Blacklisted Russian Group’s Libya Oil Grab Fuels Tensions in Mideast
28 Jul 2020

Military contractors linked to the Kremlin have seized control of two of Libya’s largest oil facilities in recent weeks, heightening tensions between Russia and the U.S. over Moscow’s growing footprint in the turbulent North African nation.

Since June, armed fighters from the Wagner Group, a Russian firm with ties to the Russian government, have moved in to secure Libya’s largest oil field and its most important oil-exporting port, Es Sider. The advance has helped Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar maintain a blockade of the country’s petroleum exports in defiance of U.S. pressure to restart them, according to Libyan and Western officials.

Moscow’s moves show how Libya has become a key front in a struggle between the U.S. and Russia for influence in the Middle East and access to strategic assets. The two nations have also locked horns in Syria, where Russian and American troops patrolling near oil fields in eastern Deir Ezzor province have engaged in roadside confrontations.

“The Russians are doing things that are bolder and bolder,” said Jason Pack, president of U.S.-based consulting firm Libya-Analysis LLC.

The recent Russian oil grab in Libya triggered a stern reaction by the U.S. The Treasury Department cited Russian involvement in Libya in a new round of sanctions applied in July to a Russian businessman with ties to President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. is also seeking to counter the Kremlin’s influence by threatening sanctions against their local Libyan ally, Mr. Haftar.

In addition, the U.S. Africa Command has taken the unusual step of revealing Russian mercenary deployments in Libya through a series of public statements accompanied by satellite photos and other imagery.

Russian military contractors arrived in Libya in 2019, backing Mr. Haftar’s forces as he waged war on Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli. His campaign collapsed in June after being driven back by a government counterattack supported by Turkey.

Now, U.S. officials are concerned that the Russian mercenaries have shifted their focus to taking control of Libya’s oil industry. After Wagner Group gunmen moved into the Sharara oil field in the country’s south, the U.S. Embassy to Libya in June criticized what it called “an unprecedented foreign-backed campaign to undermine Libya’s energy sector and prevent the resumption of oil production” at the site.

On July 12, Wagner, a company controlled by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Mr. Putin, set up camp in Es Sider, Libya’s National Oil Corporation said.

On July 15, the U.S. Treasury expanded its sanctions on entities owned by Mr. Prigozhin, citing in part their involvement in the conflict in Libya. “Our intelligence reflects continued and unhelpful involvement by Russia and the Wagner Group,” Rear Admiral Heidi Berg, Africom’s director of intelligence, wrote on Twitter.

The Kremlin didn’t respond to a request for comment on the Russian fighters’ presence in Libya and the takeover of oil installations.

In another sign of Russia’s rising clout in Libya, the Kremlin on Wednesday agreed with Turkey—which backs the opposite side in the conflict—to continue joint efforts to create conditions for a lasting and sustainable cease-fire in Libya by creating a permanent, joint working group.

Wagner’s Russian mercenaries now hold sway on key export flows to Europe and assets partly owned by major Western oil companies. Sharara is run by Spain’s Repsol SA while Es Sider is the international gateway for nearby fields partly owned by U.S. companies Hess Corp. and ConocoPhillips Co.

By Benoit Faucon and Jared Malsin, The Wall Street Journal, 26 July 2020

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