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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is sure to dominate an upcoming NATO summit in Madrid, Spain and other member nations are quietly pushing the Western alliance to consider how the mercenaries aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin are expanding Moscow’s influence in Africa.
As host of the Tuesday-Thursday summit, Spain is keen to underscore its closeness to Africa as it pushes for greater focus on Europe’s southern flank in a new document outlining NATO’s vision of its security challenges and tasks.
The Strategic Concept is NATO’s most important working document after the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which contained the key provision that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. The security assessment is updated approximately every ten years to reset the Western security agenda.
The current version, approved in Lisbon in 2010, indicated that the risk of a conventional war on NATO territory was “low”. He did not explicitly mention concerns about instability in Africa. At the time, the alliance viewed apathy as its greatest military threat; American complaints that some European members were not paying their dues figured prominently in the summit talks.
Fast forward a dozen years, and the view is very different from NATO headquarters in Brussels. After Russia brought the war closer to NATO’s eastern borders, the alliance worked to provide Ukraine with a more powerful assortment of weapons and avoid the very real risk of being drawn into the fights.
But there seems to be a consensus among NATO members ahead of the Madrid summit that while Russia remains the No. 1 concern, the alliance must continue to broaden its vision globally. . Spain’s position for increased focus on “the South” is shared by Britain, France and Italy.
According to them, the security challenges in Africa stem from a Putin seemingly determined to restore Russia’s imperial glories as well as an expansive China. Russia has gained ground thanks to the presence of its mercenaries in the Sahel region, a semi-arid expanse stretching from Senegal to Sudan which suffers from political conflicts, terrorism and drought.
“Every time I meet NATO ministers, the support of the allies is total because of the instability that we see on the southern border of the alliance and especially the current situation in the Sahel region,” said said Spanish Foreign Minister José Albares.
The Kremlin denies any connection with the Wagner Group, a mercenary force increasingly present in central and northern Africa and the Middle East. The private military company, which also participated in the war in Ukraine, has established itself in Libya, Mali, Sudan and the Central African Republic.
In Mali, Wagnerian soldiers fill a void created by the departure of the former French colonial power. In Sudan, Russia’s offer of an economic alliance has earned it the promise of a naval base in the Red Sea. In the Central African Republic, Wagner’s fighters protect the country’s gold and diamond mines. In return, Putin gets diplomatic allies and resources.
French President Emmanuel Macron has long called for NATO’s “greater involvement” in the Sahel region. Now that Wagner has settled in Mali, French authorities have pointed out that Wagner’s mercenaries are accused of human rights abuses in the Central African Republic, Libya and Syria.
Former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana said Russia’s brutal military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during his country’s long civil war had emboldened him.
“Syria gave (the Russians) the feeling that they could be more active in that part of the world,” Solana told The Associated Press. “They have very good relations with Algeria and they have (…) people à la Wagner in the Sahel, which is tricky.”
With the Sahel, Morocco and Algeria threatened with further instability, “the southern part of NATO, for Portugal, Spain, Greece, etc., they would like to have an open eye on this part of the world,” he said.
Italy is another politically sensitive NATO member across the Mediterranean Sea. The NATO Joint Forces Command Base in Naples, which in 2017 opened a southern hub focused specifically on terrorism, radicalization, migration and other security issues emanating from North and Middle Africa -East.
Italy’s ambassador to NATO, Francesco Maria Talo, said in a May interview with the Italian news agency ANSA that humanitarian crises in Africa must concern all NATO allies.
“Close to us is Africa, with one billion people at risk of poverty, aggravated by food insecurity, terrorism and climate change, all of which combine to create insecurity,” said Talo said. “And Russia is also present there.”
The importance of the other side of the Mediterranean has become painfully clear to Spain over the past year due to a series of diplomatic crises involving Morocco and Algeria and their rivalry over the fate of the Sahara. West, a former Spanish colony.
Amid the disputes, reduced border security allowed migrants to enter Spanish territory, and there were perceived threats to energy supplies. Analysts consider both to be “hybrid warfare” tactics when governments use them against other countries.
Speaking in Madrid last month, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace highlighted the problems caused last year when Belarus, an ally of Putin, allegedly encouraged migrants to cross its borders into Poland and other neighboring countries.
“If people like Wagner get the control they have or would like to have in places like Libya or even what we see they are already doing in Mali, don’t think Spain will be spared from that. “Wallace said.
NATO is also expected to include in the new strategic document a reference to China’s growing military reach both in and beyond the Pacific theater. General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said last month in Madrid that “China has joined Russia in openly challenging the right of every country to choose its own path.”
In May, US Army General Stephen J. Townsend, commander of US Africa Command, warned that China was trying to build a military naval base on the Atlantic coast of Africa. He said China “has the most traction” towards establishing the base in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny oil-rich dictatorship that was once the only Spanish colony in sub-Saharan Africa.
China operates only one recognized foreign military base, located in Djibouti in East Africa, but many believe its People’s Liberation Army is establishing a military network overseas, even though it does not use the term “base”.
NATO has invited the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand to the summit to demonstrate its interest in Asia-Pacific.
The foreign minister of Mauritania, a former French colony in West Africa, is also invited to attend a working dinner of other foreign ministers at the NATO summit. NATO said the country, which borders Western Sahara, Algeria, Mali and Senegal, was “closely associated with the preparatory work” for the new strategic concept.
AP writers Ciarán Giles in Madrid, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.
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