Sergio Restelli

Russia makes progress in Africa as the middle east burns

With the fall of Niamey, Europe loses a strategic partner and remains vulnerable to the political moves of Putin, who could use migrants to apply pressure. The Russian military has officially settled in Niger, extending Moscow’s influence throughout the Sahel and completing a geopolitical corridor that connects the bases of Cyrenaica to the heart of Africa. The main migration route leading to the Mediterranean is now under the control of the Kremlin.

The definitive separation from the European Union, which began with the coup last July which deposed the democratically elected government of President Mohamed Bazoum, was sanctioned on Tuesday with the signing of an agreement between the deputy defense ministers Junus-Bek Jevkurov and Alexander Fomin and the Nigerian minister Salifu Modi. The parties agreed to intensify joint actions to stabilize the situation in the region. The delegation from Niamey accompanied Prime Minister Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine, an economist to whom the generals have entrusted the image of their government, to the Russian capital, the first stop on a tour that will continue in Turkey, Iran and Serbia to seek financing and weapons. This is a reversal of alliances, which opens the country’s doors to rival Western powers.

The Nigerian military junta expelled the French contingent, made up of over three thousand men, who supported the fight against the jihadist insurrection. Subsequently, he tore up the military and economic collaboration agreements with the European Union, revoking the law that prohibited the movement of foreign citizens and punished migrant trafficking.

Without economic aid, supplies and instructors for the army, the generals of Niamey quickly approached Russia, following the moves of the colonels of Mali and Burkina Faso, of Marshal Haftar in Benghazi and of the RSF militias who unleashed the civil war in Sudan. This series of revolts stunned Western chancelleries, which proved incapable of predicting and managing them, despite the putsch being organized by officers often trained and subsidized by the United States, France and the European Union. The Western response is limited to sanctions and international isolation.

The Russians filled this void in a casual way, entrusting the game to Junus-Bek Jevkurov, who in a few months liquidated Yevgeny Prigozhin’s legacy and assumed the role of head of Moscow’s African affairs. The causal general-turned-deputy minister has extraordinary experience in both combat and tribal politics, and knows his way around both the negotiating tables and the negotiating tables. Now many expect the arrival of Russian instructors and weapons in Niamey, with the risk of increasing clashes not only with Islamist groups, but also with the ethnic groups of the North, which see the agreements signed with the old democratic governments dissolve.

The Russian incursion represents a serious problem for Washington and Paris. The Pentagon has two strategic bases in Niger for drone reconnaissance and surveillance of fundamentalist terrorists, while France gets a third of the fuel for its nuclear power plants from the country’s uranium mines. However, the pact with Russia also represents a great missed opportunity for the Italian government, which could have given substance to the “Mattei Plan”.

Italy is the only nation with a military mission still present in Niamey, and the coup plotters appreciate the line of dialogue of ministers Crosetto and Tajani, conveying the desire to maintain and intensify the training activity of recruits carried out in previous years. Rome would have had the opportunity to outline a path to become a leader of European initiatives and obtain guarantees on the country’s path towards democracy. However, it seems that this possibility has not been explored, and we must now prepare for the danger that the flow of migrants could be used as an instrument of pressure on Europe, with particular impact on our coasts. This is not a theoretical scenario, since the landings of refugees from the Sahel are already increasing, and the Kremlin has already pushed waves of desperate people from Syria towards the Polish and Baltic borders. Now, with control of the migratory corridor to the Mediterranean beaches, Russia has a further instrument of power.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.