Russia has deployed MiG-29 fighters to Libya to support Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army.
While the fighters themselves likely won’t tip the balance of power in the war-ravaged North African country, they do portend a possible, wider Russian intervention.
And if Russia does intervene, the nine-year civil war—which began shortly after NATO helped local rebels depose longtime strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011—could get a lot worse.
U.S. Africa Command revealed the MiG-29 deployment in a Tuesday release. “Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya,” U.S. Army general Stephen Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command, stated in a release. “Just like I saw them doing in Syria.”
At least six MiG-29s arrived at the LNA’s Al Jufrah air base along with at least two Su-24s. Mercenary pilots from the Moscow-backed Wagner group allegedly operate the planes. “That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” Townsend stated.
The war in Libya is complex. Hafter’s LNA controls the sparsely-populated eastern and central regions around Benghazi. The U.N.-backed Government of National Accord oversees the heavily-populated areas around Tripoli in the country’s west.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia back the LNA. Turkey and Qatar back the GNA. Emirati and Egyptian fighters and drones add their firepower to the LNA’s meager air force, while Turkish drones support the GNA’s own modest air arm.
“In military terms, these MiGs are useless,” said Tom Cooper, an independent aviation expert. “They can’t do anything that the Egyptian F-16s and Rafales, or Emirati F-16s and [drones] haven’t been doing for five to six years.”
But if Russian president Vladimir Putin pursues the same strategy that he did in Syria starting in 2015, more forces could follow behind the MiGs and Sukhois.
The Russian forces would help the LNA to bomb civilians in GNA towns and cities. The resulting chaos could send hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to Europe. “Such a development would be in Putin’s interest,” Cooper said.
“The only ‘good’ thing about MiG-29s in Libya is that, from their current base, they can do very little,” Cooper said. “MiG-29s are much too short-ranged to do more than provide top cover over Benghazi.”
“However, even if their number does not increase, with this single deployment Putin has established himself as a power-broker in Libya,” Cooper added. “He’s in a better overall position than UAE, Saudis and Egyptians—combined—though at far lower cost.”
The GNA isn’t powerless to fight back. The regime recently destroyed or captured several of the LNA’s foreign-supplied Pantsir air-defense systems. But Cooper cautioned against expecting Turkey to launch a major counteroffensive in support of the GNA.
Source: Forbes Business