Russian soldiers arrive in Niger as relationship with U.S. deteriorates

Russian soldiers arrive in Niger as relationship with U.S. deteriorates

DAKAR, Senegal — Russian military personnel arrived in Niger this week, according to Nigerien state television, less than one month after the military junta announced that it was ending military agreements with the United States.

The arrival of the Russian men in military fatigues marked the first concrete step in a new security arrangement between Russia and Niger. State television identified them as “Russian military instructors,” and said they would be providing training and equipment to the Nigerien military.

The relationship between the United States and Niger, which for years had been a key Western ally, had grown tense after military leaders seized power in a coup last year and those ties further deteriorated after a trip last month by top U.S. officials to Niamey, the capital. Even after the Nigerien junta declared the U.S. military presence “illegal” and accused the delegation of condescension, U.S. officials continue to negotiate in closed-door talks over whether they could retain some sort of security presence in the country.

The arrival of Russian personnel appears to indicate that the junta is making it difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. presence to continue, said Andrew Lebovich, a research fellow with the Clingendael Institute who focuses on Niger.

“This really leaves a black eye for Washington in Niger,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The arrival of Russian forces is the cherry on top.”

Hudson said the arrival of Russian troops also introduces a concern that they might eventually occupy U.S. bases in Niger. There are still more than 1,000 U.S. service members stationed in Niger, as well as a large drone base that U.S. officials say has been key for monitoring violent extremist groups.

The arrival of the Russian troops isn’t by itself a sign that Niger is making a full turn away from Washington, one U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive closed-door discussions with leaders in Niamey. A short-term presence of military trainers is a typical part of an arms deal, the official said, and Niger’s leaders already announced that they planned to purchase weapons from Russia.

“They claimed they don’t want the presence of Russian troops, but that they would need trainers,” the official said.

But the official said that talks continue.

“There’s a ceiling on the kind of relationship you can have with the United States depending on the kind of relationship you decide to establish with Russia,” the official said. “There’s a narrow path here to a deal that addresses their interests and concerns and our interests and concerns. So we may not be able to walk down that path. It’s still worth having the discussion.”

In its report, Nigerien state television specified that the Russians had brought an air defense system to ensure “total control” of Niger’s airspace. The report showed an airplane with a Russian flag on its wing being unloaded in Niamey on Wednesday night.

Russian state media identified the men as part of Africa Corps, which is now part of the Ministry of Defense and described by Russian officials as a successor to the Wagner mercenary group, which had a broad, often murky presence in Africa before being disbanded last year.

The Russian deployment in Niger followed a conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani on March 26, according to Nigerien and Russian state media, in which the two leaders discussed increasing their cooperation, particularly on security matters.

The Nigerien junta’s decision to end its military agreements with the United States came on the heels of meetings with a U.S. delegation including Gen. Michael E. Langley, who heads U.S. military operations in Africa; Molly Phee, the State Department’s top official for African affairs; and Celeste Wallander, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. The junta’s spokesman said that the delegation had tried to dictate which countries the West African nation could not have relationships with, including Iran and Russia.

Hudson said the episode speaks to a problem in Washington between “rhetoric and reality” in terms of its policies in Africa. Although officials in Washington have often publicly spoken about African leaders being able to choose their partners, he said, their posture has been different behind closed doors.

“Washington has a lack of self-awareness about how it is coming across,” he said. “They have made Russia the boogeyman in all of this, like what the French have done, but that is a way to deflect responsibility and to avoid any kind of introspection about the policies the U.S. has pursued.”

The West African countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have in recent years been racked by violence linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and military juntas have mounted coups against democratically elected leaders, citing the security situation. The juntas’ rhetoric trumpets sovereignty and a rejection of France, their former colonial power, and they have increasingly looked to Russia and other countries for help on security matters.

In Mali, more than 1,000 Russian soldiers have been fighting alongside the army, while Burkina Faso welcomed Russian trainers earlier this year.

Lebovich, the research fellow with the Clingendael Institute, said the choice of accepting an air defense system from Russia is interesting given that Islamist militant groups are not threatening the country’s airspace. “This can be seen as symbolizing sovereignty,” Lebovich said.

Since the junta’s announcement about the end of the military agreements between the United States and Niger, there have been growing calls among Nigeriens for Americans to depart. Fliers for a protest in Niamey scheduled for Saturday against the U.S. presence call on Nigeriens to “come out massively” — echoing calls that last year preceded the departure of French troops.

Abdoulaye Oussein, 51 who leads a new civil society organization in Niamey, said that Niger and Russia would have a “win-win partnership” and that he was proud that Russian instructors would train Niger’s military. “Why is it a problem for the Americans and France that the Russians are helping us?” he asked. “I think we’re free to make our own choices.”

Omar Hama Saley in Niamey and Francesca Ebel in London contributed to this report.  » …
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