Jonathan M. Winer

Combat terrorism with technical training

While Russia provides weapons and training to African military forces facing down threats from insurgencies or terrorist groups, the NATO report suggests the Alliance should largely limit itself to providing harm-mitigation techniques, such as training on how to identify improvised explosive devices and drones or how to gather evidence on the battlefield.

More compelling support may be possible on a bilateral basis from NATO member states to trusted regional governments. But for NATO itself, providing any hard assistance to southern partners ruled by coup-leaders is likely to be difficult at best.

Counter Russian disinformation

The May experts’ report notes that much of the Global South has a negative impression of NATO in the aftermath of the Alliance’s 2011 air campaign over Libya, NATO’s 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, the perception of double-standards on Ukraine versus Gaza, and the belief that the West has not paid much attention to the South’s needs.

To respond, the report suggests that the transatlantic bloc invite more people from Africa to NATO summits and high-level events, promote media literacy, as well as undertake a “Facts for Peace” initiative, which would provide education and training to regional journalists and social media influencers actively fighting disinformation.

Strengthen NATO’s “Hub for the South”

In 2016, NATO created a dedicated focal point for NATO member states on North Africa, the Sahel, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East in the form of the Strategic Direction-South HUB (NSD-S HUB) at the NATO Joint Force Command, based in Naples, Italy.

This institution has been operational since 2018 and is tasked with working with civil society to “understand” and then “engage.” Yet according to the report, the NSD-S HUB and its activities remain “disconnected from the rest of the NATO ecosystem” and have little impact.

It recommends integrating the NSD-S HUB’s policy development work with the actual political outreach NATO should initiate vis-à-vis its southern neighbors as well as taking basic steps like encouraging NATO members to send people to the NSD-S HUB who speak relevant languages and have some knowledge of the region. Such basic recommendations reflect NATO’s failure to date to prioritize this macro-region in practice, even after deciding to create an organ within Join Force Command specifically dedicated to engaging it.

Baby steps

To counter Russia’s adverse influence and activities across Africa — exemplified and often spearheaded by Moscow’s employment of the Africa Corps — NATO would necessarily need to be empowered to carry out military activities across the continent in a range of areas that would matter to the military and/or political leaders of the relevant target countries. Members of NATO do this bilaterally already.

The French have long had a range of military relationships in francophone Africa. It is precisely the cratering of these partnerships — with the growing number of African coup leaders being unwilling to be lectured by human rights-monitoring Westerners — that helped create the vacuum Russia has been delighted to fill, in the process dislodging the United States and other allies from key spots in the Sahel.

In response, the NATO experts’ report would have the Alliance begin to take actions it might have taken years ago if its political leadership had been paying greater attention. Eight years ago, few would have predicted that Russia could move in as quickly and comprehensively throughout Africa as it has done. Now there is widespread recognition of the threat posed by the destabilizing Russian expansion in Africa, to NATO, its members, and the African region.

In its upcoming summit, NATO should bless its experts’ recommendations to build a foundation for a more serious future role in its southern neighborhood. But their limited recommendations make obvious the need for the Alliance’s member states to engage far more comprehensively with North Africa and the Sahel, using institutions and arrangements that go well beyond whatever NATO as an organization may be in a position to do.

A viable strategic effort will require thought on what additional actions the West might take, through multiple institutions and mechanisms, working with Africans institutions, African states, and African civil society to counter the Russian presence, thereby creating renewed opportunities for better local governance, greater economic and social opportunities, and longer-term human security and political stability.

Closing Russia’s Libyan gateway

Neither NATO nor the wider West can counter Africa’s turn toward warlordism, or the Russian role in exacerbating and exploiting that trend via its neo-colonialist Africa Corps, without taking on the problem posed by Libyan disunity and competing militia chieftains.

This will require Western governments to undertake a tough-minded, urgent, and focused strategy backed by visible concrete action calculated to unify Libya and to enable the North African country to expel its foreign military forces — beginning with the Russians, but including the Turks and any other foreign occupying force. That’s one initiative where NATO members and their partners in the Middle East and North Africa could align. A unified Libya that no longer incubates a Russian military presence could do a lot to help counter the trend of junta rule in the Sahel and the insecurity and instability that radiates out from it.


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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