By Farid Abdulhamid – Oct 27, 2022
NATO’s encroachment on Russia is not only a threat to world peace but a clear and present danger to resource-rich regions like Africa.
The raging international conflict in Ukraine is framed in mainstream western media as the “Russian invasion of Ukraine” and referred to in other circles as a “Russo-Ukrainian War.” The problem with this skewed misrepresentation is that it obscures the deeper layer of the unfolding war theatre, namely the NATO-driven geopolitical underpinning of the conflict. The spark that ignited the current hostilities can be traced to the longstanding NATO-Russia tension over the former’s expansion in Eastern Europe that has been building overtime, and which in the context of Ukraine, is viewed by Russia as an encirclement strategy that poses existential threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Simply put, the conflict in Ukraine is primarily a NATO-orchestrated geopolitical war targeting Russia but using Ukraine as a springboard to drive its expansion in the region.
After suffering a string of defeats in the Middle East and Central Asia, NATO turned its attention to Europe, where it aggressively pushed for Ukraine’s membership to the Alliance. NATO’s failure to oust the Bashar Assad regime where Syrian forces that relied heavily on Russian airpower defeated the West’s proxies on the ground and prevented the Alliance’s attempt to bring the Middle Eastern country under its sphere of influence, was followed by its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan. The debacle in Syria and Afghanistan precipitated the Alliance’s drive to bolster its Eastern flank in a bid to regain the strategic edge over Russia and China that are spreading their interests around the world.
It was NATO’s encirclement of Russia that gave Vladimir Putin the pretext to “secure” Russia’s southern flank in 2014 by annexing Crimea while further provocations by NATO pushed Putin to shore up his western frontier through the annexation of the Russian-speaking Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. With Putin insisting he is at war with NATO, the Alliance continues to funnel billions of dollars into the Ukraine war campaign in the form of military hardware, communications, and munitions supplies that has chiefly become a boon for the US Military-Industrial-Complex.
In the wake of the ongoing escalation, there is no doubting the fact that the world should do everything to end the current conflict. Ideally, a negotiated settlement can only succeed if terms of a potential comprehensive peace call for the withdrawal of Russian troops, the halting of NATO’s eastward expansion in Europe and for Ukraine to embrace neutrality over the NATO-Russia stand-off.
The seven-month war has cost thousands of lives on both sides, leading to mass displacement and destruction of Ukraine’s public infrastructure. It has also created the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II with an estimated 7.4 million refugees fleeing Ukraine and crossing into neighbouring countries. Further, the conflict has caused skyrocketing food prices and an acute energy crisis around the world that has hit Africa the hardest.
Africa’s neutral stance
In spite of incessant pressure from the West, African countries have largely rejected the condemnation of Russia over the Ukraine war and instead many took a neutral stance owing to the long history between the continent and Russia, dating back to the era of Soviet Union when Moscow supported anti-colonial, liberation movements in Africa.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose country is a BRICS member, a grouping of five emerging economies that includes Russia, China, India and Brazil, openly blamed NATO for the war in Ukraine stating the conflict could have been avoided had NATO heeded the warnings from amongst its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater instability in the region. Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) party had strong ties to the former Soviet Union, which trained and supported anti-apartheid activists during the struggle against apartheid rule in South Africa.
Even within the upper echelons of the African Union (AU), the conflict in Ukraine is seen as a geopolitical contest pitting NATO against Russia. At the recently concluded 77th session of the UN General Assembly, African Union Chairperson, President Macky Sall of Senegal said that Africa “does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War,” alluding to the pressure mounting on the continent’s leaders to choose sides over the war in Ukraine. “We call for a de-escalation and a cessation of hostilities in Ukraine as well as for a negotiated solution to avoid the catastrophic risk of a potentially global conflict,” he said, reiterating Africa’s position on the conflict.
A new scramble for Africa
Progressive analysts hold that NATO’s encroachment on Russia is not only a threat to world peace but also represents a clear and present danger to resource-rich regions like Africa. A victory in Ukraine will embolden the western military bloc to escalate its hegemonic agenda in Africa. Even if NATO’s advance in Eastern Europe is eventually halted by Russia, a setback in Ukraine could make it position Africa as an area where it can project its power on a global scale.
Camouflaged under the dubious arrangement “NATO-AU Cooperation” the western military bloc’s involvement in Africa is no longer a closely guarded secret. In fact, NATO has an official liaison office in the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, while high level AU and NATO officials have held closed door meetings in Addis and Brussels (NATO’s headquarters). With a new scramble for Africa unfolding fast, NATO is making its intentions clear as it seeks to occupy and militarise large swathes of the African continent.
Caught between the NATO-Russia and US-China superpower rivalry, the emergent geopolitical conflict has far-reaching security implications for Africa, which is already reeling under the effects of an undeclared cold war. “NATO-AU Cooperation” is fast transitioning from technical cooperation to strategic partnership, which could pave the way to fully fledged military intervention.
US Africa Command (AFRICOM)
Set-up in 2007, the US Africa Command, AFRICOM, is a direct product of NATO expansion in the region via EUCOM, the US European Command, a central part of NATO that originally also took responsibility for 42 African states. While the Pentagon boasts of AFRICOM’s operational roles in reconnaissance, training, and logistics, it is the hidden combat operations in the form of surgical strikes (drones, cruise missiles etc) directed at perceived enemy targets that is causing mounting civilian casualties, especially in Somalia. The US is seeking to build an expanded role for NATO in Africa as it refocuses its attention to the Asia-Pacific theatre, where it is looking to outflank China.
Located at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, AFRICOM’s stated objectives “are to counter transnational threats and malign actors, strengthen security forces (African) and respond to crises in order to advance US national interests and promote regional security, stability and prosperity”. While anti-militarisation mobilisation on the ground has prevented AFRICOM from relocating its headquarters to Africa, the US Camp Lemonier base in Djibouti technically serves as AFRICOM’s de facto headquarters on the continent and has become the centrepiece of an expanding constellation of US drone and surveillance bases stretching from Libya to Mali to the Central African Republic.
According to its official website, the NATO-backed Command is active in 38 African countries, and is manned by security personnel, civilian officials as well as liaison officers at key African posts, including the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping and Training Centre in Ghana. Strategically, AFRICOM’s aim is to entrench US hegemony in Africa by securing unfettered access to the continent’s vital resources, including oil and gas reserves, and mineral deposits through militarisation and occupation. It also serves as a coup incubator with a spate of recent coups in West Africa linked to US-trained military officers.
NATO’s growing footprint in Africa
NATO’s expansion in Africa can be seen in the high-level military cooperation agreements it imposed on the AU, intended to consolidate the bloc’s expansionist agenda in the continent. In a series of events starting in 2005 NATO provided “logistical” support to the AU Mission in Darfur followed by a “strategic” airlift to support AU’s Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and a subsequent “sealift support” in 2009. In 2011 NATO’s involvement on the continent took another turn when former AU Commission Chairperson, Jean Ping, visited NATO. Ping’s trip was made in the context of Operation Unified Protector—the UN-mandated operation to “protect” civilians and civilian-populated areas in Libya, which ironically, was then under sustained NATO bombardment.
In 2014, the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Ambassador, Smail Chergui, visited NATO and signed the technical agreement on NATO-AU cooperation. This was followed by a flurry of activities that further cemented NATO’s expansion on the continent with the opening of the NATO liaison office at the AU headquarters in Ethiopia in 2015, and the start of the annual NATO-AU military-to-military staff talks, and programme of mobile training solutions offered to AU officers which started in the same year.
With the NATO imposed agenda on Africa moving fast, AU leaders were pushed to agree to a further strengthening and expansion of the Alliance’s political and practical cooperation at the Warsaw Summit in 2016, which paved the way for a cooperation agreement that was signed in 2019, to bring NATO and the AU closer together. In 2021, the NATO-AU Cooperation Plan was signed to enhance the military cooperation offered to the AU. The so-called “cooperation plan” stipulated in the NATO-AU agreement is a cover to intensify NATO’s military operations in the region, which could mean putting boots on the ground.
According to Vijay Prashad, the 2011 war in Libya, NATO’s first major military operation on the continent, was part of a strategy to coalesce Western power and expansion into Africa. French President Emmanuel Macron has long called for a greater NATO involvement in Africa. As the conflict in Ukraine rages on, NATO leaders are making connections between Russia’s action in Ukraine and its advances in Africa. In the run up the NATO Summit in Madrid on 22 June this year, the Alliance leaders warned of Russia’s inroads into the continent calling for the bloc to closely watch its southern flank (Africa). At the summit, NATO declared Russia as “it’s most significant and direct threat.”
From NATO’s point of view, security threats emanating from Africa arise from Putin’s increasing traction on the continent owing to his growing political and diplomatic influence and the unmistakable military footprint of the Russia-linked Wagner Group, a private military contractor the West claims is staging Putin’s covert war in Africa. Russia denies links to the Wagner Group but reiterates its right to forge closer ties with African countries through mutual trade and partnership as well security arrangements.
Is Russia an imperialist power?
Even though Russia is seeking to expand its influence in Africa and the Middle East, it would be a mistake to characterise it as an imperialist power. Despite attempts by the western media to portray Russia as a neo-colonial force, its recent forays into Africa does not fit the classic definition of imperialism.
Lenin defined capitalist imperialism as:
The stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.
Given that Russia is a country with limited export capital, with no stranglehold on global finance and capital or its own economic spheres and monopolies around the world, it can be correctly described as a non-imperial, capitalist state.
To put the above into perspective, Stansfield Smith, a prominent ant-war activist and writer, notes that Russia’s strength among international capitalist monopolies is negligible, its labour productivity is far below that of the US and the European Union, while its manufacturing output ranked 15th in the world, behind India, Taiwan, Mexico and Brazil adding that Russian exports (and imports) do not fit in the pattern of an imperialist state, but rather of a semi-developed peripheral state, exporting raw materials, and relying on foreign import of advanced goods.
Further, Smith observes that Russia sees a substantial export of capital, but this comes in the form of capital flight to tax havens such as Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands, which in 2018 stood at US$66 billion. When it comes to foreign assets, not a single Russian corporation is listed in the world’s top 100 non-financial multinational corporations with assets abroad. Furthermore, Russia remains a marginal actor in international banking and finance capital with only one of its financial institutions making the list of top 100 banks.
Smith also notes that although Russia has intervened in other countries (Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria), it not in a manner of imperialist countries, which are motivated to seize natural resources and wealth. According to Smith, Russian intervention is nowhere near the scale of even secondary imperial powers such as France or Britain, nor has Russia engineered coup d’etats in other countries as imperialist countries constantly do.
Russia has 15 military bases in nine foreign countries but only two of these are outside the borders of the former Soviet Union, in Vietnam and Syria. China has one base outside of its borders, in Djbouti. The US has over 800 foreign bases. Russia’s heft on the global stage is measured by its military might (not its global economic dominance), and it plays no role in policing and enforcing world order through illegal sanctions, force and military occupation. Technically speaking, Russia is looking to curtail NATO’s expansion in Africa, not to recolonize it.
NATO’s threat in Africa
If left unchecked, heightened NATO expansion may turn Africa into the largest concentration of western-led militarisation in the world using the resource-rich continent as a base to relaunch its global agenda.
In terms of foreign military installations, Djibouti in East Africa is already a hive of activity as it host eight bases, key among them belonging to the US, France, the United Kingdom and China. The concentration of western military bases in Djibouti may become a trend elsewhere across Africa as NATO sets up militarised zones in an increasingly besieged continent.
With NATO militarisation taking root in Africa, progressive forces must act fast and lead a vigorous campaign to de-militarise the continent. To confront NATO’s threat, the anti-war and anti-militarisation movements in Africa and around the world must step up efforts to demand an immediate end to the NATO-AU Cooperation, shut down AFRICOM, call for the closure of all foreign military bases on the continent and push for the complete withdrawal of western forces from Africa. We may be seeing the future of NATO’s involvement in Africa being played out in Ukraine.
Farid Abdulhamid is a member of the Toronto Chapter of the Group for Research and Initiative for the Liberation of Africa (GRILA) and a former Research Fellow at the York Centre for International and Security Studies (YCISS).
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