Port News & Information Mediterranean, Black & Caspian Seas
Free read

Russia beefs up military presence in Libya, Africa

Posted on

Tobruk, Libya (Ports Europe) May 15, 2024 – An investigation by the independent Russian website Verstka, the U.S. government funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the All Eyes on Wagner Project, has confirmed that Russia has ramped up its military presence in North Africa and especially in Libya.

An estimated 1,800 military personnel and members of the infamous mercenary Wagner Group were sent to conflict-torn Libya and its extremely poor neighbour Niger, journalists claimed. Most of the Russian forces in North Africa (mostly the remnants of the Wagner Group) are now stationed in the Sahel region. Their main interests are in the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger.

The goal is clear – to help expel the West and take possession of natural resources in those poor regions.

According to the journalists, Russian military equipment has been spotted in some 10 locations across eastern Libya in the past two months.

Russia already operates from the Syrian port of Tartus and establishing another one in Tobruk could hand Moscow a considerable win against NATO.

Russia is using Eastern Libya for troublemaking. This includes transporting illegal drugs like Captagon from Syria, covertly moving gold, evading Western sanctions, and traffiking migrants from the south of Africa, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Update: Can Russia add Libya’s Tobruk port to Tartus in Syria?

Fears are growing in Italy that Russia will base nuclear submarines at a planned naval port in Eastern Libya, dramatically boosting Russian influence in the central Mediterranean Sea and placing submarine nuclear weapons on Europe’s southern flank, according to an article in the UK Times newspaper published in February.

Ambitions to control Libya’s deepwater ports of Tobruk, Derna, Sirte and Ras Lanuf have been on the agenda of Moscow for years, together with its attempts to expand its military presence in eastern Libya, controlled by General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, who is fighting against Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

Can Russia add Libya’s Tobruk port to its Tartus port in Syria?

A Russian naval base, most likely in the port of Tobruk, would be a headache for Europe and the USA. It would be an ideal logistics and technical base for the Russian Navy on the doorstep of Southern Europe. Tobruk is a port on Libya’s Eastern Mediterranean coast, near the border with Egypt.

PortSEurope analysis (May 2020) – Russia uses Libya’s partition to gain control of its Mediterranean ports

Defence accord with Haftar

Since the U.S. departure from Libya in April 2019, Russia has been strengthening its military presence on the ground, including the use of its Wagner private army. In early 2019, rumours started to circulate that Russia had already established two small military bases in eastern Libya. Moscow also has nearly 1,000 military experts helping Haftar operate his Russia-supplied air defence systems.

The sailing distance from Tobruk to the port of Valletta in Malta, a European Union (EU) member state, is only 214 nautical miles. From Tobruk – should Russia gain a lasting foothold in Libya’s energy industry – Moscow could control the shipment of oil to southern Europe. Russia is also eyeing the oil storage facility at the Tripoli port in Libya. However, this one is under the control of GNA.

Allegedly, a defence accord was discussed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Haftar during their meeting in Moscow in September 2023. Russia’s deputy defence minister Yunus-bek Bamatgireyevich Yevkurov completed in February his fourth visit since August 2023 to general Haftar. It is believed that the main topic of his discussions with Haftar is the base in Tobruk.

Russia’s military bases abroad

Russia has military bases in many Central Asian former Soviet republics. It also has military bases in Syria – a naval facility in the port of Tartus, Khmeimim Air Base, Tiyas Military Airbase and the Shayrat Airbase. It also looks for ways to establish military facilities in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger…

It has been widely reported that the now dysfunctional Russian private military company Wagner Group has been supporting Haftar, the rebel commander of Libya’s breakaway oil-rich eastern half, with hundreds of mercenaries, and provided the LNA with arms, drones, and ammunition.

In a new push to expand its influence in Africa, Russia is now recruiting for a military force (Africa Corps) to replace Wagner in Africa. The Africa Corps would bolster Russia’s military presence with a network of planned bases, in a bid to revive Moscow’s Cold War-era influence in the continent.

Russia’s ambitious plans for Syria’s port of Tartus

Sudan will also allow Russia to set up a naval base with the presence of up to 300 Russian troops, and able to simultaneously handle up to four navy ships, including nuclear-powered vessels, in the strategic Port Sudan on the Red Sea, it was announced in February.

Russian naval base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea

A 25-year agreement will have an automatic extension for 10-year periods. In exchange, Moscow will provide Sudan with weapons. The new military base would provide the Russian Navy with a presence in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Arabian Peninsula, and spare its ships the need for long voyages to reach this strategic area, close to the main oil transportation routes.

Libya’s divide

The formal division of Libya into a Western part (with the capital Tripoli), controlled by the GNA and an Eastern region (with the capital Benghazi), run by Haftar is what Russia needs to gain control over the ports of Tobruk and Derna.

Such a divide existed historically in this region between the provinces of Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east before the foundation of the modern unified Libyan nation-state. If the impasse between the waring fractions continues, the same divide might well be the solution to Libya’s civil war. It will also enforce tribal autonomy in a country where clan loyalty is an important factor.


Field Marshal (general) Haftar is a Libyan-American and the head of the LNA. He served in the Libyan army under the ousted in 2011 dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He also took part in the coup that brought Gaddafi to power in 1969, but later tried to topple Gaddafi. In Western Libya, he is often described as a former CIA agent.

In April 2019, Moscow established the Libyan Russian Oil & Gas Joint Company in Benghazi to guarantee for itself access to Libya’s oil and gas riches. Haftar’s LNA has been seizing oilfields and ports in its campaign.

Moscow is backing Haftar also because it wants its navy to have access to Tobruk, which is a better positioned and equipped warm water port than Russia’s existing Mediterranean facility at Tartus in Syria. Russia also has printed banknotes for the Tobruk government loyal to Haftar.


Russia signed in April 2019 a 49-year lease contract for the port of Tartus, according to Russian deputy prime minister Yury Borisov. The agreement includes possible extensions by 25-year periods.

The use of the port will give Russia influence over the eastern Mediterranean. It also allows the Russian navy to expand its technical support and logistics base, located on the northern edge of the port of Tartus.

Tartus is the Russian Navy’s only Mediterranean port facility, sparing Russia’s warships the trip back to their Black Sea bases through the Bosphorus Strait, and is the Russian Navy’s only overseas base. In the Syrian civil war, Russia sided with and saved the regime in Damascus.

It uses Tartus port to deliver military equipment to its Syrian allies. The Tartus military facility, leased in 2017 also for 49 years, can currently accommodate up to four medium-sized vessels but only if both of its 100-metre floating piers are operational.

The real issue for Russia is whether it can afford to support its military (or its private contractors) in Libya the way it did for years in Syria. Moscow’s coffers are emptying at an alarming rate due to the war in Ukraine. Russia is also under Western sanctions.

Foreign backers of Libya’s warring factions have helped them to fight each other but did not provide the decisive support needed for either of them to break the ongoing year-long stalemate. Haftar, who started this with his offensive on Tripoli, receives military and diplomatic backing from the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The GNA is supported by Turkey, Italy and Qatar.

Report of the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) From Tartous to Tobruk: The Return of Russian Sea Power in the Eastern Mediterranean. February 2022

More PortSEurope news about Libya

(C) PortSEurope. All Rights Reserved. 2024.

Subscribe to weekly news

We keep you informed on the top European port news.