NATO vs. Russia: A War to Win Mauritania’s Heart?

February 22, 2023

Winning Mauritania could be a game changer for Russia in its war with the West.
President of Mauritania Mohamed Ould Sheikh Ghazouani meets with European Council President Charles Michel in Brussels, Belgium on June 21, 2022. Photo by Anadolu Images.


hen Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Mauritania on February 7, 2023, following a tour of Asia and Africa, his visit was barely covered by the international media. The visit, however, is important due to its timing and location. Mauritania, with a strategic location in the Sahel region, understands its role and position and tries to maximize its interests and achieve its goals by bargaining its ties with both NATO and Russia.

Salem Ould Merzoug, Mauritania’s foreign minister, received Lavrov at Nouakchott International Airport. Following the meeting, Lavrov held talks and discussed bilateral relations with the Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. What makes the visit particularly important is that it comes during the Russia-Ukraine war and following a visit to Mali, Moscow’s new ally in the Sahel region, after the withdrawal of European forces, primarily French ones, from the country.

Russia has a strong presence in Mali now represented through the Wagner forces which contribute to maintaining its interests and providing security services to the Malian government.

The visit thus aims to expand Russia’s ties with more countries in North Africa, after NATO did so recently by inviting Mauritania to its Madrid Summit on June 28-30, 2022 as a non-NATO partner, along with Jordan. The Russia-Ukraine war has triggered a widescale campaign by Russia to strengthen ties with African countries in order to achieve more gains in its competition with the United States and NATO. By having stronger ties with Africa, Russia aims to promote its narrative regarding the war in Ukraine and establish military, political, and economic ties with African countries, including Mauritania.

Complex international scene

The visit by Lavrov to Mauritania comes at a “complex international scene,” says Mauritania researcher Al-Hussian Mohammed Omar, as “Moscow has entered Africa through the gates of Mali and Burkina Faso, as both countries have asked France to withdraw from their soil after Russian intervention in various fields including economic and security.”

Sanctions on Russia due to the Ukraine war, according to Omar, have also contributed to the Russian move, as Moscow is in search of new economic opportunities to evade Western sanctions. Omar adds that with the Russian presence in Mali through the Wagner group, only Mauritania is left for Russia to have a direct connection with Western interests in the Atlantic.

The Russian efforts in Mauritania are important in the sense that NATO has offered to build a military base in the country, which will turn Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, into a strategic actor in the region, and it seems that Mauritania would not risk its ties with NATO in return for ties with Russia, which is now shackled by Western sanctions.

Media outlets in Mauritania didn’t cover the visit and international journalists were not allowed into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This could be attributed to Nouakchott’s fear that the head of Russian diplomacy, Lavrov, might make statements that could cause tensions in the country’s ties with the West.

Established ties between Mauritania and Russia

Mauritanian President Ghazouani visited Russia in 2019 to take part in the Africa-Russia summit. Mauritania’s Minister of Defense Yahya Ould Hademine vsited Moscow in July 2022, and signed a military collaboration agreement with Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin, the Russian deputy minister of defense.

During a press conference by Merzoug and Lavrov in Nouakchott, Merzoug expressed understanding for “Russia’s security concerns,” while stressing the importance of respecting the rules of international law.

Mauritania has strong economic ties with Russia: it imports $31 million worth of wheat from Moscow annually and exports $95 million worth of fish products. In 2020, Russian exports to Mauritania amounted to $37.6 million.

Lavrov concluded his Africa visit by visiting Sudan on February 9, 2023, as part of Moscow’s efforts to expand its influence in Africa. Despite the importance of other African countries in Moscow’s strategy in Africa especially after the Ukraine war, winning Mauritania could be a game changer for Moscow in its war with the West due to Mauritania’s strategic location. The competition between NATO and Russia is likely to continue, and Nouakchott is only the most recent episode between the two global powers.

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