After largely withdrawing from Africa in the wake of the Soviet collapse, Russia is starting to return to the continent in surprising ways. Since December, Moscow has struck major deals in the Central African Republic (CAR) with the government and rebel leaders, raising questions about its intentions in the troubled African nation.
In December, Russia asked the U.N. Security Council to let it supply weapons to CAR’s new EU-trained army. After some objections by France, Russia secured an exception to the U.N. arms embargo, and began shipping weapons in January. By year’s end, Russia intends to deliver 5,200 rifles, a variety of other light weapons, and some 170 civilian instructors.
In late March, CAR president Faustin-Archange Touadéra appeared in public with a Russian personal guard, a supplement to the Rwandan bodyguards assigned to him by the U.N. peacekeeping mission. At least 40 Russian Special Forces troops — and perhaps mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner group — are in-country to protect the president, with more reportedly on the way. Presidential spokesperson Albert Yaloke-Mokpem told Jeune Afrique that the Russians “work at all levels and are there to observe and train the presidential guard.”
President Touadéra has a number of incentives to work with Russia rather than France or the United States. Russia’s aid in arming the CAR’s military is a huge boon for the chronically underfunded state. The EU training mission in CAR has been agonizingly slow, leaving an underequipped and undertrained military to face a deteriorating security situation. Russian instructors, while certainly less concerned with the moral or ethical dilemmas of war, may give Touadéra the military he needs to combat the rebel groups across the country.
The presence of Russian guards also helps protect the President from coup or assassination. In April, an armed group attacked the U.N. base near the Presidential residence, likely in retaliation for U.N. and Central African efforts to uproot the militias hiding in the capital city of Bangui. It seems the clash spooked the president. His personal guard have stepped up patrols in the area and he’s requested even more Russian Special Forces troops.
The President is also mistrustful of the Western military presence in the country. While the U.N. and Central African forces battle armed groups in the capital and further afield, the President’s team is more concerned with resisting the West. The international community’s support for Touadéra has been flagging due to the slow progress of the country’s reconstruction, and his cabinet has taken it to heart. One presidential adviser told Jeune Afrique that he thinks “westerners are able to organize the fall of Touadéra” and coyly indicated that the president is “conscious of the things that are being engineered against him.” The situation is a win-win from Touadéra’s perspective: Russia gains regional influence and the President feels secure from the perceived threat of the U.N.
But Touadéra may have more to fear from the Russians than he thinks. From January to March, Russian officials met with at least three major rebel leaders in the country. Two of them —Michel Djotodia, a former president of CAR; and Noureddine Adam, who leads the Renaissance of the Central African Republic group — are currently subject to sanctions from the United States and U.N. respectively for their roles in the 2013 coup d’état and subsequent reign of terror that brought about the country’s current humanitarian crisis. If the Russians are pinning their aspirations on Touadéra, then Moscow’s cooperation with the President’s enemies is strange indeed.
It could be economics. Rebel groups control most of the country, including areas rich in oil, uranium, and diamonds. Indeed, Djotodia’s March meeting with the Russians reportedly concerned access to platinum and mercury deposits on his land. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement indicating that Moscow intended to work with the government to secure mining concessions, but since Touadéra is unlikely to negotiate peace or retake the land outright, Russia may be attempting to acquire the resources it desires through other means.
On the other hand, Russia’s actions put it in a unique position to wield political influence in the country. By arming the country’s military, conducting business deals with rebel groups and ensuring the personal safety of the President, Russia can now pursue its interests, financial or otherwise, much more effectively. Unlike other actors in the region such as Rwanda or Chad, Russia’s engagement is independent of the U.N. and will have a freer hand to operate or play kingmaker if the peacekeeping mission withdraws.
Russia’s destabilizing presence is a cause for concern for American policymakers. At a time when U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley seeks to dramatically cut the peacekeeping budget, the mission to CAR — the U.N.’s third intervention in 20 years — has proven to be a money sink. The already precarious security situation also leaves the country unprepared to deal should a deepening Ebola outbreak in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo cross the border.
An unstable CAR also provides a haven for armed groups such as Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a terrorist group the U.S. has been hunting since 2008, and the Janjaweed Militias, which perpetrated much of the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan. Rebel groups from neighboring Chad — a key counterterror partner for the U.S. in Africa — also frequently hide in CAR to gather strength.
It is unclear how France, which has even more interest in CAR’s affairs, will respond to these events. The former colonial power has been politically active in CAR since the country’s independence, and was one of the key actors in the country after the U.N. unseated Djotodia in 2014. But two years later, France withdrew most of the soldiers that had been supporting the U.N. mission in CAR, although some 900 remain as a “rapid-reaction” force, ostensibly to assist the U.N. as necessary. France apparently tried to supply weapons to the CAR government, but was denied an exception to the U.N. embargo by Russia, who offered their own arms instead.
France may be concerned that Russia will challenge its position as CAR’s unofficial patron, but the French may also be timid about asserting itself in the current political climate. The French Embassy in CAR was forced to release a statement this week expressing its full support for the U.N. after armed groups in the capital city of Bangui began hanging French flags and handing out flyers announcing that they were fighting the U.N. peacekeepers with French political support. Cognizant of the attention French action receives in its former colonies, the French may not overtly oppose Russia’s growing influence for some time.
Moscow’s intentions in CAR are still unclear. Supporting both the government and the rebels puts Russia in a prime position to wield influence in the country, but there does not seem to be an obvious reason to support both when backing either one could gain Russia access to the country’s minerals. Whatever Moscow’s endgame might be, capitalizing on CAR’s insecurity and the international community’s inaction is giving Russia unprecedented influence in a country traditionally aligned with the West and rich in natural resources.