Wagner in Libya: is Crosetto right?

(To Philip Del Monte)

On March 13, Defense Minister Guido Crosetto declared: "The exponential increase in departures is to a considerable extent part of a clear hybrid war strategy that the Wagner division, mercenaries in the pay of Russia, is implementing, using its significant weight in some African countries". A problem already highlighted by the information services and by COPASIR.

The declarations of Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who spoke of a "attempt to push migrants towards Italy".

Without hiding its head in the sand, for a country like Italy, wedged in the center of the Mediterranean, on the border with a by now systemically unstable scenario like the North Africa-Sahel belt, irregular immigration is a strategic problem for national security and also implies the obligation to review one's ability and willingness to project to stem the emergency.

According l 'International Organization for Migration (IOM), an agency linked to the UN, more than 20.000 people have landed on Italian shores since the beginning of 2023, triple the number in 2022 in the same period.

The immigration emergency is an integral part of the instability of Libya and the Sahel, areas connected by a geographical "corridor" through which pass the main land routes of illegal immigration and those of illicit trafficking of all kinds. Not to mention that the region is fully included in the competition between powers - including Russia - committed to the new scramble for Africa.

Certainly the position taken by the Italian Government on the "hybrid war" strategies implemented by the Wagner Group against Rome are exaggerated, the result of a political will to "overestimate" some intelligence information to be used in the propaganda war between the West and Russia liminally to the "war waged" between Moscow and Kiev.

If the Wagner Group has an important and deep-rooted presence in Libya, this does not mean that it has the capacity to manage the trafficking of migrants in a monopoly regime; it certainly benefits from it, it certainly can use it - in accordance with the will of the Kremlin - as an instrument of pressure on the southern front of NATO, also considering the sensitivity of Italian public opinion on the issues of the war in Ukraine and immigration, but it is an exploitation on the sidelines of the real human trafficking racket.

Along the Libyan coasts – due to the inability of the government authorities of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica to stop the trafficking but also due to the connivance of their branches and supporters – structured criminal organizations have sprouted up, real "mafias", which make the trafficking of human beings from sub-Saharan Africa to the Italian coasts their main source of income.

Mass migration directly sponsored by a state or a non-state actor with political and strategic interests and able to control trafficking can be an extremely effective tool to destabilize a specific target country. It is a phenomenon now known in the era of "selective globalization", known as weaponized migration, an instrument of political and hybrid warfare already used by Mu'ammar Gaddafi in 2011 at the outbreak of the Libyan civil war, by Turkey in February 2020 during the Turkish-Greek border crisis and in 2021 by Belarus during the crisis that saw the authorities of Minsk with those of Brussels.

Remaining in Libya, it was also the consolidated practice of the governments that succeeded Gaddafi, both in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (especially the latter), to use the migratory waves as weapon of blackmail against Italy and the European Union.

Frequency and rhythm of landings on the Italian coasts are not influenced solely and exclusively by political issues, on the contrary, it is mainly the needs of the criminal organizations of traffickers that do so, but it is clear that actors with political aims can exploit the destabilization that mass immigration , waved as a threat or implemented in practice, could cause against an enemy country.

So far the Wagner Group, and with it the Kremlin, has had no "known" influence in the human trafficking racket, but it can exploit its disruptive potential. Just like in other African states, such as the Central African Republic and Mali, the Wagner Group is exploiting its presence in Libya to obtain extractive concessions. In Fezzan, which is an obligatory transit area for illegal migration flows from the Sahel and Central Africa, Wagner is involved in illegal gold mining, with troops deployed near key air bases and near vital oil installations, in the specific in the area that goes from the capital Sebha to the nearby Awbari.

Wagner has also signed contracts with the Marshal of Libya Khalifa Haftar, a rival of the Tripoli government, an ambiguous figure within that of Tobruk and, certainly, a figure hostile to the Italian presence in the former "Fourth Shore". The oil, gas and gold resources present in Libya have prompted the Wagner Group to enter the country's crisis with a straight leg and to choose the one which, among the various players in the field, is also closest to Russia's interests.

But apart from these considerations, there is one fact to underline. The Meloni government's strong stance against Wagner reopens a wound that has never really healed on the errors that have so far accompanied the Italian strategy of regaining a "place in the sun" in Libya starting from the disastrous war against Gaddafi in 2011.

Rome's "security" approach, which since 2017 has paid a good 32,6 million euros into Tripoli's coffers for support missions to the Libyan Coast Guard without obtaining real results on the fight against illegal immigrationhas prevented Italy from really considering Libya for what it is, that is, a political-strategic problem, both of national security and of projection abroad, therefore as an essentially proactive question of foreign and defense policy.

Equally, this type of approach has always prevented Italy from identifying the true perpetrators of human trafficking, who also make money thanks to the coverage that the interlocutors of the foreign powers involved in Libya (Italians included) provide them.

The truth is that the "security" approach, concentrated only on the fight against clandestine immigration, prevents us from understanding that the real cause of the instability - even humanitarian - of the area is the political-military instability of the vast area ranging from Sahel to the deeply interconnected Mediterranean coasts of Africa.

An interconnection – is written in the “Mediterranean Defense and National Security Strategy” of the Ministry of Defense dated 2022 – from which Italy does not escape, since it is directly affected by the instability that comes from the so-called "Southern flank", due to a widespread fragility, which favors the emergence of jihadist terrorism, illicit trafficking and, more recently, of the hybrid threats of actors external to the Region, now rooted in this context.

Translated: Wagner or not Wagner - indeed, even more so with Wagner boots on the ground and an increasingly incandescent southern front after the outbreak of war in Ukraine - Libya remains the number one problem for Rome's national security.