Mark Toth and Jonathan Sweet

Where are Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and his British Eighth Army when you need them?

It is 1942 again in Africa. Tobruk is under attack from Europe — this time besieged by Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of Putin’s strategic goals is to build a new naval base in Tobruk, Libya, to project force into the western Mediterranean and serve as a future threat to the U.S. Sixth Fleet, headquartered in Naples to the Northwest. 

Mad Vlad’s other strategic aim is to secure eastern Libya as Moscow’s primary logistical hub and staging area for Russian paramilitary groups — including PMC Wagner – operating across the African continent. To achieve this foothold, Putin is turning to Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army.

The 80-year-old warlord and his six sons effectively control all of eastern Libya. Haftar’s eleven-year reign has resulted in widespread “corruption, death [and] destruction.” Now, after meeting with Putin in Moscow last September, Haftar is helping bring Russia and its mercenary forces to Libya — and shrewdly cementing his own power.

Yevgeny Prigozhin may be dead, but his Wagner Group thrives in Africa. Now fully controlled by the Kremlin and rebranded as “Expeditionary Corps,” it is being used by Putin to foment coups, topple democracies and prop up dictators, all on the pretext of fighting western colonialism.

Putin is of course not liberating Africa, nor is he putting an end to any remnants of 19th century French or British imperialism. Rather, he is fighting his own war of imperial subjugation, so as to steal Africa’s gold, rare earth minerals and other natural resources to finance his war in Ukraine. He is also using this African adventure to recruit foreign fighters for the front lines.

Putin’s Expeditionary Corps operates in Sudan, the Central African Republic and the western Sahel states of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Russia, according to a BBC report, “is offering governments in Africa a ‘regime survival package’ in exchange for access to strategically important natural resources.”

Another 1,800 Russian mercenaries just arrived in Libya. Half are already in Niger and are occupying the recently abandoned Airbase 101 in Niamey. The former U.S. military facility had been used to fight ISIS and Boko Haram. 

While the Biden administration chases de-escalation, Putin is rapidly expanding the playing field in his war against the West. He has placed African nationals and democracies under ferocious attack by the Kremlin’s modern-day version of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. 

Mad Vlad is on the march in Africa, and Washington is shying away from defending liberty. By abandoning Niger to a Russian-backed military coup, the White House has essentially conceded the western Sahel to Moscow. 

France is doing the same. Paris is standing down its own military forces and economic aid in the region. Consequently, Putin finds himself largely uncontested, while oil-rich and pro-Western Nigeria to the south finds itself increasingly surrounded by Russian-backed dictators and Wagner mercenaries. 

This is all part of a long-term Russian plan to subjugate the African continent and divvy it up with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This is the half-war we warned about when we argued that the Biden administration is already losing World War III, and that Biden’s National Security Strategy is not designed to fight the three-and-a-half wars we may soon be confronted with simultaneously in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Its secondary military purpose is to threaten commercial shipping lanes vital to Western trade around the whole of Africa, strangling them if and when necessary. By expanding Moscow’s Syrian port in Tartus and constructing new Russian naval ports in Tobruk and in Sudan adjacent to the Red Sea, Putin is building the capacity to directly challenge and threaten the West’s key maritime lifelines.

Putin’s future Afrika Korps could shut down the Suez Canal, disrupt shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and even potentially threaten the south Atlantic. Notably, during World War II, Germany operated a U-boat base in what is now Equatorial Guinea, just south of Nigeria. 

Russia is not acting alone. Whereas Putin’s Afrika Korps act as the military boot, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is the outstretched hand. China is laying its debt traps across the African continent, as Chinese investments in infrastructure, industry and mineral extraction (usually made possible by bribery of current leaders) commit African nations to a future of penury and foreclosure by China. 

Beijing is also building its own military footprint in Africa, expanding its first ever foreign base in Djibouti. Xi is also set to build a spaceport, and as part of its 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, it is investing in deep water seaports in Kenya, Egypt, Yemen and Djibouti alongside 100 other seaports.

All combined, this represents a growing military and economic threat to the region. If left unchecked, Russia and China will increasingly dominate the African continent diplomatically and dictate voting outcomes in the United Nations General Assembly. 

Washington needs a new plan to confront Russia in Africa and to match Chinese investment across the region. Biden’s U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, issued with great fanfare in August 2022, is not working nearly fast enough.  It briefs well. The White House’s notion of fostering openness and democratic societies is laudable. So too is expanding economic opportunity and finding a better balance in transitioning Sub-Saharan Africa away from traditional oil- and gas-based energy. 

In practice, however, this is not stopping Putin, nor slowing the pace of his military wins. No, the status quo in Africa will not get the job done — especially since the Biden administration’s African policy was penned prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Putin remains on the march, while Washington’s military footprint in Africa becomes smaller and smaller. Allegorically speaking, there is no equivalent of a Montgomery to retake Tobruk. Nor is there a Gen. George S. Patton waiting in the wings to turn the tide in North Africa as he did at El Guettar in 1942.

Instead, the U.S. and the West find themselves exposed in Africa. Our remaining allies are finding themselves increasingly vulnerable, facing down Putin’s growing Afrika Korps on their own. That has to change, and fast.


Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy. Col.

Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer and led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014.


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