Russian presences in the Middle East and Africa threaten NATO

FILE - This image from a video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry press service, a Russian Air Force Tu-22M3 bomber flies over the Mediterranean after taking off from Hemeimeem airbase in Syria, February 19, 2022. The Russian army on Friday announced massive exercises of its strategic nuclear forces.  (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

FILE – This image from a video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry press service, a Russian Air Force Tu-22M3 bomber flies over the Mediterranean after taking off from Hemeimeem airbase in Syria, February 19, 2022. The Russian army on Friday announced massive exercises of its strategic nuclear forces. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine dominates our attention. But with less global attention, Putin is also busy advancing Russia’s presence in the Middle East and Africa – an expansion that military and civilian leaders see as another, albeit less immediate, security threat. In Occident.

Putin’s strategy in the Middle East and Africa has been simple and successful: he seeks security alliances with autocrats, coup leaders and others who have been shunned or neglected by the United States. States and Europe, either because of their bloody abuses or because of Western competition. strategic interests.

– In Syria last month, the Russian defense minister demonstrated nuclear-capable bombers and hypersonic missiles over the Mediterranean, part of a security partnership in which the Kremlin now threatens to send Syrian fighters in Ukraine.

— In Sudan, a leader of a junta that seized power in the East African country struck a new economic alliance with the Kremlin, rekindling Russia’s dreams of a naval base on the Red Sea .

– In Mali, the government is the latest among more than a dozen resource-rich African countries to forge security alliances with Kremlin-allied mercenaries, according to US officials.

Especially in the last five or six years, “what you’ve seen is a Russia that’s much more expeditionary and is projecting its military power further and further,” retired US General Philip M. Breedlove told the Associated Press.

“Russia is trying to show itself as a great power, as in the seat of world affairs, as the ruler of international situations,” said Breedlove, NATO’s second-highest military commander from 2013 to 2016, and now a distinguished president. at the Middle East Institute Think Tank in Washington.

But with his hands already busy battling fierce resistance from a much weaker Ukrainian military, Putin’s expansionist aims in the Middle East and Africa are seen by experts as a potential long-term threat, not a threat. present danger for Europe or the NATO alliance.

“It threatens NATO from below,” Kristina Kausch, a European security expert at the German Marshall Fund think tank, said of the influence Russia is gaining. “The Russians felt encircled by NATO – and now they want to encircle NATO,” she said.

To achieve its strategic goals, Russia provides conventional military or Kremlin-allied mercenaries to protect regimes of often excluded rulers. In return, these leaders repay Russia in many ways: money or natural resources, influence in their business, and staging bases for Russian fighters.

These alliances help advance Putin’s ambitions to bring Russia’s influence back to its former Cold War borders.

Russia’s new security partnerships also help it diplomatically. When the United Nations General Assembly condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this month, Syria joined Russia in voting against it, and many African governments that signed security deals with Russian mercenaries abstained.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Russia would bring recruits from Syria to fight in Ukraine. The threat was seen primarily as an intimidation tactic and US officials say there have been no signs of Syrian recruits in Ukraine. Some security experts say Russian mercenaries are using Mali as a base for deployment to Ukraine, but US officials have not confirmed this information.

However looming the threat, US and European leaders are paying increasing attention to Putin’s moves in the Middle East and Africa – and Russia’s growing alliance with China – as he formulates plans to protect the West from future aggression.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in mid-February that the West could no longer ignore competition for influence across Africa, where China is spending billions on infrastructure projects to secure mining rights, and Russia provides security through Kremlin-allied mercenaries.

“We see and realize that if we step out of this competition as liberal democracies, then others will fill those gaps,” Baerbock said as Western diplomats focused on the Ukraine crisis in the final days before the election. Russian invasion.

Perhaps the boldest example of Russia expanding its global reach was when it sent Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Damascus last month to oversee the largest Russian military drills in the Mediterranean since the war. cold, just as the Russian army was preparing the final preparations for its assault on Ukraine.

The drills, involving 15 warships and around 30 aircraft, appeared choreographed to show the Russian military’s ability to threaten the US carrier battle group in the Mediterranean.

Russia’s Hmeimeem air base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast has been its main outpost for launching attacks in Syria since September 2015. Russia’s attacks in Syria, which have leveled ancient cities and sent millions of refugees in Europe, allowed the brutal government of President Bashar al-Assad to regain control over most of the country after a devastating civil war.

“The Hmeimeem base has become an integral part of Russia’s defense strategy, not only in the Middle East, but around the world,” Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist and senior diplomatic editor for Syrian affairs, told the newspaper. Londoner Asharq al-Awsat.

In Africa too, Russia is open to working with leaders known for their anti-democratic actions and human rights violations.

On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin officials met in Moscow with an officer of a military junta that seized power in Sudan.

Isolated by the West, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo warmly responded to Russia’s openness to a new alliance focused on the economy. Back home, General Dagolo announced that Sudan would be ready to allow Russia to build its long-awaited naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

It is far from certain that Russia will be able to take advantage of this anytime soon. The invasion of Ukraine strains its military and financial resources and exposes Russia’s military weaknesses, and international sanctions cripple its economy.

But in the longer term, a Red Sea port could help give it a bigger role in the Mediterranean and Black Seas, increase Russia’s access to the Suez Canal and other shipping lanes heavy traffic, and to allow Russia to project its force in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Sea. Ocean.

“They could certainly create enough havoc to cause problems,” said Breedlove, the former NATO commander.

Russia’s expanding alliances aren’t just about its conventional military.

From 2015 to 2021, Russian mercenary security teams have increased their presence around the world sevenfold, with operations in 27 countries since last year, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The most important is the Wagner Group, which the US and EU see as a substitute for the Russian military, but whose existence the Kremlin denies even.

From Libya to Madagascar, security contracts awarded to the Wagner Group and others are giving Russia access to mineral resources, preparing ground for deployment and substantial strongpoints challenging the influence of Western nations there. -low.

In Mali, the United States and Europe expressed concern in December over reports that the Wagner Group had signed a $10 million-a-month security contract with that government. Experts say Wagner took advantage of local discontent over the failures of a years-long French-led deployment in sub-Saharan Africa targeting extremist factions.

Mali denied such a deployment, but some in Mali saw the Russians’ arrival as a blow to Mali’s colonial ruler, France, which had struggled to protect them from armed extremists. They hope for better results from Russian fighters arriving in sub-Saharan Africa. “Long live Russia!” shouted a man in a cheering crowd at the sight of a Russian delegation in the capital in January. “Long live the Malian people!”


Knickmeyer reported from Washington. Associated Press journalist Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut.

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