Russian weapons and trainers arrive in Niger weeks after US military agreement ends

Russia has delivered military equipment to Niger that will provide the African country with the “latest generation of anti-aircraft defense systems,” Nigerien state broadcaster RTN said Thursday.

The equipment arrived in Niamey on Wednesday along with 100 Russian military instructors who will install the system and train Nigerien soldiers to use it, RTN added.

Russian state media RIA Novosti said early Friday that Russian military instructors arrived in Niger “to train local forces in the fight against terrorism.”

“This means that Russia is returning to Africa,” an RIA Novosti correspondent reported from the scene, adding that NATO troops have also been arriving in Niamey to further catch a transfer flight to Agadez where “right now about 1,100 American soldiers are located.”

Supporters of Niger's National Council for Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) hold up Niger's national flag and the national flag of Russia at the General Seyni Kountche stadium in Niamey on Agust 26, 2023. - AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Niger's National Council for Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) hold up Niger's national flag and the national flag of Russia at the General Seyni Kountche stadium in Niamey on Agust 26, 2023. - AFP/Getty Images

The arrival of Russian instructors followed a recent phone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Nigerien General Abdourahamane Tiani on March 26 when the two leaders discussed “ensuring security and combating terrorism.”

Since seizing power in a coup last year, Niger’s junta has been strengthening military ties with Russia while turning away from the US and France.

Last month, the junta said it was ending an accord with the US that allowed military personnel and civilian staff from the US Department of Defense to operate in Niger.

France, Niger’s former colonial ruler, withdrew its troops from the African nation at the end of 2023.

Niger’s junta-controlled neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso have also turned to Russia for military support, deepening Western concerns about Russia’s expanding influence in Africa’s troubled Sahel region that has battled a spate of coups and Islamist insurgents for years.

‘Outpace the US’

Political analyst Mamadou Thior said former French colonies in the Sahel were reconsidering their military strategies.

“What we are witnessing with Mali, Burkina Faso, and now Niger is a renewal in their military strategy because they no longer want to have Western militaries on their territories,” he told CNN.

“Russia is trying to show that it can outpace the US in Africa. The Russians see countries that are in crisis, and they come in to help. Once it’s done, they have a stronghold there and they try to have a base and try to get out the former forces, whether the US or European forces or even those who are under the flag of the United Nations.”

Hundreds of Wagner contractors, a private Russian military group, are in Mali, at the invitation of the country’s military junta, to assist in its fight against insurgents.

Earlier this year, a group of Russian soldiers arrived in Burkina Faso months after the junta-led nation expelled French troops from its soil.

Wagner mercenaries had previously operated in the Central African Republic (another former French colony) since at least 2018, training the local army and combating rebels in the nation’s civil conflict.

Security consultant Mamadou Adje told CNN that Russia’s support for Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso will be more profitable to their junta leaders who will not be pressured by the Russians into ensuring a swift return to democracy.

“The fact that they will have the support and the protection of the Russians who will not question the democratic setting of their military governments … made them decide to be with the Russians and not the Americans,” said Adje, a retired Senegalese colonel who previously served in Mali and Burkina Faso under West African regional bloc ECOWAS.

Supporters of Niger’s junta have mobilized for protests on Saturday to rail against the presence of US military personnel still stationed in the country. There are approximately 648 US military personnel still deployed in Niger, according to the White House.

“Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso are already in the pocket of the Russians,” Adje said.

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