Across Europe, there is a growing uneasiness that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is serving to overshadow another critical, even existential threat that could do severe damage to the West while serving the Kremlin’s interests.
Instability and the rise of terrorism across Africa, according to multiple European and NATO officials, cannot be overlooked no matter how deeply Russian President Vladimir Putin pushes into Ukraine.
And nowhere are concerns growing as fast as they are in the Sahel, the semiarid stretch of land spanning northern and western Africa from Senegal to Sudan.
“By sending a couple of thousand Wagner paramilitaries, the Russians are taking over there,” Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren told an audience in Washington Thursday. “We cannot accept that.”
Ollongren is not alone in voicing concerns about the Russian threat from Ukraine, in the east, overshadowing the threat from Africa.
"One of the worst effects this will have on the Western side in my view is that it focused attention of the European member states on the eastern front, lowering the already low level of attention on the south," Lieutenant General Giovanni Manione, the deputy director general of the European Union Military Staff, warned a forum in Washington last month.
"It is a tragic effect. It is a huge mistake," Manione added. "We are keeping resources [in Europe] just in case something happens, forgetting completely that actions should be taken now in another theater."
Manione went even further, suggesting that Putin, as much as he may want to conquer Ukraine, is also adroitly using the fight there as a distraction.
"I'm not sure this is the main target of the Russians," Manione said of Ukraine. "The main target of the Russians could be having people focused on there [Ukraine], forgetting their actions elsewhere."
Russian paramilitary groups in Africa
Other European countries are also sounding alarms.
An Austrian Federal Intelligence Service report issued late last month warned of a “belt of instability” reaching across Africa, from the Sahara Desert and the Sahel region all the way to Somalia and the Arabian Sea.
“This instability is exacerbated by the rise of a grass-roots anti-West movement in the Sahel region and the withdrawal of European armed forces from Mali,” the report said. “Ostensibly private actors on the ground, such as the Russian Wagner Group, also play an important role here.”
Many Western officials view Wagner, a paramilitary company run by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, as a proxy force for Putin, helping Moscow secure access to natural resources with no regard for human rights.
So far, U.S. military officials have reported the presence of Wagner mercenaries in more than a dozen African countries over the past several years. With recent deployments to Mali sparking renewed concerns, especially after Wagner forces were tied to the slaughter of 300 civilians this past March.
Wagner has also been tied to January’s coup in Burkina Faso, though U.S. officials have not confirmed the allegations.
Like their European counterparts, U.S. officials agree Russia’s involvement in Africa, and in the Sahel in particular, is worrisome, warning the payoff for countries turning to Russia, and to Wagner, often fails to deliver on Moscow’s promises.
“We've seen the impact and destabilizing effect that Wagner brings to Africa and elsewhere, and I think countries that have experienced Wagner Group deployments within their borders found themselves to be a little bit poorer, a little bit weaker, a little bit less secure,” U.S. Deputy Commanding General for Africa Major General Andrew Rohling told reporters last month.
But U.S. military and intelligence officials, while concerned, question whether Russian forces are capable of threatening Europe from the south.
“There’s not necessarily a concrete and cohesive plan,” one U.S. official told VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence.
"They're not a very effective organization, except for extorting money and resources,” the official added, comparing Russia’s strategy in Africa to “placing a bunch of bets on a roulette table."
NATO, in its recently adopted, updated strategic concept, also sees the threat from Russia in Africa as indirect.
“NATO’s southern neighborhood, particularly the Middle East, North Africa and Sahel regions, faces interconnected security, demographic, economic and political challenges,” the alliance document said, adding it “enables destabilizing and coercive interference by strategic competitors.”
Some experts warn it would a mistake, however, to view Russia’s actions as incoherent.
“Russia is pursuing several strategic objectives on the continent,” Joseph Siegle, director of research at the National Defense University's Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told U.S. lawmakers Thursday.
While much of Moscow’s effort is designed to “displace and discredit Western influence,” Siegle said that is just the start.
“Russia is trying to gain control over strategic territory in North Africa, most vividly seen in Libya. This would provide Moscow with an enduring security presence on NATO’s southern border,” he said.
“Combined with port access that Moscow’s trying to gain on the Red Sea, this would put Russia in a position where it could disrupt maritime traffic through the chokeholds of the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandab [Strait] through which some 30% of global container traffic passes every year,” he warned.
Carla Babb contributed to this report.