Jonathan M. Winer

With NATO celebrating 75 years since its founding, Alliance members will gather in Washington, DC, on July 9-11, for a historic summit. Two of the key issues on the agenda will be addressing the acute threats emanating from the Black Sea region and adopting a strategic approach toward the Middle East and Africa. The following article is part of MEI’s special series, “Shoring up NATO’s Vulnerable Flanks,” which aims to help shape these twin consequential debates that will occupy the Alliance ahead of the Washington Summit and beyond.

It may or may not be a coincidence that the Russian government’s rebrand of the Libya-based wing of the mercenary force formerly known as the Wagner Group into the explicitly state-sponsored and state-controlled “Africa Corps” evokes the infamous Nazi German “Afrika Korps.” But in any case, as this Russian military/paramilitary presence continues to infect the Maghreb, the Sahel, and neighboring regions of the African continent, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its members have at last begun to take notice.

Four and a half years after the first Russian-African summit, chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and following the deepening Russian penetration of the domestic armed forces of Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Sudan, NATO is preparing to respond with its own intensified engagement.

The question remains whether this renewed effort will be too little and too late. Can NATO and its members block Moscow’s malign influence and begin to counter the tide of Russian-sponsored dictatorships, coup-leaders, and human rights violators in Africa? Or will Russia’s engagement remain unimpeded, breeding an ever-expanding region of insecurity, instability, and conflict?

Putin’s bold grab for Africa

The Russian engagement in Africa over the past decade or so has been as systematic as it has been cynical. It began in Libya, which remains central to its future success, with Russia agreeing to print and deliver more than 10 billion in Libyan dinars to Libyan warlord Khalifa Hifter, following the creation of a transitional government, brokered by the United Nations, which was intended to lead to the country’s political reunification. Hifter was able to use those billions, plus military support from the Wagner Group, to recruit and pay an army and slowly take over the coastal east, before moving south. Hifter’s effort to take Tripoli, and control of the entire country, was only blocked by determined resistance from fighters from Misrata, Tripoli, and other western Libyan cities, who were backed by Turkish air support and intelligence.

At the same period, Wagner mercenaries were deployed to Sudan to provide support to then-President Omar al-Bashir, in exchange for gold mining rights Russia has since used to help fund its war on Ukraine. From there, the Wagnerites proceeded to repress local dissent against the Sudanese government, before Moscow began providing Russian military support to fighters from both sides in the county’s ongoing civil war.

This month, Sudan’s military leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, is expected to agree to a deal with President Putin, granting Russia a Red Sea naval logistics base in exchange for Moscow giving the Sudanese Armed Forces more weapons and military support to stave off the opposing paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which Russia had previously also helped.

In the CAR, since late 2017, the Wagner Group, and now the Russian government, have been providing weapons and security services in return for gold and diamond rights, building what the United States government describes as “a vast security and business network [that has] advanced Russia’s destabilizing activities at the expense of CAR’s sovereignty.”

On May 30, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions against two Wagner-linked entities involved in such abuses. The Russian military presence in Africa accelerated further in 2020-2023, in the wake of military coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, one in Burkina Faso in 2022, and the latest in Niger in 2023. In each case, a military junta took over, and the French and other Western forces were kicked out of these francophone African countries — and replaced by Russian forces. The specifics should be humbling for the West.

In July 2022, after nine years of trying to stabilize Mali, the French threw in the towel following the military coup, saying they could not work with the junta there even to combat jihadist terrorist groups, kidnappers, and human or drug traffickers. Russia had no such compunctions, and it sent in attack helicopters, radar equipment, and weapons to support the country’s newly installed military government, which continues to refuse to schedule elections.

According to Paris, as part of the campaign to undermine the French in Mali, Russian mercenaries staged a false-flag operation, putting bodies in mass graves for a video purporting to show the French having massacred locals. In Burkina Faso, as of late 2023, Russia has reportedly provided 100 praetorian guards to protect coup leader Captain Ibrahim Traoré in return for, once again, mining concessions. Meanwhile, the Traoré government continues arresting and expelling French diplomats.

In May 2024, the military government of Niger allowed Russian military personnel to physically enter the Nigerien air base hosting American troops before the US withdrew its roughly 1,000 military personnel, who had been carrying out a counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency mission there. Niamey’s “embarrassing” strategic shift has been characterized as a direct response to Washington’s efforts to discourage closer Nigerien ties with Moscow.

The Russian march is also continuing in Chad, another country controlled by a military junta, which, as of the end of April 2024, took in some 130 Russian military trainers after demanding the departure of 75 American trainers, preparing the way for what one commentator has termed a soon-to-be “protectorate.”

Finally, since the first visit of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov to Benghazi in August 2023, directly coinciding with the death-by-plane-crash of Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia has doubled- and tripled-down on its military build-up in Libya.

Over the past year, Yevkurov has made five trips to see Hifter; and in mid-June 2024, two Russian destroyers visited the Hifter-controlled Tobruk Naval Base. The warships’ visit was billed as a training mission but was likely a continuation of the delivery of artillery to Hifter’s “Libyan National Army,” either for use in a future military action in Libya or for export south to military forces in neighboring countries.


Jonathan M. Winer, a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute, was the US Special Envoy and Special Coordinator for Libya from 2014 to 2016 as well as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Law Enforcement.


The Middle East Institute (MEI)

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