In a first for a U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken was in the African nation of Niger Thursday to offer humanitarian, economic and security aid.
Blinken's visit to Niger follows a stop earlier in the day in Ethiopia, a trip viewed by analysts as an effort to bolster U.S. relations in a part of the world where Russia and China have been seeking to gain influence.
At a news conference with his Niger counterpart, Blinken announced a $150 million humanitarian aid package for the west and central region of African known as the Sahel, which includes Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania.
As he announced the aid package, Blinken credited Niger and other nations in the region for their commitment to democratic principles. He said the United States is "committed to continuing to invest in the resilience of democracies to a wide range of threats and challenges."
Blinken also discussed programs designed to address food insecurity in the nation, which he made a point to note had been exacerbated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine became further part of the discussion when Blinken was asked to comment on Poland's decision to send MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine to help in its defense efforts. Ukraine has requested more advanced air power to counter the Russian offensive, but the U.S. has so far resisted.
Blinken said this was a sovereign decision by Poland, and "different nations are doing different things" to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian aggression.
He said it has always been the U.S. focus to do everything to ensure Ukraine has what it needs in the moment, and he said it was a mistake to focus on any specific weapons system at any given time.
Blinken said what is important is not only that the Ukrainians have the right weapons system, but also that they know how to use it and that it fits into a comprehensive plan.
The secretary of state was also asked about the growing influence of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group.
Many nations in the region have turned to Russia and the Wagner Group for security assistance after unsuccessful efforts by the U.S. and France to quell terrorist and extremist group attacks in the region.
Blinken first lauded Niger for rejecting and criticizing Russia and the Wagner Group. He said that in areas where Wagner has been active, things have ended badly and that it has not been an effective response to insecurity.
"We've seen countries find themself weaker, poorer and less independent as a result of an association with Wagner," he said.
Blinken added there have been cases in which the Wagner Group has engaged in exploitation of a country's resources, as well as corruption, violence and human rights abuses. He said nations found themselves less secure as a result of that association.
Blinken said it was incumbent upon the United States to demonstrate how its more comprehensive approach to security can deliver concrete results.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.