africa Command on Tuesday publicly accused Russia of deploying MiG-29 fighter jets to protect Wagner Group operatives and Libyan National Army forces retreating from Tripoli. For months, Russian support for the Libyan National Army has helped Haftar impose a blockade on oil ports in eastern Libya, locking its economy in a crippling vice grip. Over several weeks, Haftar’s forces aided by the Wagner Group have clashed heavily with Syrian mercenaries backed by Turkey and militias loyal to the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, known as the Government of National Accord.
Last week, however, Turkish-backed forces, with the help of Turkish drone strikes, dealt Haftar’s troops significant battlefield losses, forcing them to pull back and rely heavily on Russian fighter jets for aircover. On Monday, video footage surfaced of Wagner Group fighters being airlifted out of the town of Bani Walid, southwest of Tripoli, seemingly corroborating claims by local Libyan officials that Russian forces are turning tail.