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Russia's growing influence in Africa worries U.S.

by Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff The New York Times | January 29, 2020 at 4:29 a.m. | Updated January 29, 2020 at 4:29 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 200 Russian mercenaries have deployed in recent months to Mozambique to combat a growing Islamic State offshoot there, even as Moscow is taking initial steps toward building a military port in the Horn of Africa.

Russia is steadily expanding its military influence across Africa through arms sales, security agreements and training programs for unstable countries or autocratic leaders. Other recent actions by Moscow include quietly deploying mercenaries and political advisers in several countries, such as the Central African Republic. Hundreds of Russian fighters have arrived in Libya in recent months as part of a broad campaign by the Kremlin to intervene on behalf of the militia leader Khalifa Hifter to shape the outcome of Libya's civil war.

U.S. officials, analyzing what they call great power competition, say they are alarmed by Russia's growing influence, as well as China's, as Washington struggles to exert its economic and security goals on the continent.

This campaign for influence is playing out as Defense Secretary Mark Esper is weighing the potential withdrawal of hundreds of forces from West Africa to better counter threats from Russia and China closer to their borders.

Esper's review has drawn criticism from influential Republicans and Democrats in Congress who argue that cutting American forces in Africa would help only the U.S.' rivals.

"A withdrawal from the continent would also certainly embolden both Russia and China," Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del., wrote to Esper this month.

Sustaining U.S. forces in Africa "serves as a check" against rivals expanding their influence on the continent, the senators said.

Florence Parly, the French defense minister, met with Esper on Monday to press the Pentagon to continue its assistance -- including aerial refueling and intelligence support -- to 4,500 French troops operating in West Africa against a resurgent mix of groups affiliated with both al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of the military's Africa Command, is expected to face tough questioning Thursday, when he is scheduled to testify to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Russian officials are envisioning the Port of Berbera as a location for their base on the coast of Somaliland, a self-declared state within Somalia on the Gulf of Aden, according to Defense Department officials. Both China and the United States, with military bases in Djibouti, share the same coastline as the potential Russian port.

Russia has also expressed interest in building a naval logistics center in Eritrea, but it is unclear how far along those negotiations are, U.S. officials said.

About 1,500 miles south, down the eastern coast of Africa, Russian military transport planes landed last summer in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique and, according to U.S. officials, deployed about 160 personnel belonging to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor.

The Russian military presence in Mozambique follows a growing pattern of Russia exerting influence in the security sphere across the continent.

Yet despite increasing Russian involvement, U.S. officials say there is little indication that Moscow is helping African nations counter terrorist threats.

"Outside of selling arms for their own economic benefit, China and Russia are not doing much to help counter extremist groups seeking to rob Africans of their future," Brig. Gen. Gregory Hadfield, Africa Command's deputy intelligence director, told reporters during a conference call this month.

A Section on 01/29/2020

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