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Russia’s moves in Africa problematic for U.S. interests, general agrees

Lt. Gen. Michael E. Langley, President Biden's nominee to lead U.S. Africa Command, speaks with the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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U.S. senators evaluating President Biden’s nominees for two influential military assignments said Thursday that Russia’s spreading influence in volatile parts of Africa is jeopardizing American interests and implored both to prioritize the burgeoning policy dilemma, if they are confirmed.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee appealed to Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael E. Langley, Biden’s nominee to lead U.S. Africa Command, to detail how he would endeavor to counter Russia’s activities on the continent. He affirmed that they were problematic and would become a priority pending the full Senate’s approval of his promotion.

Langley appeared before the committee alongside Army Lt. Gen. Bryan Fenton, Biden’s pick to lead U.S. Special Operations Command.

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Lawmakers expressed acute concern about Moscow’s use of the mercenary outfit Wagner Group to raise Russia’s profile on the continent, highlighting the group’s activities in Mali, where back-to-back military coups have destabilized the region and, they argued, given Russia a foothold in West Africa.

They also worried that Russia’s expanding influence across the continent could elbow the United States out of Africa’s rich commodities-mining sector, focusing particular attention on rare-earth minerals such as cobalt, a critical component of rechargeable lithium ion batteries, used in cellphones, electric vehicles and many other products.

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The lawmakers expressed alarm, too, over Russia’s recent success rallying support among African leaders against Western sanctions. Last month, Senegalese President Macky Sall, chairman of the African Union, issued a public appeal following a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking Western nations to lift punitive measures targeting food products, particularly grain.

The West has accused Russia of setting off a global food crisis by invading Ukraine and blocking its grain exports — some of the most significant in the world — from leaving Ukrainian ports. Moscow has also been accused of stealing Ukrainian grain and selling it globally as if it were Russian-produced.

“There’s significant work to be done about telling the right story,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said during Thursday’s hearing.

“It pains me to see African leaders accepting disinformation about what’s causing this epidemic of hunger in Africa,” he added, saying it is imperative that U.S. leaders put more effort behind “winning the narrative war.”

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Kaine and other senators appealed to Langley, who is likely to be confirmed in the coming weeks, to view his next role not only as a military position but also one that involves diplomacy. Langley agreed with that interpretation of the job and with the growing threat Russian expansion in Africa poses to U.S. interests.

“The Wagner group, they have ill intentions,” Langley said, noting that the organization has helped to proliferate Russia’s already significant portfolio of arms sales in Africa.

By partnering with opposition movements, including the military coup leaders in Mali and governments in other parts of Africa, the Wagner Group has helped magnify Russia’s footprint there beyond its already considerable arms sales, which make up nearly half of the continent’s military equipment imports.

“It just brings on fragility, especially across fragile countries,” Langley said, promising that, if confirmed, “we will reengage, we will reset” and demonstrate that “we are still the partner of choice.”

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