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Fighters supporting Khalifa Haftar stand with their equipment near Tripoli. May 2019

A small price to pay for Tripoli Between 10 and 35 Russian mercenaries have been killed in the Libyan Civil War. We identified several of them.

Source: Meduza
Fighters supporting Khalifa Haftar stand with their equipment near Tripoli. May 2019
Fighters supporting Khalifa Haftar stand with their equipment near Tripoli. May 2019
AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Last week, the bodies of the first Russians killed in Libya’s civil war started arriving back home for burial. Officially, Russia isn’t part of the fighting in North Africa, which has been ongoing for several years now. In reality, however, Russian combatants have been providing massive support to one side in the conflict, in exchange for which Moscow’s Libyan allies have promised “oil, railways, and highways.” Meduza investigative journalist Liliya Yapparova has learned that an infamous Russian private military company has suffered dozens of casualties in Libya. She also found some of the mercenaries’ names despite efforts to keep that information secret: even the mercenaries’ bodies are being withheld.

In April of 2019, the Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar moved his forces to the west, significantly escalating the country’s eight-year civil war. Haftar, whose army had already taken control of the eastern part of the country, was advancing to fight the UN-recognized Government of National Accord, which is also supported by Turkey, Qatar, and a U.S.-led coalition.

Signs of significant Russian involvement in Haftar’s advance soon reached the press. On September 9, a Twitter user wrote that seven fighters from the Wagner PMC had been killed in an air raid outside Tripoli. Al Jazeera subsequently cited government sources who raised that number to eight. Bloomberg wrote on September 25 that “more than 100 mercenaries from the Wagner group” had “arrived at a forward base in Libya in the first week of September to support eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar’s assault on the capital Tripoli.”

Now, Meduza has learned that as many as 35 Russian fighters from the Wagner PMC have been killed in the Libyan conflict. Five of the PMC’s mercenaries and commanders as well as a handful of FSB and MVD veterans with ties to the company spoke about the casualties. They indicated that the fighters in question were from Russia’s Krasnodar, Sverdlovsk, and Murmansk regions.

While the families of the fighters allegedly killed in Libya have lost contact with their loved ones, neither the Russian government nor Wagner itself has formally notified the families of any combat deaths. This is contrary to the PMC’s typical practice, which is to send death certificates and any military decorations to the relatives of combatants who are killed.

Trading bodies for oil

Khalifa Haftar first requested Russian military and diplomatic support in 2015. A source familiar with that relationship told Meduza that the Libyan field marshal reached out to Russian officials after admiring the country’s operations in the Syrian war. Haftar warned that his planned takeover of Libya would be bloody, but Meduza’s source said he promised “oil, railways, highways, anything you want” in exchange for troops, weaponry, and UN vetoes that would help him reach his goal.

At first, the source recalled, Russia’s Defense Ministry was skeptical of Haftar’s proposal. The field marshal was not invited to Moscow, where he had previously met with high-ranked military officials and with purported Wagner PMC owner Evgeny Prigozhin. Instead, Russian government representatives held negotiations with Haftar and his UN-backed opponents out of the spotlight in the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Evgeny Prigozhin at a negotiating table with Khalifa Haftar.
Lead Command Media Bureau, Libyan Armed Forces

“It was important to us back then that there wouldn’t be headlines like ‘Russia continues Middle East expansion: Libya is up next after Syria,’” Meduza’s source explained. That didn’t prevent media sources from reporting that several dozen Russian trainers and special forces troops were sent to Libya in 2018 or that Russian mercenaries had increasingly begun protecting oil interests connected to Haftar.

As Haftar’s advance on Tripoli approached, photographs of Russian combatants in Libya began appearing frequently on social media, and The Telegraph reported a total mercenary presence of about 300 troops. Multiple combat veterans as well as Higher School of Economics (HSE) expert Grigory Lukyanov confirmed to Meduza that Russian fighters were actively involved in preparatory missions and supply line defense in the early months of 2019. Another source close to the Russian-Libyan negotiations added that while Haftar continues to benefit from Russian support, he is not necessarily reliant on it: The field marshal also enjoys backing from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The strike

The September airstrike was a turning point for Russia’s involvement in the Libyan conflict. Andrey Chuprygin, a Libya specialist and senior lecturer at the HSE’s World Economy and International Affairs Department, told Meduza that the strike doesn’t appear to have been accidental: It hit the exact area in Tripoli’s suburbs where the Wagner troops were staying. “They’re not sitting in the desert out there,” Chuprygin said. “They’re fighting in populated areas.”

Reports of Russian casualties in Libya first reached the Sverdlovsk region on Saturday, September 28. One veteran of the war in eastern Ukraine who was close with two of those mercenaries told Meduza, “They were hit in an airstrike on the frontline. They were just standing there in a military formation, and something went wrong, as they say.”

Another Wagner PMC fighter who spoke with Meduza said he had discussed the details of the attack with two mid-level commanders who were caught in the strike. The soldier explained that the two squads that came under attack were supposed to lead an assault on Tripoli. However, he added, how they were meant to do so without heavy weapons support was a mystery to him.

The same source indicated that the airstrike was carried out by the air force of the Government National Accord, potentially as a preemptive warning against further Russian involvement. According to Bloomberg, the UN-backed government is currently receiving aerial support from the Turkish Air Force.

The dead

The Donbas veteran whose friends were killed in the attack provided Meduza with additional details about how the identities of Wagner’s casualties became known. Reports of the strike, he said, reached Russia directly from the front lines: Maxim Khlopin, the director of the Ural branch of the Donbas Union of Volunteers, called a Wagner commander who had seen the attack firsthand. That commander said two of the Russian casualties were Artyom “Hulk” Nevyantsev and Ignat “Benya” Borichev. Borichev’s brother had previously died while working as a personal bodyguard for former Ukrainian separatist commander Alexander “Batman” Bednov. Bednov was assassinated in the same attack.

Khlopin confirmed to Meduza that he had been informed of Nevyantsev’s and Borichev’s deaths. He also predicted that there would be more Russian casualties in Libya going forward. Russia’s Defense Ministry did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment by publication time.

Online information about Artyom “Hulk” Nevyantsev is sparse. However, he is listed on the Ukrainian doxxing website Mirotvorets, which identifies him as a 38-year-old Yekaterinburg native and a veteran of the Second Chechen War. The website alleges that Nevyantsev began working as a military intelligence officer in eastern Ukraine in the winter of 2014, before the area became a conflict zone, and then served in what might have been one of the Wagner PMC’s first two tactical groups in the region. The facial recognition tool FindClone turned up multiple social media photographs of Nevyantsev wearing military uniforms in what appears to be eastern Ukraine.

Nevyantsev in the Donbas region.

FindClone searches also unearthed several photos of Nevyantsev with his wife, Oksana Chumakova, and their child. When Meduza wrote to Chumakova, she responded with a voice message: “I don’t know where he is,” she said. “You’re all writing this stuff to me now, and I don’t understand. Christ, is this some kind of prank or something? I don’t know where he is, or what’s happening to him. I can’t go getting upset, but here I am getting these messages all day long.” Her tone was anxious.

Chumakova declined to say who else has asked her about her husband. However, she affirmed that she has received no formal notice of his status. Chumakova explained that her husband’s trip is classified and that even he did not know where he was being deployed when he left home.

Ignat Borichev, whom Meduza’s sources named as the second Yekaterinburg native killed in the September airstrike, has a stronger online presence: In 2015, he granted an interview to the website E1 when it reported on the funeral for his brother, who was buried with military honors. Both Borichevs had been guarding Alexander Bednov at the time of the separatist commander’s assassination, but Ignat survived the attack. His page on the social network VKontakte is closed, and his mother and friends did not respond to questions Meduza sent them over social media.

One more potential casualty of the airstrike, a Russian fighter named Vadim Bekshenev, came to light after the 3rd Tripoli Infantry Company (which is loyal to the Government of National Accord) published a video of the attack’s aftermath on September 25. Two days after the video was posted, Russian open-source investigative journalists at the Conflict Intelligence Team reported that a Sberbank card issued to Bekshenev was visible in the footage. One Wagner source whose acquantances were injured on the Libyan front lines said that he had known Bekshenev as a platoon commander in the Wagner PMC’s sixth detachment. The source said the commander is currently considered missing in action.

A video of Russian mercenaries’ possessions abandoned following an airstrike near Tripoli.
3rd Tripoli Infantry Company

Meduza obtained less complete information about three other combatants. One, whose first name is Denis and whose callsign is Vector, was the first to have his remains brought back to his home village to be buried. Another mercenary whose callsign is “Academic” also died; his body was transported home to Murmansk. A third fighter was seriously injured and transferred to St. Petersburg for medical treatment. According to a Wagner PMC source, that fighter was a first unit commander with the callsign “Ratibor.” One of the Wagner mercenaries photographed at a December 2016 Kremlin reception was named Alexander “Ratibor” Kuznetsov.

Corpses in limbo

A broader survey of sources familiar with the Russian mercenary presence in Libya pointed to a total death count of 30 Russian fighters or more. One source located in Yekaterinburg who knew some of the fighters killed said that 15 of the casualties are natives of the Sverdlovsk region, where Yekaterinburg is the capital. That source put the total number of combatants killed at 35. A different source, the current Wagner mercenary who is in contact with fighters wounded in the September airstrike, said there are 15 confirmed deaths among the combatants, with six of those individuals coming from the federal district that contains Yekaterinburg. Three sources added that some of those killed were native to the Krasnodar region.

Meanwhile, a source in the Rostov area who formerly managed a Russian PMC told Meduza that the Russian death toll in the Libyan strike was 20. He argued that 20 casualties would be a small price to pay for capturing Tripoli, which would effectively grant control over the country to Khalifa Haftar. Some casualty estimates were even lower: An anonymous source in Russia’s Defense Ministry unofficially confirmed to Meduza that Russian mercenaries are present in Libya but claimed that only one of them has been confirmed dead. The source argued that even that death was accidental and that Russian fighters’ activities in Libya are limited to training exercises.

An individual close to the Wagner PMC’s management disagreed. He said the number of corpses set to be returned to Russia is roughly 30. However, he indicated that they will not be repatriated until late October. When asked about the condition of the bodies, the source said, “You don’t want to know.”

Report by Liliya Yapparova

Editing by Alexey Kovalev and Vladislav Gorin

Summary by Hilah Kohen and Kevin Rothrock

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