The Russian Federation’s covert and overt activities in the Middle East and beyond have garnered the attention and concern of international observers in recent years. In particular, Russian private military companies — technically illegal in Russia — and their involvement in Libya and other conflicts in the region have prompted increasing Western scrutiny. This paramilitary activity coincides with Russia’s efforts to expand its role as an instrumental broker of peace and power in the Middle East and Africa. As indirect and clandestine Russian efforts to change the military balance of power in Libya are increasingly coming to light, Russia is being forced to walk a finer and finer line in pursuing diplomatic influence.

After the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, fighting broke out among previously united rebel groups. In the last several years, power has been concentrated in the hands of the U.N.-backed Government of National Unity and the rival coalition of the Libyan House of Representatives and the Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA is headed by prominent political and military leader Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have so far been the major providers of external support to Haftar, while Turkey is the main foreign patron of the Government of National Unity.

Reports of Russian involvement in Libya have so far been intermittent, but they indicate the extensive use of private military proxies in the conflict, as well as a pattern of denial and secrecy. In February 2018, the Russian Ambassador to Libya denied that Russia had any intent to establish a base or deploy its Aerospace Forces on antiterrorism missions in Libya. But in late 2018, suspicions were raised that Russia was sending troops to the war-torn country.

The role of the Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group in Libya has attracted the most international scrutiny. A 2018 video shows Yevgeny Prigozhin — the suspected funder of the Wagner Group — attending negotiations between Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Field Marshal Haftar. Prigozhin is a wealthy Russian businessman with close ties to President Vladimir Putin and many lucrative state contracts. Some of the funds from these state contracts were allegedly used to stand up private military companies such as Wagner. The United States imposed sanctions on the catering mogul for his role in the election-related influence campaigns orchestrated by the Internet Research Agency “troll farm” in St. Petersburg. The Wagner Group is arguably the best-known Russian private military company, involved in many conflicts worldwide.

By March 2019, concrete details began to emerge. The Telegraph of London reported that the Wagner Group had armed the LNA with artillery, tanks, drones and ammunition and was supporting Haftar with 300 personnel in Benghazi, a claim Russian authorities vehemently denied. A hundred Wagner mercenaries were later reportedly deployed to a forward base to support Haftar’s September attack on Tripoli. More recently, hollow-point ammunition characteristic of Russian private military snipers has been identified in the corpses of Tripoli militia casualties. One assessment estimates that there have been as many as 35 Wagner combat deaths in Libya. As evidence mounts, Russia’s ability to distance itself from military activities in Libya is steadily being undermined.

Private military companies have often provided Russian authorities with plausible deniability in sensitive contexts. However, Russia appears especially concerned with concealing that support in Libya. Anecdotal evidence suggests that loved ones back home in Russia were not notified when private military contractors died in Libya, a departure from the modus operandi for Russian mercenary casualties in other conflicts. Obscuring partisan links to the Libyan conflict clearly has an outsize importance for Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia has publicly emphasized its desire to act as a guarantor in the Libyan conflict, and has asserted that it supports all parties equally. Russia also regularly uses its media to denounce the flouting of U.N. protocols, the support of anti-government forces, and outside intervention in “domestic affairs.” Definitive proof of Russian support to Haftar would significantly undermine Russia’s efforts to promote its image as a neutral arbiter in Libya and in the region at large.