U.S. officials are also concerned about the Kremlin ally’s long-term goals in the war-torn country. An intelligence official notes that the trench is a sign that Wagner, which the official said has the largest global presence in Libya, is “stabilizing over the long term.”
The trench, which stretches tens of kilometers south from the populated coastal areas around Sirte towards the Wagner-controlled Jufrah stronghold, can be seen through satellite imagery and backed by a series of complex fortifications.
CNN contacted the Russian government for comment and received no response.
The trenches and fortifications appear designed to disrupt or halt a ground offensive into areas controlled by the LNA in the east, which pass through the populated coastal areas of Libya that have witnessed the largest clashes since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011.
The Government of National Accord published photos of the excavators and trucks making the trench and the dirt berm that runs alongside them and said work appeared to be continuing as recently as this month.
The US intelligence official said the trench is another reason “because we do not see any intention or movement by Turkish or Russian forces to abide by the agreement brokered by the United Nations. This would hamper the already fragile peace process and ceasefire. It will be a really difficult year.”
Open source surveillance says it has identified a series of more than 30 defensive positions dug into the desert and hillside that extend for nearly 70 kilometers.
Satellite imagery from Maxar appears to show both the trench running along a main road, and the fortifications dug, also by Wagner’s mercenaries and their contractors.
The images show an accumulation of the defenses around Al Jufra Air Base, as well as Brak Airport to the south, where the apparent radar defenses were installed and fortified.
“I do not think that anyone is digging a trench today and making these reinforcements leave anytime soon,” Defense Minister of National Accord Salah al-Din al-Nimroush told CNN.
Claudia Ghazini, from the International Crisis Group, told CNN that the trench was “really worrisome,” and that talk about it “has been circulating among diplomats over the past few weeks. It continues and suggests that Moscow is keen to consolidate its presence in Libya.”
Analysts said the Kremlin is keen to consolidate its military presence and influence in the Mediterranean, along with the southern region of NATO, with the added advantage of participating in and profits from the Libyan oil industry.
Ghazini added that there are frequent reports of the two sides continuing to maintain and build the presence of foreign mercenaries, with the Government of National Accord also being accused of enhancing its supplies of military equipment, under a public agreement with Turkey to support its armed forces.
The CIA official said that the number of mercenaries on both sides of the Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army is relatively constant: The number of mercenaries in Libya is currently estimated at 10,000, according to the AFRICOM report issued in September on the issue.
The US official said that the deployment of about 2,000 Wagner foreign mercenaries in Libya – most of them are believed to be Russians or citizens of the former Soviet Union – is the largest private military company worldwide.
The army spokesman, Major General Khaled Al-Mahjoub, confirmed to CNN the existence of the trenches, but described them as “temporary” checkpoints and trenches, in an “open area … for defense and combat.” He denied the existence of 2,000 Wagner mercenaries, and said that there were advisers “who announced a long time ago.”
But a confidential UN report in June, obtained by CNN, described the Wagner fighters as an “effective multiplier.”
Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that there are no Russians in Libya, but if they do, they do not represent Russia. Russia has always denied that it uses mercenaries to fight for it.
Despite the arms embargo, UN inspectors recorded dozens of Russian flights to Libya throughout 2020.
The US Africa Command has publicly called for Russia to expand, saying it is similar to the measures in Syria.
In June, the head of the Russian parliament’s Senate Defense Committee, Viktor Bondarev, said the US allegations were “stupid” and indicated that they were old Soviet aircraft from elsewhere in Africa.
A Western diplomat familiar with arms movements to Libya said that Russian flights to the country have decreased from their peak of 93 in August to just over twelve months at the end of 2020. “They only save the Earth.” Adding that Turkey was flying in similar numbers.
The Turkish military is open to its desire for a permanent presence, and has released pictures of its forces providing the Government of National Accord with “Al Qaeda defense training” last week.
“It is an all-out effort,” the US official said. They are building the facilities, they bring in personnel and equipment. They have HAWK missile batteries for air defense, 3D [KALAKAN] radar.”
Satellite images of the port of Al-Khums show slight modifications indicating that it may be ready for a long-term Turkish naval presence, which Al-Nimroush denied from the Government of National Accord.
A senior Turkish security official told CNN that they “continue to provide military training, cooperation and advice … according to the needs and demands of the Government of National Accord.”
The US intelligence official revealed that thousands of Syrian mercenaries who entered Turkey and supported them in Libya have been used elsewhere as well. The American official said that during Turkey’s support for the Azerbaijani government during its recent conflict with Armenia, the planes transported hundreds of Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan to help Turkey’s ally in their war with Armenia.
“It seems that there are some movements of some Syrian mercenary forces in the direction of the conflict at home [Nagorno Karabakh]. “There are fewer numbers, hundreds less,” the official added.
Analysts said the Russian-backed Wagner forces aimed to give Moscow leverage, not responsibility. Jalil Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, said that Wagner’s mercenary forces are “disposable by definition” – and “a force that does not exist, according to the official narrative of the Russian state. But it provides the most flexibility for the Kremlin.
Ghazini added: “Russian policy in Libya is ambiguous – what Russia wants. From the evidence on the ground, it seems that they want to enhance their influence, or they want to find a way out.”
However, the US official added that the Russian mobilization is now reaching a large number of advanced personnel and equipment, but it poses ethical concerns. “The fourth-generation combat aircraft and Pantsir missile systems are being operated by less capable and poorly trained Wagner mercenaries,” the official said.
He added, “There are complex challenges in Libya, including al-Qaeda and ISIS, and the mercenaries, with the poor level of training and experience and lack of respect for human rights and international law, make the weapons systems in these hands more alarming.”
Analysts said that while Wagner’s presence and trench appear to offer an advantage to LNA commander General Haftar, the Russian presence appears to be more oriented toward Moscow’s agenda than supporting Haftar.
The Western diplomat said Haftar needs to continue the conflict in Libya to maintain its relevance. “It becomes irrelevant overnight if the conflict ends,” the diplomat said. If it does not end its terms, it becomes vulnerable to allegations of war crimes and so forth.