Middle East

Libya remains the key for NATO to counter Russian malign activities in Africa

With NATO celebrating 75 years since its founding, Alliance members will gather in Washington, DC, on July 9-11, for a historic summit. Two of the key issues on the agenda will be addressing the acute threats emanating from the Black Sea region and adopting a strategic approach toward the Middle East and Africa. The following article is part of MEI’s special series, “Shoring up NATO’s Vulnerable Flanks,” which aims to help shape these twin consequential debates that will occupy the Alliance ahead of the Washington Summit and beyond.

It may or may not be a coincidence that the Russian government’s rebrand of the Libya-based wing of the mercenary force formerly known as the Wagner Group into the explicitly state-sponsored and state-controlled “Africa Corps” evokes the infamous Nazi German “Afrika Korps.” But in any case, as this Russian military/paramilitary presence continues to infect the Maghreb, the Sahel, and neighboring regions of the African continent, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its members have at last begun to take notice.

Four and a half years after the first Russian-African summit, chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and following the deepening Russian penetration of the domestic armed forces of Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Sudan, NATO is preparing to respond with its own intensified engagement.

The question remains whether this renewed effort will be too little and too late. Can NATO and its members block Moscow’s malign influence and begin to counter the tide of Russian-sponsored dictatorships, coup-leaders, and human rights violators in Africa? Or will Russia’s engagement remain unimpeded, breeding an ever-expanding region of insecurity, instability, and conflict?

Putin’s bold grab for Africa

The Russian engagement in Africa over the past decade or so has been as systematic as it has been cynical. It began in Libya, which remains central to its future success, with Russia agreeing to print and deliver more than 10 billion in Libyan dinars to Libyan warlord Khalifa Hifter, following the creation of a transitional government, brokered by the United Nations, which was intended to lead to the country’s political reunification. Hifter was able to use those billions, plus military support from the Wagner Group, to recruit and pay an army and slowly take over the coastal east, before moving south. Hifter’s effort to take Tripoli, and control of the entire country, was only blocked by determined resistance from fighters from Misrata, Tripoli, and other western Libyan cities, who were backed by Turkish air support and intelligence.

At the same period, Wagner mercenaries were deployed to Sudan to provide support to then-President Omar al-Bashir, in exchange for gold mining rights Russia has since used to help fund its war on Ukraine. From there, the Wagnerites proceeded to repress local dissent against the Sudanese government, before Moscow began providing Russian military support to fighters from both sides in the county’s ongoing civil war. This month, Sudan’s military leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, is expected to agree to a deal with President Putin, granting Russia a Red Sea naval logistics base in exchange for Moscow giving the Sudanese Armed Forces more weapons and military support to stave off the opposing paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which Russia had previously also helped.

In the CAR, since late 2017, the Wagner Group, and now the Russian government, have been providing weapons and security services in return for gold and diamond rights, building what the United States government describes as “a vast security and business network [that has] advanced Russia’s destabilizing activities at the expense of CAR’s sovereignty.” On May 30, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions against two Wagner-linked entities involved in such abuses.

The Russian military presence in Africa accelerated further in 2020-2023, in the wake of military coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, one in Burkina Faso in 2022, and the latest in Niger in 2023. In each case, a military junta took over, and the French and other Western forces were kicked out of these francophone African countries — and replaced by Russian forces. The specifics should be humbling for the West.

In July 2022, after nine years of trying to stabilize Mali, the French threw in the towel following the military coup, saying they could not work with the junta there even to combat jihadist terrorist groups, kidnappers, and human or drug traffickers. Russia had no such compunctions, and it sent in attack helicopters, radar equipment, and weapons to support the country’s newly installed military government, which continues to refuse to schedule elections. According to Paris, as part of the campaign to undermine the French in Mali, Russian mercenaries staged a false-flag operation, putting bodies in mass graves for a video purporting to show the French having massacred locals.

In Burkina Faso, as of late 2023, Russia has reportedly provided 100 praetorian guards to protect coup leader Captain Ibrahim Traoré in return for, once again, mining concessions. Meanwhile, the Traoré government continues arresting and expelling French diplomats.

In May 2024, the military government of Niger allowed Russian military personnel to physically enter the Nigerien air base hosting American troops before the US withdrew its roughly 1,000 military personnel, who had been carrying out a counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency mission there. Niamey’s “embarrassing” strategic shift has been characterized as a direct response to Washington’s efforts to discourage closer Nigerien ties with Moscow.

The Russian march is also continuing in Chad, another country controlled by a military junta, which, as of the end of April 2024, took in some 130 Russian military trainers after demanding the departure of 75 American trainers, preparing the way for what one commentator has termed a soon-to-be “protectorate.”

Finally, since the first visit of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov to Benghazi in August 2023, directly coinciding with the death-by-plane-crash of Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia has doubled- and tripled-down on its military build-up in Libya. Over the past year, Yevkurov has made five trips to see Hifter; and in mid-June 2024, two Russian destroyers visited the Hifter-controlled Tobruk Naval Base. The warships’ visit was billed as a training mission but was likely a continuation of the delivery of artillery to Hifter’s “Libyan National Army,” either for use in a future military action in Libya or for export south to military forces in neighboring countries.

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”); that its senior officers spend more time visiting these countries; that NATO convene a special NATO-African summit and other processes for political dialogue and consultations; and 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 monitoring the security threats emerging from the region; mapping existing aid packages by NATO members and partners to identify gaps; enhancing training, scholarships, and media literacy efforts to help counter Russian disinformation; listening and talking to people from the region; and 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.

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.

Photo by Nikita Shvetsov/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.

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