The United Arab Emirates are apparently helping to finance the Russian mercenary group Wagner in Libya. This comes from a report released last week by the Pentagon's Inspector General on Counter Terrorism in Africa. This finding is likely to complicate the United States' close relationship with the US Gulf State.
Experts have long suspected the UAE may use Russian private military contractors to disguise its role in the conflict, but the report is the first public, official assessment of the deal.
Military officials have increasingly openly assessed the destabilizing role of the Wagner group in Libya, fearing that the Kremlin could use the conflict to gain a military foothold off the southern coasts of Europe. In July, the Pentagon's Africa Command accused the group of indiscriminately laying land mines around Tripoli and putting civilian lives at risk.
But the revelation that these Russian mercenaries may have been funded by one of America's closest military allies in the Middle East further complicates the bill for Washington and comes as Democrats in Congress campaign against the Trump administration's proposed $ 23 billion sale have launched F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a closed hearing on arms sales early Monday evening.
"Now there appears to be a permanent Russian presence on NATO's flank, made possible by a United States ally," said Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East program.
Nine countries provided military support to opposing factions in the Libyan conflict, and up to 10,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters fought in support of the warring factions. Most notably, Turkey has backed the United Nations-backed government of the National Accord in Tripoli, while Russia has thrown its weight behind the breakaway Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, who controls large areas in the east of the country.
While private military entrepreneurs are banned in Russia, a network of companies known as the Wagner Group has been at the forefront of Russian meddling efforts abroad, from Ukraine to Libya and Sudan. The Kremlin's growing reliance on the group has given its foreign operations a veneer of plausible denial, but Wagner is deeply woven into Russian military and intelligence structures, and the State Department has done so characterized it as a "replacement for the Russian Defense Ministry".
The group was originally believed to be funded by Putin's allies Yevgeny Prigozhin, although it has increasingly signed a series of contracts with foreign actors in Syria, Sudan and the Central African Republic, further blurring the lines between Russian foreign policy and for-profit motives were.
"The overall impression I've had for a long time is that Wagner is fully funded by foreign contracts," said Kimberly Marten, professor of political science at Barnard College.
While the United Arab Emirates have been Haftar's greatest military supporter in its broader efforts to suppress political Islam in the region, the Gulf State's role in the conflict has received far less scrutiny than Russia's intervention. Experts attribute this to the UAE's impressive lobbying work in Washington and the country's role in other major U.S. foreign policy goals, such as the Maximum Pressure Campaign on Iran and the UAE's peace deal with Israel, which has been hailed as a rare foreign policy success for the Trump administration.
"It doesn't get much resonance because if you mention it to US officials, well they'll say we have other stocks with the UAE," said Emadeddin Badi, a non-resident senior fellow on the Atlantic Council's Middle East program.
The UAE is Russia's closest ally in the Gulf, and while experts have long suspected the two countries are working closely together in Libya, the emirates' trust in Russian mercenaries on the ground has also enabled them to disguise their involvement. "It's denial, it's better than direct participation," said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.
The cautious wording in the Inspector General's report that "the Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] has assessed that the United Arab Emirates may provide some funding for the group's operations" likely reflects political sensitivities involved. The Trump administration has long hesitated to call U.S. partners in the Gulf, including the United Arab Emirates, despite allegations of human rights violations in the conflict in Yemen, and Trump even went so far as to say the U.S. has no interests in Libya.
"I would imagine DIA has some good information about the UAE's support for Wagner," said Douglas Wise, who served as deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2014-2016 on Opportunity to Blame the UAE for its behavior, as a diplomatic note or a press release from the Department of Defense or the White House. It lets the UAE know we know, ”he said.
Throughout 2020, experts following the conflict in Libya identified patterns that would indicate closer ties between the UAE and Russia.
After the Turkish parliament passed a measure in January that would allow troops on active duty to fight alongside Turkish-backed mercenaries in Libya, the Russian and Emirati cargo planes – probably loaded with weapons and ammunition – increased dramatically and flew east Libya and Western Egypt. Like Russia, the UAE support Haftar, the East Libyan strongman who was once a CIA asset and lived for years in the suburbs of Washington, DC.
The increased presence of Russia in Libya coincided with the defeats of the Emirates and aroused further suspicions. As cargo shipments began to rise and more Turkish troops marched into the country, the UAE withdrew their equipment from the al-Khadim air base near Benghazi and allowed Russian forces to take over the facility.
The likely turning point for the US military that led to the marking of the UAE was the deployment of a dozen Russian fourth-generation fighter jets that Wagner operated in May. This was part of Haftar's effort to prevent Turkey-backed forces from advancing further into the UAE country, said Jalel Harchaoui, a senior official with the Paris-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
"That moment enraged many in the Defense Ministry, but the only facet that was made public at the time was that AFRICOM was publicly naming and shaming the Russians," he said. "The other facet, of course, was that the Americans knew that part of the Wagner mission in Libya was likely paid for by Abu Dhabi."
But while the US election was still to be won when the Pentagon first spotted Russian fighters in Libya, the Trump administration's withdrawal makes it easier for the Pentagon to speak out now.
"The May allusion was a lot harder than it is now," said Harchoaui. The United Nations panel of experts reporting on possible sanctionable activities in conflict areas has reported that the UAE has repeatedly violated the world body's embargo on arms transfers to Libya.
"We know there was battlefield coordination between the Emirates and Wagner," said Carnegie's Wehrey. "But the funding is just another indication of the cooperation between the Emirates."