Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday offered support for Mauritania in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel, saying he respected the country’s position in the Ukraine war.
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 Tuesday, 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.
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.”