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Russian footholds in Mideast, Africa raise threat to NATO

StarTribune | The invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin has captured the world's attention. Putin, on the other hand, is busily expanding Russia's footprint in the Middle East and Africa, which military and civilian authorities see as a new, albeit less immediate, danger to Western security.

Putin's policy in the Middle East and Africa has been straightforward and effective: he seeks out security partnerships with autocrats, coup leaders, and others who have been shunned or ignored by the US and Europe, either because of deadly abuses or conflicting Western strategic objectives.

— Russia's military minister flew nuclear-capable aircraft and hypersonic missiles over the Mediterranean last month as part of a security partnership that has the Kremlin threatening to send Syrian rebels to Ukraine.

— A leader of a junta that has seized power in Sudan has formed a new business relationship with the Kremlin, reigniting Russia's hopes for a Red Sea naval port.

— According to US authorities, Mali's government is the newest of more than a dozen resource-rich African countries to form security agreements with Kremlin-backed mercenaries.

"What you've seen is a Russia that is much more expeditionary and casting its military power deeper and wider afield," retired US Gen. Philip M. Breedlove told The Associated Press in the last five or six years.

"Russia is attempting to portray itself as a major power, as the driving force behind international events," said Breedlove, who served as NATO's top commander from 2013 to 2016 and is currently a distinguished chair at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Experts see Putin's expansionist aims in the Middle East and Africa as a potential long-term concern, not a current threat to Europe or the NATO alliance, because he is already dealing with severe resistance from a much weaker Ukrainian force.

The power Russia is gaining "threatens NATO from below," according to Kristina Kausch, a European security expert at the German Marshall Fund think-tank. "The Russians feel besieged by NATO, and now they want to enclose NATO," she explained.

Russia protects the regimes of often pariah presidents with conventional military or Kremlin-allied mercenaries in order to fulfill its strategic goals. In exchange, these leaders repay Russia in a variety of ways, including cash or natural resources, political clout, and staging areas for Russian fighters.

These relationships assist Putin to achieve his goal of restoring Russia's dominance to its pre-Cold War levels.

Russia's new security alliances also help the country internationally. Syria joined Russia in voting against the United Nations General Assembly's condemnation of Putin's invasion of Ukraine earlier this month, and numerous African states that have signed security agreements with Russian mercenaries abstained.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, stated on Friday that Russia would send Syrian volunteers to fight in Ukraine. The threat was solely intended as a form of intimidation, and US authorities claim that no Syrian recruits have been found in Ukraine. Some security analysts believe Russian mercenaries are staging in Mali before heading to Ukraine, although US officials have not confirmed this.

Regardless of how urgent the threat is, US and European leaders are paying close attention to Putin's moves in the Middle East and Africa — as well as Russia's developing relationship with China — as they formulate preparations to defend the West against potential invasion.

In mid-February, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stated that the West could no longer ignore the fight for influence in Africa, where China invests billions in infrastructure projects to gain resource rights and Russia offers security through Kremlin-backed mercenaries.

"We see and recognize that if we as liberal democracies withdraw from this rivalry, others will fill these spaces," Baerbock said as Western diplomats convened on the Ukraine situation in the days leading up to Russia's invasion.

Russia's military sent defense minister Sergei Shoigu to Damascus last month to oversee Russia's largest military training in the Mediterranean since the Cold War, just as Russia's military was making final preparations for its assault on Ukraine.

Since September 2015, Russia's Hmeimeem air station on Syria's Mediterranean coast has functioned as its major outpost for launching attacks in Syria. After a catastrophic civil war, President Bashar al-murderous Assad's government was able to retake control of much of Syria thanks to Russia's attacks, which demolished ancient cities and pushed millions of refugees to Europe.

"The Hmeimeem base is now a vital element of Russia's defense strategy not only in the Middle East but throughout the world," said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist and senior diplomatic editor for Syrian issues at the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

Russia is also willing to engage with African leaders who are renowned for anti-democratic measures and human rights violations.

On the eve of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin officials met with an officer from Sudan's military regime in Moscow.

Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, who has been isolated by the West, has warmly welcomed Russia's approach to a new economic-focused relationship. Upon his return to Sudan, Gen. Dagolo stated that Sudan would be willing to allow Russia to construct its long-awaited naval facility in Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Russia's ability to take advantage in the near future is far from assured. The invasion of Ukraine is taxing Russia's military and financial resources, exposing its military flaws, while international sanctions are harming the country's economy.

A Red Seaport, on the other hand, might enable Russia to play a bigger role in the Mediterranean and Black Seas, improve Russian access to the Suez Canal and other high-traffic shipping lanes, and project force in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean in the long run.

"They could surely wreak enough devastation to cause issues," warned former NATO commander Breedlove.

Russia's expanding relationships aren't solely for military purposes.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Russian mercenary security companies boosted their presence around the world sevenfold between 2015 and 2021, with operations in 27 countries as of last year. The Wagner Group, which the US and EU regard as a proxy for Russia's military, but which the Kremlin denies even exists, is the most visible.

From Libya to Madagascar, security contracts awarded to the Wagner Group and others provide Russia with access to mineral riches, staging areas for deployments, and significant footholds that challenge Western governments' power.

In December, allegations that the Wagner Group had signed a $10 million-per-month security contract with Mali's government alarmed the US and Europe. Wagner, according to experts, took advantage of local discontent over the failings of a multi-year French-led deployment in Sub-Saharan Africa aimed against extremist organizations.

Mali denied any such deployment, but some in the country saw the Russians' entrance as a slap in the face to Mali's colonial ruler France, which had battled to safeguard the country's citizens from armed radicals. They anticipate greater outcomes from any Russian fighters that arrive in Sub-Saharan Africa. "Long live Russia!" said one man in a crowd in January applauding the arrival of a Russian delegation in the capital. "May the people of Mali live long!"

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