Moscow courts Mauritania as part of Africa charm offensive

By Mustafa Omar

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with his Mauritanian counterpart Mohamed Salem Ould Merzoug on February 8. [Russian Embassy in Mauritania]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with his Mauritanian counterpart Mohamed Salem Ould Merzoug on February 8. [Russian Embassy in Mauritania]

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to Mauritania earlier this month was heavily promoted as an effort to boost economic and political relations between the two countries.

Less obviously, however, the visit also aimed to support Russia's diplomatic offensive in western Africa, and particularly in the Sahel region, observers noted.

"Mauritania's stable security and its pivotal role in leading Sahel countries, its geo-strategic importance and promising economic prospects as a natural gas-exporter, are all factors that Russia won't pass over," said Mauritanian journalist Qarini Amino.

Russia is strongly seeking to establish a foothold in the region, he explained.

Lavrov wrapped up his Mauritania trip February 8 and then headed to Sudan.

On the front end of the same trip, before visiting Mauritania, Lavrov stopped over in Mali, where Russia has become a key partner of the ruling junta.

In Mali, he promised to help Sahel and Gulf of Guinea countries in the fight against terrorism, and hinted at increased involvement on the continent.

Mauritania is sandwiched between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.

Although Mauritania has not seen an extremist attack since 2011, Islamic extremism has spread in neighbouring Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, to its east, and threatens to spread south to the Gulf of Guinea.

The increasing destablisation of the Sahel region, attributed to the presence of Russia's Wagner Group mercenaries, has become a source of serious concern in Mauritania.

In December, Wagner Group mercenaries attacked a weekly market in the Malian village of Keita, near the border with Mauritania, an event that stoked fears of a widening conflict.

In Mali, the continued conflict among rival extremist groups and the information war between them and Wagner has led to insecure conditions, increased tensions and civilian displacement.

Security and military agenda

In Nouakchott, Lavrov did not expressly discuss the security and military dimensions of his visit, nor did he speak of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Western countries, according to Amino.

During his meeting with President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, the two discussed Russia-Mauritania ties and security crises in the Sahel, especially smuggling and terrorist activities.

Lavrov invited Ghazouani to take part in the second Russian-African summit and economic forum scheduled for the end of July in St. Petersburg, said political analyst Bashir Ould Babana.

The two also talked about ways to boost co-operation in the fishing sector, as well as in infrastructure, the production of goods on Mauritanian soil and the extraction of natural resources.

Lavrov said Mauritania could receive hydrocarbon fuel, agricultural products and grains from Russia, but on the condition Western sanctions on Russian exports are lifted, Ould Babana said.

But Lavrov's later statements during his visit to Sudan "clearly revealed" the security and military objectives behind his trip to the continent, Amino said.

In Khartoum, the Russian foreign minister said an agreement between Russia and Sudan to establish a Russian logistics navy base in Sudan is now advancing.

Rapprochement with NATO

Although Mauritania seeks to remain neutral in the split between Russia and the West, Moscow is worried by its rapprochement with NATO and the frequent visits of US and European military leaders to Nouakchott, analysts said.

This is especially true in light of talk of NATO's desire to establish a military base in Mauritania.

During his meeting with Lavrov, Mauritanian Foreign Minister Mohamed Salem Ould Merzoug stressed his country's "respect for the rules of international law and the principles of the UN Charter", in reference to Russia's war on Ukraine.

"Russia is well aware that its interests require that it wins Mauritania over no matter how strong Mauritania's ties are with France and NATO," said journalist Sid Ahmed Ould Atfil, who specialises in Sahel region conflicts.

"Winning Mauritania's friendship may spare Russia the presence of a hostile force on the Malian border, and this will ensure its military forces aren't threatened in Mali," he said.

This may also enable Russia to establish military bases on the Malian border with Mauritania, he added, though it remains to be determined whether the presence of Russian military bases would be acceptable to Mauritania.

"Mauritania's acceptance or rejection of military Russian bases is linked to the future of military co-operation between it and NATO," Atfil said.

"I think that Mauritania will continue to maintain a balance in its relations with both Russia and NATO, a position that may help it achieve more gains than losses," he said.

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