- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Pentagon is keeping a wary eye on the recent influx of Russian “little green men” into Africa, as concerns rise over whether Moscow is looking to replicate its military successes in Ukraine and Syria in the competition for influence and allies on the continent.

Russian mercenaries are becoming more prominent in Africa, conducting missions ranging from advising foreign forces to providing security for African heads of state, Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the Trump administration’s pick to lead U.S. forces in Africa, told Congress on Tuesday.

“They concern me greatly,” Gen. Townsend told a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing. “…They are a quasi-military, and as we saw play out in Crimea and Ukraine, they are little green men running around [who] are not necessarily following rules of behavior we would expect” from actual military forces.

While not under the direct command of the Russian defense ministry, many of the country’s private security contractor firms “in fact train right alongside Russian armed forces” and are viewed by the Kremlin as an unofficial branch of the military, said Gen. Townsend, who is slated to replace current Africa Command chief Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser.

Moscow’s use of unofficial security contractors alongside special operations units in Crimea, who came to be known as “little green men” due to their lack of official uniforms, proved critical in the 2014 lightning annexation of the eastern European peninsula by the Kremlin.

Russian contract soldiers are already making their presence known in Africa. Russia has already provided overt military support for Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a former senior military chief for deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi and head of the Libyan National Army, in the power struggle that has crippled the divided North African nation.

Russian mercenaries reportedly aided Sudanese forces to put down opposition movements in the country, after a request for support to Russia by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, The New York Times recently reported. Officials from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania have reportedly all made overtures to the Kremlin for military support — even as the Trump administration has talked of reducing the number of U.S. troops deployed on the continent.

“Some of that [activity] could be benign, some of that is probably less than benign,” Gen. Townsend told Senate panel members, noting his experience with Russian military contractors in Syria.

As the former top U.S. commander in the allied fight against Islamic State in Syria, Gen. Townsend was in command last February when a U.S. airstrike reportedly killed up to 200 Russian mercenaries in a firefight near the Syrian city of Deir-ez-Zour. The Russian contractors were hired by the Wagner Group, a Russian military contracting firm now engaged in operations in Africa.

Despite Russia’s deployments and China’s infrastructure and development aid under its Belt and Road plan, Gen. Townsend insisted that African countries clearly understand the threats posed by Moscow and Beijing.

“They probably have their eyes open as far as what the Russians or Chinese are about,” Gen. Townsend said. “They are offering a lot of military assistance, they are offering a lot of economic assistance but there are a whole lot of strings attached.”

“For the United States, I think it is a concern to all of us because of the potential impacts on our access on the continent and our influence,” Gen. Townsend said.

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