By Andrew Reitman, The EUobserser, 19 May 2024

BRUSSELS - Russia's military base in Tobruk, Libya risks becoming a strategic nightmare for Europe, amid wider Western setbacks in Africa.

The Russian navy delivered at least five shipments of weapons and some 1,800 Russian soldiers and mercenaries to the port of Tobruk in eastern Libya in the past three months, according to All Eyes on Wagner, a Russia-monitoring project by Impact Initiatives, a Geneva-based NGO.

The arms deliveries included mobile multiple-rocket launch systems, armoured personnel carriers, and heavy mortars.

And when asked if the EU was concerned that Tobruk was becoming a Russian military base, the EU foreign service said: "Yes, Russia has a proven track record that its military presence abroad has a destabilising effect".

The nightmare scenario is that Tobruk becomes a second Tartus, Russia's naval base in Syria, which hosts long-range anti-air and anti-ship missiles.

This would mean "an increase of Russian naval presence and intelligence assets not too far from our coasts," said Italy's ex-armed forces chief, retired admiral Luigi Binelli Mantelli.

Russian naval and command-and-control support could then help its Libyan champion, rebel general Khalifa Haftar, "to gain control over the entire country and reach Tripoli", Binelli Mantelli said.

"In any case, the migration problems will worsen," he added, referring to the central-Mediterranean migration route, by which some 160,000 people tried to reach Europe last year.

Libya collapsed into civil war after Nato air power helped to topple its former dictator, colonel Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011.

The EU and Turkey back the UN-approved government in Tripoli, but Nato never deployed troops.

An EU naval mission in the region also helps police a UN arms embargo on Libya.

"Operation Irini reports regularly about its activities and interceptions to EU member states and to the UN panel of experts," the EU spokesman said.

But Irini can only stop and search ships, such as Russian vessels sailing from Tartus to Tobruk, if they give consent.

It also has no way of knowing what Russia is delivering to Libya by air.

And the West seemed ill-equipped to counter Russia's Tobruk build-up, said Jamie Shea, a former Nato official who teaches war studies at Exeter University in the UK.

"Nato is not a political player in Libya at the moment, as it did not put troops on the ground to stabilise the country after its air campaign in 2011," he said.

Asked if EU diplomats had any contacts with Haftar, the EU spokesman said: "While we recognise and deal with the Tripoli-based authorities, we have ways to deliver our messages to a number of interlocutors in the country".

But for the Italian admiral, Haftar had anyway become too dependent on Russia by now to be flipped to the West.

"Sorry, but I think we've already missed the last night train," Binelli Mantelli said.


Tobruk logistics


For the time being, not all the Russian weapons and fighters pouring into Libya were staying in place.

"Tobruk is most probably a logistical facility so that these mercenaries can bring in weapons and supplies for onward transmission to the Russia Africa Corps operations in the Sahel and Sudan", said Shea.

The Africa Corps is the new name of Russia's Wagner mercenary group.

Libya aside, Russia has also backed warlords and putschists in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Mali, Niger, and Sudan.

The Africa Corps' modus operandi is to protect junta chiefs, in return for gold and mineral-mine contracts, while often brutalising civilians.

Its "political technologists" have also whipped up anti-Western feeling in West Africa, forcing French and other Nato forces to abandon former strongholds.

"The last two years have been bad ones for the West, with even the US now being forced to negotiate the closure of its bases in Niger," Shea said.

'Weaponising migration'


For her part, Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas also warned press in Tallinn on Friday that Russia was "weaponising migration" against the EU by its creeping control of African routes.

But going back to Tobruk, Shea added that "a logistics facility without a big Russian navy, air-defence, and missile presence [as in Tartus] is not an immediate threat to Nato".

And Russian brutality-for-hire was also a less attractive offer to African leaders in the long term than US and EU conflict resolution, development aid, and foreign investment, Shea said.

"Russia is totally absent from the diplomacy to resolve the wars in Sudan or the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] or within Ethiopia," he said, looking beyond the Sahel.

"So, yes, it’s 2:1 to Russia at half time, but everything to play for in the second half," Shea said, using a soccer metaphor.


Andrew Rettman is EUobserver's Foreign Affairs Editor. He has been writing about foreign and security affairs for EUobserver since 2005. He is Polish but grew up in the UK. He has also written for The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times of London.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of northsouthnews Board.