The Pentagon’s Africa chief told reporters Tuesday that she believes African countries are squarely against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite some appearances to the contrary.

Chidi Blyden, the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, spoke to reporters a week before the United States welcomes African leaders in Washington, D.C. for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. She said that complex relationships with the Kremlin make it difficult for some African countries to deliver wide-ranging rebukes of Moscow, and also spoke about Russian operations on the continent.

While Russia competes for support from African countries, Washington has sought to maintain its relationships and military operations on the continent. Since its first deployment in 2020, the U.S. Army’s 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade has conducted training missions in 15 countries and maintains a regular presence in 11 of them.

But these operations sometimes prove tricky, especially as Russia and China seek their own military relationships on the continent. Maj. Gen. Todd Wasmund, the commander of Southern European Task Force, Africa, said during the Association of the U.S. Army’s Meeting and Exposition in October that Russian operations by the Wagner Group sometimes complicate operating in certain areas of Africa.

The U.S. military has had a shallow but far-reaching presence in Africa, especially in operations in Somalia, Mali and Niger in recent years. The small footprint approach has been aimed mostly at countering Africa-based offshoots of such terrorists organizations as al-Qaida, the Islamic State or homegrown organizations such as Al-Shabaab.

“Respect” for African decisions

While some African countries may factor trade or historic relations with Russia into some issues, African countries, she said, support Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.

At an emergency session of the United Nations in March, only 28 of 54 countries in Africa voted for a resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion. Twenty-five countries either abstained or did not submit a vote, with Eritrea being the only vote against the resolution.

“It becomes a very complex thing, at least this is what we’ve heard from African partners to be able to just sort of do blanket votes,” Blyden told reporters. “And I think that’s what we have seen in the number of votes at the different stages in African responses. What I’ve heard from them, and what I believe, is that they obviously have to carefully calibrate their own national security interests.”

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow took part in many anti-colonial, liberation movements on the continent. The Kremlin has historic relationships with several African countries — and more specifically their liberation struggles in the 20th century. Angola, South Africa and Somalia all have histories of receiving help from the Soviet Union, according to Atomic Heritage Foundation.

Wheat exports, Blyden said, also influence what votes African countries support, especially with regard to economic sanctions. Russia is one of the largest wheat exporters to Africa, making up more than 30% of the continent’s imports, according to Argus Media.

“They had other challenges when it came to sanctions, because of what the impact that it would have on their populations on food security, on fuel security,” Blyden said. “And so working through the different votes, I think, we saw a reflection of what their national security interests are...They are taking each issue individually to be able to calibrate their responses as such, and we respect them for that.”

Russia operates in Africa

As for Russian operations on the continent, Moscow continues to establish a foothold on the continent through its paramilitary organization the Wagner Group. The organization has been used by some African countries to combat terrorist insurgencies, but their involvement often draws the ire of human rights advocates and international observers.

In March 2021, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights said in a release that it was concerned about Wagner’s involvement in political violence following the presidential elections in the Central African Republic. The Associated Press also reported in October how Wagner was linked to six civilian massacres and the extrajudicial killings of 300 civilians in a village in Mali.

Joseph Siegle, research director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security about Wagner operations across the continent, particularly to the atrocities in Mali.

“Wagner forces in Mali have primarily focused on helping the junta hold onto power and secure gold mines,” Siegel said. “As in other cases of Wagner deployments, these have been linked to human rights abuses...To the extent that these human abuses are also targeting members of a particular ethnic community, such as the Fulani, they risk further tearing at the fragile social fabric of the country and may further fuel the insurgency.”

Since a military coup in Burkina Faso took place in January, there have been concerns that Burkinabe government might follow the lead of Mali and hire the mercenary group. But in comments to U.S. diplomats, Reuters reported Burkina Faso’s interim President Ibrahim Traore said that he has no intentions of hiring the group.

The message to African partners who may consider using Wagner for counterinsurgency is clear, Blyden said. Wagner only further contributes to human rights abuses.

“Wagner doesn’t go in at places that are stable and are doing well,” Blyden said. “They go into places where they can help better draw out already unstable environments, which doesn’t have a good outcome down the road.”

The U.S. trains — and operates — African partners

Despite the Russian government’s efforts to grow its influence and operate on the continent, the U.S. continues to train — and conduct military operations — in several countries across the continent.

The 2nd SFAB has trained militaries in Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, Somalia, Djibouti, Senegal, Botswana and Zambia. Specifically in Ghana, U.S. forces lent assistance to establish a school that prepared soldiers for U.N. peacekeeping missions. Ghana ultimately opened the Army Peace Operations Training School with the help of the 2nd SFAB.

As for military operations, the U.S. maintains a presence of more than 700 troops in Somalia to counter the growing threat of al-Shabab in the country. President Joe Biden re-established the military presence after former President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of troops even with protests inside the Pentagon. AFRICOM has also taken an active role in conducting airstrikes to assist the Federal Government of Somalia in counterinsurgency efforts against insurgents.

U.S. troops, however, have not operated in-continent without mishaps that cost the lives of service members. In October 2017, four American soldiers and four Nigerien soldiers were killed in the ambush. The Green Beret team and 30 Nigerien troops were returning from an operation near the Malian border when they were overrun by extremist fighters.

A 6,300-page investigation by the Pentagon in May 2018 said the mistakes were widespread leading up to the ambush.

Since the ambush took place, AFRICOM has taken changes to better protect troops operating in the African theatre. Soldiers now have armored vehicles, instead of low visibility ones, and armed drone to provide overwatch.

Zamone “Z” Perez is a reporter at Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.

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