Once again Russia steps forward and takes more ground in Africa, barely days after the EU chief diplomat downplayed Moscow taking Mali and Burkino Faso (“…which were easy”) and Joe Biden being reported as saying he wants a bigger US military presence in Morocco to act at a counterweight against Russia on the continent. Russia’s foreign minister’s visit to Mauritania is a controversial one although his comments made against Morocco in support of the Polisario in Western Sahara explain why Rabat was taken off the list at the last moment
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 8th offered support for Mauritania in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel, saying he respected the country’s position in the Ukraine war, reports France 24.
Lavrov‘s visit to Nouakchott is part of a broader diplomatic offensive by Russia in Africa, where the war has intensified strategic competition between great powers.
On February 7th, he visited Mali, where Russia has become a key partner of the ruling junta.
There, he promised to help Sahel and Gulf of Guinea countries in the fight against jihadism, and hinted at increased involvement on the continent.
Mauritania is a pivotal country between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.
Jihadism has spread in the Sahel countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger and now threatens the Gulf of Guinea farther south, although Mauritania has not seen an attack since 2011.
The vast, mostly desert country of 4.5 million voted in March 2022 in favour of a UN resolution calling on Russia to immediately cease its military operations in Ukraine.
Many African countries abstained or did not vote.
In October, Mauritania voted for a resolution against Russia’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine. But in November it abstained from a vote on war reparations that Russia should pay to Ukraine.
“We have expressed our respect for Mauritania’s consistent policy of neutrality on all axes,” Lavrov told reporters Wednesday.
But, he said, that neutrality did not prevent Mauritania from actively addressing “problems” in the region.
“I am talking about the terrorist threat in the Sahel-Saharan region”, Lavrov said.
He also cited the conflict between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front over the Western Sahara, which borders Mauritania.
“We will actively support these efforts of our African friends [Algeria], based on the principle that they are interested in assistance in this work,” he added.
His comments will not go down well with Mauritania’s northern neighbour and friend, Morocco though. Earlier there were reports that Rabat was ready to sign huge nuclear power station deals with Russia and Moroccan journalists have been waiting for him to visit the Moroccan capital. This visit is now looking unlikely, as his comments seem to signal that the deals are no longer on the table.
At a joint press conference, Mauritanian Foreign Minister Mohamed Salem Ould Merzoug spoke of “certain constants” in Mauritanian diplomacy including “respect for the rules of international law and the principles of the United Nations Charter”.
But he said “Mauritania understands Russia’s security concerns and believes they should be taken into consideration for its important role in security and stability in Europe and at the international level.”
Lavrov was received by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani, the national news agency reported.