What Does the Coup in Niger Tell Us about the War in Ukraine?

On July 28, 2023, a coup led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani kicked out the democratically elected government of Niger. On March 16, 2024, the coup government kicked the United States out of Niger.

Niger, and a cooperative government in Niger, are important to the United States. “Niger is a strong ally of western nations, especially France, the U.S. and the European Union in fighting insurgency and curbing illegal migration to Europe,” according to Olayinka Ajala, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Leeds Beckett University. The New York Times has called Niger “a centerpiece of American efforts to combat surging Islamist militancy in the Sahel region” and “the main U.S. counterterrorism ally in the region.” Niger’s vast uranium and oil reserves also give it an economic importance to the United States.

That partnership was threatened by the July 2023 coup. The United States was sluggish in calling the coup a coup because such a recognition would force the U.S. to suspend military aid and limit the ability of the U.S. military to operate in Niger. The State Department did eventually make that decision and suspended aid. The United States did not, however, withdraw their forces from Niger and soon resumed flights of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones.

The Defense Department says that the U.S. currently has “approximately 1,000” troops in Niger. They are “consolidating” to U.S. Air Base 201, “the linchpin of the U.S. military’s archipelago of bases in North and West Africa.” The $110 million base is key to U.S. intelligence in the region, including satellite communications and a fleet of drones that includes armed Reapers.

The March 16 statement by the coup government in Niger ended those drone flights and that military partnership and kicked those American forces out of Niger.

Niger’s military spokesman, Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane, announced on television that, “The government of Niger, taking into account the aspirations and interests of its people, decides with full responsibility to denounce with immediate effect the agreement relating to the status of military personnel of the United States and civilian employees of the American Department of Defense in the territory of the Republic of Niger.” The agreement for U.S. forces and civilian personnel to be hosted in Niger has been revoked.

The decision came just days after a U.S. delegation traveled to Niger to “continue ongoing discussions… with leaders of the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland (CNSP) regarding Niger’s return to a democratic path and the future of our security and development partnership.”

Those discussions, for a number of reasons, reportedly went very badly. Those unsuccessful talks contain a number of lessons, not only on failed American foreign policy in Africa, but on the war in Ukraine.

Alex Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and a specialist in the politics of northwest Africa, says there are reports that American officials were criticizing Niger’s turn towards Russia. The State Department says that, while exchanging “views on how to chart a new path of cooperation forward,” the “U.S. delegation met with Nigerien officials, expressing concerns over Niger’s potential relationships with Russia.”

In a March 18 briefing, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh again referred to “direct conversations about some of our concerns, about some of their, you know, pursuing relationships with Russia.” She also raised concerns over the fact “that Russia has, certainly, a presence within the region from, you know, they continue to pursue ties to African nations to deepen their security cooperation.”

The American delegation’s warnings about Russia outraged Niger. Abdramane said, “Niger regrets the intention of the American delegation to deny the sovereign Nigerien people the right to choose their partners and types of partnerships. Also, the government of Niger forcefully denounces the condescending attitude accompanied by the threat of retaliation from the head of the American delegation towards the Nigerien government and people.”

The American effort in Niger is crucial for the hypocrisy it reveals in American foreign policy. On March 21, 2022, at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, State Department spokesperson Ned Price explained that one of the “core principles at the heart of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine” is that “each and every country has a sovereign right to determine its own foreign policy, has a sovereign right to determine for itself with whom it will choose to associate in terms of its alliances, its partnerships, and what orientation it wishes to direct its gaze.”

The United States was prepared to risk a war with Russia, a third world war, a potential nuclear war, and the injury and death of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers for a “core principle” that it does not subscribe to: at least not when it comes to Africa or when it does not convenience the United States. The U.S. “den[ies] the sovereign Nigerien people the right to choose their partners and types of partnerships.”

The pressure brought to Niger reveals that Washington is supporting the war against Russia for reasons other than the right of Ukraine to choose its partners and join NATO, or that that right only applies when the partner being chosen is the United States and NATO but not Russia. The core principle, then, is not the right of a sovereign nation to choose its partner, but the right of a sovereign nation to partner with the United States.

The American attitude toward Niger and Russia reveals a second lesson. A key response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine was to isolate Russia and reinforce the U.S.-led unipolar world. It has not worked.

The United States has expressed concern that the “Russian Federation is really trying to take over central Africa as well as the Sahel.” Thurston told me that the U.S. is “very worried about Russian influence throughout the Sahel, and it has a particular sting in Niger given the previous closeness of the relationship.”

He added that the United States “seems to regard competition with Russia in Africa as zero-sum; whereas, most African governments don’t see things that way.” And that is the hallmark of the emerging multipolar world that the U.S. is trying to hold back. Saudi Arabia has said “we do not believe in polarization or in choosing between sides.” India’s Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, in his book, The Indian Way, describes the new multipolar world as one in which countries deal “with contesting parties at the same time with optimal results” for their “own self-interest.”

Africa has rejected America’s “zero-sum” framing of partnerships. Not one country in Africa has joined the U.S.-led sanctions on Russia. Instead, Africa has asserted its sovereign right not to be forced to choose sides in a world where you can partner with many factions in pursuit of your own national interest. So, Niger stands up to American pressure and asserts its “right to choose their partners and types of partnerships.”

The broken relationship between the United States and Niger is important for what it reveals about America’s foreign policy in Africa and the future of its footprint on the continent. But it is also important for what it reveals about U.S. grand strategy and its policy towards Russia. American fears and concerns about Russia’s strengthening relationships in Africa reveal its fears about the failure of its policy of isolating Russia. And, most importantly, the denial of Niger’s right to choose its own partners uncovers the lie behind America’s stated objectives in Ukraine.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net.