Moscow has pulled more than 1,000 Syrian and Russian mercenaries from Libya, as it faces setbacks and personnel losses in its invasion of Ukraine.
According to the Financial Times, about 200 Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, and about 1,000 pro-Russian Syrian fighters have been withdrawn from the North African country.
Moscow’s influence in the Middle East and Africa expanded in recent years, in part due to its willingness to deploy forces to regional hotspots. Russia intervened in Syria’s civil war in 2015, saving the government of its ally President Bashar al-Assad.
In 2019, the Kremlin sent thousands of Wagner and Syrian mercenaries to Libya to aid its other ally, renegade General Khalifa Haftar, who attempted to seize the capital city of Tripoli from Libya’s UN-recognised government. That offensive failed, but Russian mercenaries remained deployed in Libya’s east, where Haftar’s army holds sway.
The Wagner Group is a private military force allegedly controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is believed to have benefitted from lucrative construction and energy contracts in the regions where Moscow has intervened militarily.
More recently, Russian mercenaries from Wagner have used Libya as a launching pad for other operations in Africa, with forces being deployed to Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mali.
The Financial Times report cited western officials saying that the Russian mercenaries were being moved from Libya to Ukraine, though it remains to be seen whether the Syrian fighters will follow.
Syria has emerged as a recruitment ground for Russia’s war effort. Last month, Middle East Eye reported the existence of an advertisement in a private Facebook group promising salaries of $3,000 for Syrian fighters with combat experience. The general who oversaw Russian military operations in Syria is steering the country’s invasion of Ukraine as well.
Russia has suffered significant military setbacks in Ukraine. On Monday, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that about 15,000 Russian troops have died since the 24 February Russian invasion. With its forces unable to capture the capital city of Kyiv, Moscow has turned its attention to a new offensive in the east and south of the country.
Western officials have said that Russia is recruiting Syrians to fight in Ukraine amid military personnel shortages, though it’s unclear how many have actually arrived in the country.
Speaking at a Senate hearing in early March, General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said that only “very small groups” were trying to make their way from Syria to Ukraine, calling it a “very small trickle”.