The most alarming inroads have come in African countries where leaders are seeking to consolidate power, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, told lawmakers Thursday, adding Russia seems to have its sights set on areas that could give them an edge over U.S. allies.
"It's, I think, clear that's their strategy along the northern part of Africa, southern part of NATO, the Mediterranean, to have influence inside of Libya, for example," Waldhauser told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But he warned the Kremlin’s designs go even further, pointing to Russian inroads in the Central African Republic, where the Russian military firm Wagner has stationed about 175 mercenaries.
"The individuals are actually in the president's cabinet and they're influencing the training," Waldhauser said.
In addition, the Russian military itself sent 500 trainers to CAR, along with weapons, helping to train 1,000 soldiers as of September of last year.
Despite concerns from some CAR officials and the international community, Russia’s overall effort has been welcomed.
"We are a country that has endured a grave crisis, and we are returning with great difficulty because we don’t have the means to control everything that happens in our territory," CAR Defense Minister Marie-Noelle Koyara told VOA’s French to Africa service this past October.
"We want a professional army that will truly be of service to the people," she said.
Hunting for access
U.S. military commanders, however, worry that Russia’s outreach is increasingly part of an effort to gain access to raw materials, like mineral deposits, as well as leverage.
"Russian interests gain access to natural resources on favorable terms," Waldhauser noted in his prepared testimony, warning that CAR elected leaders continue to "mortgage mineral rights — for a fraction of their worth — to secure Russian weapons."
"We're concerned that that model might be looked at or viewed positively by other countries," Waldhauser told lawmakers.
"To a large degree it's still a matter of influence, especially in areas we're not in or especially in areas where they could say the United States, or the U.K. or Western partners, are perhaps backing away," he said.
'Toxic mix' of threats
Waldhauser's warning followed similar statements from top intelligence officials who testified last week that the U.S. is facing a "toxic mix" of threats, including a synergistic approach from Russia and China to gain influence in Africa at Washington's expense.
"The Chinese bring the money and the Russians bring the muscle," he told lawmakers, referencing a recent quote from a presidential candidate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
U.S. military officials also worry that Beijing, too, is likely to become more ambitious when it comes to flexing its military might across Africa.
China currently has a single military base in Africa, in Djibouti, but its military forces have been increasingly active in U.N. peacekeeping missions. And, officials say, they continue to eye additional ports as they look to expand their economic presence.
"The Chinese work hard at developing and maintaining relationships with the senior officials of the governments inside the African continent," Waldhauser said. "They come with a full plan."
"If we want to maintain influence, we kind of need to up our engagement," he added.