The last time Russian forces tried to topple an internationally recognized government it was in a country far from Eastern Europe and on a far smaller scale than today’s war in Ukraine. But what I saw in Libya was no less terrifying for civilians and similarly corrosive to national sovereignty—a testing ground, of sorts, for the conflict now raging in Ukraine.
The use of mercenaries is one example. U.S. officials believe that this is what President Vladimir Putin uses to help regular Russian forces fall, increase the death toll among Russian soldiers, and make atrocities the main focus. In the fall of 2019, I was reporting from Tripoli as roughly one thousand fighters from the so-called Wagner Group—a private military company that essentially functions as Putin’s secret arm—and some regular Russian military personnel joined the militia forces of a Libyan warlord in an effort to oust the sitting government.
The Wagner fighters in Libya made a significant impact. Even though they are not at par with Western military standards, their relentless firepower, lethal precision and unwavering firepower hampered the government’s ability to maintain its morale with the help of high-caliber sniper shots., anti-materiel rifles. According to one commander of the government, Russian snipers are responsible for 30% of all deaths within his unit. And during a Wagner mortar barrage, I witnessed fear and panic in the ranks that I’d not observed in previous conflicts in Libya, including the months-long battle against the Islamic State.
The Wagner attack was particularly harsh on Libyan civilians. Whole families were left to die in the rubble of their destroyed homes. The Wagner fighters were soon able to place dozens of mines, booby-traps, and other devices that would cause more deaths.
These events sparked little protest in Western capitals. Two of the United States’ allies, France, and the United Arab Emirates were able to support the Russian-led assault on Tripoli by providing diplomatic and military support. Even though the invasion did not overthrow Libya’s government, it left Russian military forces in place at airbases and other oil facilities in eastern and southern Libya.
Russia is reportedly following the Libyan strategy in Ukraine. After failing to decapitate the Ukrainian government and seize the entire country, Moscow has pivoted to shearing off swaths of territory and freezing Ukraine’s conflict into a stalemate that stymies Kiev’s economic and democratic progress and its integration with the West. Pentagon and Western intelligence service reported in March that over a thousand Wagner soldiers, who were wounded in battles in Libya and a bloodier intervention in Syria had been sent back to Ukraine.
There, Wagner will find a foe that is far more competent and better equipped than Libya’s militias and one that has already shattered the morale of Russian conventional forces. These mercenaries, who are able to throw more force into the Ukraine conflict, as well as air defense and artillery systems, could undermine prospects of a lasting peace and set the stage for further conflict. In particular, by supporting proRussian forces in Donetsk (in southeastern Ukraine) and Luhansk (in southeastern Ukraine), they can help to wrest enough land away from the Ukrainian government so that Putin has a new reality.
But to the extent they violate the rules of war—targeting civilians, or committing abuses like those uncovered on the outskirts of Kyiv, where reports say Wagner operated—Putin’s mercenaries will intensify an already atrocity-ridden campaign, and make it more likely that rank-and-file Russian soldiers will act more brutality. However, they will likely increase Western resolve to Ukraine. What the Wagner Group did in Libya without drawing much of an outcry—along with its even more destructive campaign in Syria and its murderous meddling in Africa, epitomized by a reported massacre in late March of hundreds civilians in Mali by Wagner and Malian government forces—will not go unnoticed in Eastern Europe.
Putin’s adventures in the Middle East and Africa constituted his bid to expand Russian global influence, whittle away the U.S.-led international order, and nudge the world toward greater multipolarity—all while reaping economic spoils. They were successful in part because they happened in regions of the world that were deemed less important to Western policy interests and that, in the view of some Western elites and media outlets, were long accustomed to proxy wars and bloodshed and were “less civilized” than Europe.
His aggression on Ukraine has resulted in a remarkable commitment by the U.S., its European allies and sanctions against Russia. They also provided military and humanitarian aid to the Ukrainians. But the contrast between this degree of Western mobilization toward Ukraine—evident most starkly in Europe’s welcoming of Ukrainian refugees—and the West’s previous indolence toward Russian abuses of non-Europeans is morally bankrupt. The contrast between this level of Western mobilization toward Ukraine and that of previous indifference to Russian abuses of non-Europeans is morally bankrupt.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME