Russia undermining relationship of critical West African ally with the US, officials say

Russia’s Actions Strain Key West African Ally’s Ties with the US, Officials Report

In northwest Africa, a key ally of the United States is shifting its alliances towards Russia. This move comes amidst warnings from the top US military leader in Africa about Russia’s ambitions to dominate the Sahel region.

Niger, which has been an essential base for US anti-terrorism efforts for almost ten years, recently declared its decision to terminate an agreement that has permitted US military and civilian personnel to operate within its borders since 2014.

This announcement followed a tense encounter between Niger’s ruling military junta, which took power in a coup in July 2023, and a delegation of US diplomatic and military officials. The US team, including Gen. Michael Langley of the US Africa Command and Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander, voiced their concerns over the growing Russian military presence in Niger. They were particularly worried about the future of Air Base 101 in Niger’s capital and the possibility of it being handed over to Russian control.

The junta leaders were upset by the meeting, feeling lectured by the US, especially after the US had already cut much of its military and foreign aid to Niger following the coup.

Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane, a spokesperson for the Nigerien military, expressed regret over the US delegation’s unwillingness to allow Niger the freedom to choose its partners for diplomatic, strategic, and military cooperation. He criticized the US for suspending cooperation unilaterally and accused the US delegation of having a condescending attitude.

The growing military collaboration between Russia and Niger is at the heart of the dispute between the US and the Nigerien junta. In January, Russia and Niger agreed to enhance their military ties, as announced by Russia’s Defense Ministry.

Despite the coup, the junta did not request the US to leave Niger. This was even after expelling French troops and severing remaining ties with the European Union in late 2023.

Many junta leaders have previously worked with and received training from the US as part of security cooperation efforts. The Pentagon is keen on maintaining a military presence in Niger, viewing it as crucial for combating terrorism in the region despite the political instability.

US military officials are now concerned about Russia’s expanding influence in Niger, fearing that the Kremlin’s growing presence signifies a loss of Western influence in the Sahel region.

Gen. Langley of AFRICOM recently informed lawmakers that Russian disinformation campaigns have overshadowed US efforts in Africa, contributing to instability across the Sahel. He emphasized the strategic interest of both Russia and China in the region, noting Russia’s aggressive moves to establish dominance in Central Africa and the Sahel.

The US State Department, through spokesman Matthew Miller, confirmed ongoing communication with the junta, known as the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland (CNSP). Miller highlighted recent frank discussions about the CNSP’s direction and promised updates as necessary.

The future of US military presence in Niger remains uncertain. Since 2014, US forces have been vital in conducting anti-terror operations and training the Nigerien military.

A potential US withdrawal could undermine counterterrorism efforts in the region. US drone operations from an airbase in Agadez, Niger, have been instrumental in monitoring threats in the Sahel, especially with the rise in attacks by violent terror groups in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.

There are concerns that the departure of the approximately 650 US troops from Niger could create an opportunity for Islamist militants and Russian mercenaries, including remnants of the Wagner Group, to fill the void.

As the US-Nigerien relationship deteriorates, Russia has increased its efforts to court Niger’s military junta. In December, the Kremlin reopened its embassy in Burkina Faso, moving closer to Niger’s capital. Russia offers military equipment without the human rights and international law conditions that the US imposes. This arrangement benefits Russia, allowing it to profit from the region’s natural resources, including Niger’s gold mines.

Col. Maj. Abdramane stated that Russia is a partner Niger engages with on a state-to-state basis, under military cooperation agreements signed with the previous government. He emphasized the necessity of acquiring military equipment to combat terrorism, which has claimed thousands of innocent lives in Niger.

The US-Nigerien relationship has rapidly deteriorated. Late last year, there was optimism about the junta government’s focus on countering violent extremist organizations in Western Africa. However, a reduction in US surveillance missions following the coup has allowed groups like ISIS-Sahel and JNIM to expand.

Despite reduced cooperation, the US military’s goal remains to support efforts to counter extremist organizations, a goal shared by several European countries.

However, with Russia applying more pressure and US assistance limited by legal restrictions due to the coup, the Nigerien government has intensified its crackdown on Western military presence. US operations now require stricter Nigerien oversight and approval, even as Russia’s presence becomes more visible.

Officials warn that northwest Africa is being divided by various countries, with the United States losing its influence in the region.