The Kremlin’s Campaign in the Central African Republic

Western sanctions on Russia since 2014 have pushed the Kremlin to build new alliances and find new partners by building upon old Soviet-time relationships in sub-Saharan Africa. The small impoverished and violence-riddled nation could play a key role in Moscow’s Africa agenda and global aspirations.

Russia’s interest in the Central African Republic (CAR) was recently thrust into the spotlight again when Moscow dispatched 300 Russian instructors, following an official request from the CAR government, in response to the formation of an anti-government coalition by three rebel groups ahead of the country’s elections. 

Since 2018, Moscow has led both a diplomatic and financial push in the war-torn mineral-rich country in return for highly lucrative concessions. Russia’s foray into the CAR and its increasing military cooperation with Bangui could one day lead towards the establishment of a permanent Russian military base which would in turn boost the Kremlin’s Africa agenda.

 

Russia’s Military Involvement in the CAR    

The CAR, which has been wracked by violence, has seen Russia’s military ties increased over the past couple of years after Moscow was authorised by the United Nations, despite the 2013 Security Council arms embargo, to provide the country’s armed forces with light weapons and training as part of a multinational effort to enforce peace and security and boost the CAR’s armed forces capabilities.   

Since then, Moscow has had a proactive role in the volatile country, dispatching plane loads of weapons and light armoured vehicles to the poorly equipped military, and sending at least 175 military advisors - before further deploying an additional 300 to help counter a surge in violence ahead of the December elections - in order to train the CAR armed forces as well as its gendarme and police forces. Both countries eventually signed a military cooperation pact in August 2018 that would deepen Moscow’s involvement in the CAR’s fight against militias which control most of the country. 

 

Tracking Russian BRDM-2 armoured vehicles delivered to the CAR’s armed forces. Copyright: European Security Journal

 

Moscow has recently sent five members of the Russian military, including senior military officer Oleg Polguev who will serve as an advisor to the CAR’s defence ministry, to establish a Russian defence ministry’s representative office in the country. Additionally, a former Russian intelligence official with close ties to the FSB and to the infamous Yevgeny Prigozhin also known as “Putin’s chef”, Valery Zakharov, has been appointed as the national security advisor to the CAR President to possibly ensure his continued allegiance to Moscow.

 

There could be up to 1,000 Russian-speaking contractors in the country tasked with protecting Russian-operated gold and diamond mines, training the local armed forces in centres across the country, and ensuring the protection of CAR President Touadéra.”

 

More importantly, Moscow heavily relies on Russian private military contractors as a hybrid instrument to exert its influence in the country and alleviate Moscow’s burden. The CAR has become a hotspot for Wagner Group-affiliated PMCs deployment in Sub-Saharan Africa. While impossible to verify, there could be up to 1,000 Russian-speaking contractors in the country tasked with protecting Russian-operated gold and diamond mines, training the local armed forces in centres across the country, and ensuring the protection of CAR President Touadéra, plus recent indications of direct participation in military operations against local rebel groups. General Thomas Waldhauser, former commander of US Africa Command, stated that Wagner has also been involved in influence activities at “the highest levels of government to include the president”.  

In exchange, the mercenary group’s driving force Yevgeny Prigozhin, who also has ties to mining and logistic companies operating in the CAR and who also took part in peace talks with rebel militias, obtained lucrative mining concessions as well as other economic benefits for his services.  

 

Identifying Wagner Group-affiliated PMCs activities in the CAR. Copyright: European Security Journal

 

Why Such Involvement?  

During the Cold War, the USSR faced the US in an intense geopolitical struggle in sub-Saharan Africa, competing with its geopolitical contender and ideological foe to win over newly independent nations and hoping to gain ideological allies in the region. 

While post-soviet Russia initially showed little interest in the sub-continent, Putin revived Moscow’s ambition to renew Soviet-time ties and play a greater geopolitical role in several African nations, including the CAR.

The Kremlin’s strategy has thus far been a “low-cost, high-profile way” of increasing Russian presence. Leaked documents obtained by The Guardian further reveal Moscow’s aspirations as they illustrate Putin’s efforts to bolster Russia’s relations with at least 13 countries by striking military agreements and forging diplomatic ties with country leaders. 

 

“Putin revived Moscow’s ambition to renew Soviet-time ties and play a greater geopolitical role in several African nations, including the CAR.”

 

This strategy also allows Russia to present itself as an attractive alternative to France and the UK, both former colonial powers, all the while competing with a dominant China as well as a retreating US from a continent which, more than ever, deserves western attention.  

The choice of the CAR is far from surprising. Similarly to other African nations Moscow has its eyes set on the CAR, which while dangerously unstable, does act as a buffer zone between the Muslim North and the Christian South. Its geographical location and cultural features have a potential of acting as a crucial gateway to the entire continent, allowing Russia to expand its influence while profiting from the country’s abundance in natural resources.

Furthermore, the CAR is part of a larger diplomatic effort aimed at gaining the support of most of the sub-Saharan African States which would lead to an increased support at the UN hence upholding Russia’s diplomatic posture. This would allow Russia to gain leverage on the West following its involvement in Eastern Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Crimea. In other words, by courting African nations and heavily investing in their security and development, Russia is ultimately enjoying newly found loyalty in the sub-continent.

Additionally, the context of the ongoing civil war and recent resurgence of violence are threatening the politically weak government, have fragilised the country’s already vulnerable security environment making it an easy prey to foreign powers seeking to exploit political instability for their own geopolitical agendas and pushing for global prestige and influence. 

Lastly, the Kremlin aims to economically profit from a Russia-CAR rapprochement by gaining access to natural resources such as gold, diamonds, large deposits of uranium and other valuable minerals all the while boosting its own exports, a financial incentive brought up by Putin himself as he met a CAR delegation in Sochi in October 2019 and spoke of the importance of mutually beneficial trade and economic relations between both countries. 

 

Towards a Permanent Russian Presence in the CAR?  

Africa has become an attractive market for Russian manufactured weaponry, a lucrative source of income for the Russian economy. Simultaneously, the CAR is among one of the many African states that, in recent years, have been supplied with advisers and mercenaries to help quell rebel violence that has plagued the country since the civil war broke out in 2012.

Russia’s involvement will, should it bring tangible results, be seen by many Central Africans as necessary to return to some form of stability. Should Moscow be successful, public opinion will increasingly become accepting towards a more visible Russian presence in the country as a guarantor of security and stability. 

This presence could possibly come through the establishment of a permanent Russian military base in the country. CAR President Touadéra had already led many to believe that the option was on the table, despite Moscow denying that both countries had discussed the matter, following the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi aimed at expanding its security presence and political influence in the continent.

 

“Russian presence could possibly come through the establishment of a permanent Russian military base in the country.”

 

While Russia undeniably lags far behind the US which enjoys a network of 29 bases located in 15 different countries stretching from one side of Africa to the other, it has concluded military agreements with a couple dozen of African governments since 2015, which typically involves the supply of weapons and training of armed forces and of local security forces, and plans on building military bases in at least 6 of them, including the CAR, according to a leaked German Foreign Ministry report shared by the German newspaper Bild.  

A similar scenario to Sudan, where Russia recently announced the establishment of a permanent naval supply base, does not seem so far-fetched after all. In Zakharov’s own words, “Russia is returning to Africa” and the CAR could well become a blueprint for Russia’s low risk high-yield strategy of re-asserting itself as a major player in the region with other African nations potentially following suit.

 

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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