The US has accused Russia of sending warplanes to Libya to support the warlord Gen Khalifa Haftar.
Washington’s Africa Command said Moscow may be seeking to capture bases on Libya’s coast, creating a long-term security threat on Europe’s southern flank.
The US released images it claimed were of disguised Russian planes, including MiG-29s, at al-Jufra airbase south of Sirte. It is thought there are as many as eight jets, and that they were sent around 14 May.
The US administration has until recently taken no clear view on the Libyan civil war, but its assessment of the Russian intervention and dramatic warning about the wider implications for Europe’s security may be leading the US Department of State to offer clearer support to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
Some Libyan experts did not view the Russian jets as a threat to Europe but a deterrent against Turkish forces, which back the GNA, pushing for an offensive to drive Haftar out of Libya’s oil crescent. His forces have in effect closed Libya’s oil fields and blocked exports.
It has already been reported that mercenaries under the command of the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organisation, have retreated from western Libya where they had been supporting Haftar’s year-long offensive to seize Tripoli.
Haftar’s forces, known as the Libyan National Army, have suffered a series of reverses in the past month and in reorganising their defence lines appear to have acknowledged that their Tripoli offensive is suspended.
But the US claimed that the retreat by the Wagner Group may not denote a wider Russian disengagement from Libya, saying the Russian planes were designed to support the group’s activities.
Andrei Krasov, the deputy chairman of the Russian Duma’s defence committee, described the allegations as a US horror story. He said: “The information about Russia’s dispatching warplanes to Libya does not reflect the truth. Another American horror story. This is fake and misinformation similar to the past US administrations.”
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said on Tuesday that Moscow backed an immediate ceasefire and political talks that would culminate in united governing authorities.
The US said it assessed that the planes flew from Russia via in Syria, where they were painted to obscure their Russian origin.
“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favour in Libya,” said Gen Stephen Townsend, the commander of US Africa Command. “Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner.
“For too long Russia has disguised the full extent of its involvement in Libya. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia fly fourth-generation jets to Libya – every step of the way.”
He said Haftar had promised to launch a new air campaign. “That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied planes to bomb Libyans.”
Townsend also said Russia may be seeking long-term “area access denial” to Nato forces, a development that would create enduring security concerns on Europe’s southern flank.
Townsend’s remarks are probably the most explicit yet from the US about Russian government involvement in Libya. His statement is also notable for making no direct parallel criticism of the Turkish support for the GNA forces, or the support of the United Arab Emirates to the LNA.
Townsend instead said Russian involvement via the Wagner Group had prolonged the conflict and exacerbated casualties.
Speaking at a Chatham House seminar, Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert, said the Russian deployment to al-Jufra airbase may be a Russian attempt to prevent Turkish-backed GNA advances beyond Tripolitania. If the Russian ploy worked, Turkey and Russia may reach an understanding, giving Turkey a sphere of influence in the west and Russia in the east, so marginalising Europe and the UN.
He questioned the solution’s stability since the anti-Haftar alliance in the west may disintegrate and political actors in the east may see Haftar’s failure to capture Tripoli as a political opportunity.
Tarek Megerisi, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Libya was probably witnessing the death throes of Haftar’s ambition to enter Tripoli as a conquering hero.
He said it may yet represent a diplomatic opportunity for neutral external states such as Germany to block further negative interventions and prevent Libya becoming a client state of external powers.
Hanan Salah, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said violations had been committed by both sides, but the bulk had been committed by Haftar’s forces, and it was incredibly important to pin down the violations of the Wagner Group.
She said: “Libya is currently an accountability-free zone and it has been that way since 2011. I see a worrying trend of complete recklessness on both sides. There can be no deterrent effect for these crimes until you really raise the cost of killing civilians. Currently it is simply not there.”
She said the UN had a strong arms sanctions regime in Libya, but it was not working when security council member or their allies were breaching the regime.