Jonathan M. Winer

NATO’s nascent response

Long before initiating his current invasion of Ukraine, Putin understood the geopolitical significance of Africa and smelled the opportunity provided by the ongoing neglect of the region by the West.

He used a range of diplomatic and economic tools as well as military ones, starting with offers of various Wagner “private military” services, to initiate partnerships with the new class of African warlords who were taking over much of North Africa and the Sahel.

That work continues at the highest levels of the Russian government, as reflected in Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent tour of Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burkina Faso, and Chad.

With this as a predicate, in May, just ahead of its July 2024 summit in Washington, the North Atlantic Alliance released a major study on what NATO might do to engage with the Middle East, North Africa, Sahel, and Sub-Saharan Africa to counter the interconnected “root causes of insecurity, terrorism, and instability,” which start with “climate change, fragile institutions, health emergencies and food insecurity.”

The 33-page experts report, whose contributors included US special envoy for Libya and former ambassador to the country Richard Norland, provides a potpourri of 114 concrete recommendations for the transatlantic bloc, which are meant to inform the development of NATO’s first official “Southern Strategy.”

Of particular note for the discussion of Russian influence in Africa, the preparatory document expressly states that Russia has been both fueling and benefiting from the continent’s vulnerabilities by offering an “alternative ‘non-democratic’ and ‘non-accountable’ model.”

Additionally, it suggests that, ultimately, NATO will need to find ways to cooperate with its “southern partners” without requiring them to converge on the bloc’s values. So how should NATO operationalize this advice?

Assessing where the Alliance must go from here

Start talking with Africa

To begin with, the May experts’ report recommends, with urgency, that NATO and those prospective southern partners at least engage in greater dialogue. The first 10 short-term recommendations boil down to having NATO declare that its southern neighborhood is important (a political message that “we care, we really care”);

(a) that its senior officers spend more time visiting these countries;

(b) that NATO convene a special NATO-African summit and other processes for political dialogue and consultations; and

(c) that the Alliance engage with “parliaments, media, civil society and youth in the region and invite scholars and think-tankers from the regions to expert briefings at NATO headquarters.”

While these are surely useful activities, such NATO-African chats are unlikely to be transformational anytime soon.

Support the Libyan political process

The report notes Libya’s contribution to regional instability but limits its recommendations to supporting efforts to unify the country, form a single national military force, and regain sovereign control of Libyan borders.

How NATO is to do any of those things is left unstated, beyond providing Libyans with advice on defense and security institution building. (In 2014-2016, this author personally witnessed representatives of NATO vainly seeking to secure Libyan engagement on these issues, with absolutely no success whatsoever.)

The lack of any concrete Alliance action vis-à-vis Libya is perplexing, especially since Russia’s foothold there has been foundational for the Kremlin’s success throughout Africa.

As reflected in the aforementioned mid-June deployment of Russian destroyers to Libyan ports, Moscow’s use of this country’s territory to develop a north-south transcontinental logistics network is continuing to grow and intensify.

Find ways to engage in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa

The report’s recommendations on the Sahel are even weaker than its woefully inadequate recommendations on Libya. The text details the deteriorating security situation throughout the region, marked by terrorism, violent extremism, political violence, organized crime, irregular migration and human trafficking, and poor governance, all of which are exacerbated by environmental stresses and explosive population growth.

In response, bedeviled by the diverging values of the current crew of African leaders in the Sahel from those of NATO, the report’s experts make only a few modest, and clearly insufficient, recommendations.

These include:

(a) monitoring the security threats emerging from the region;

(b) mapping existing aid packages by NATO members and partners to identify gaps;

(c) enhancing training, scholarships, and media literacy efforts to help counter Russian disinformation;

(d) listening and talking to people from the region; and

(e) being patient, to await some future day when more advantageous opportunities materialize.

These ideas are better than nothing, but they are not calculated to counter Russia’s energetic work on the ground to help African military rulers maintain power.


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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