U.S., Egyptian and diplomatic sources say that Russia has apparently been moving special forces to an airbase in western Egypt near the border with Libya in recent days, according to a report by Reuters.
The U.S. is concerned that such a Russian deployment may signify Russian support for Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, who suffered a setback on March 3 when the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) attacked oil ports controlled by his forces.
U.S. officials claimed that their surveillance units had observed Russian special operations forces and unmanned aircraft at Sidi Barrani, which is about 100 km from the Egypt-Libya border. The apparent Russian deployments have not been previously reported.
The Russian defense ministry did not respond to these claims on Monday and Egypt denied the presence of any Russian contingent on its soil.
Mohamed Manfour, commander of the Benina air base near Benghazi in Libya, denied that Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) had received military assistance from the Russian state or from Russian military contractors, and said there were no Russian forces or bases in eastern Libya.
Over the past two years a number of Western countries, including the U.S., have sent special operations forces and military advisors into Libya. The U.S. also carried out air strikes to support a successful Libyan campaign last year to oust ISIS from its stronghold in the city of Sirte.
Russia has shown increasing involvement in Libya in recent months and appears to be taking steps to back Haftar to lead the battle-torn kingdom, which has been split between local warlords in the aftermath of a 2011 NATO-backed uprising against the late leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was an ally of Russia. Several dozen armed private security contractors from Russia operated until February in a part of Libya that is under Haftar's control.
The top U.S. military commander overseeing troops in Africa, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, told the U.S. Senate last week that Russia was trying to exert influence in Libya to strengthen its leverage over whoever ultimately holds power.
"They're working to influence that," Waldhauser told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. Asked whether it was in the U.S. interest to let that happen, Waldhauser said: "It is not."
Russian involvement in Libyan affairs appears to be growing at a time when it is limiting its operations in Syria to attempts to force a resolution without taking charge of the country. Waldhauser believes that this is Russia's eventual goal in Libya, which will enable it to gain leverage there in the event that Haftar gains control of the country. It is also eyeing Libya's oil fields as a source of economic opportunities.
Russia, however, says that its primary objective in the Middle East is to contain the spread of violent Islamist groups.