Less than a month ago, Russia’s growing presence in the Central African Republic (CAR) came to light after the controversial deaths of three Russian journalists who were investigating the Wagner Group, a private military company funded by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has close ties to President Vladimir Putin. The military cooperation agreement the Kremlin signed with the CAR on 21 August once again demonstrates that Russia’s influence is spreading both on unofficial and official levels through private military contractors and strengthened diplomatic ties, respectively.
This military deal is likely just the beginning of greater Russian military involvement in the CAR, as the United Nations (UN) recently lifted an arms embargo against the African country last year. Since then, Russia has deployed 175 military instructors and light arms to CAR security forces. The details of this new military agreement have not been divulged as of yet. However, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu stated at a state arms exhibition on 21 August that the agreement aims to “strengthen ties in the defence sphere.” Although little can be said regarding the military deal at this early stage, this new development in Russia and the CAR’s evolving relationship provides an opportunity to analyze whether Russia’s growing presence in the CAR, and in Africa more generally, bodes well for the region.
Although well-endowed with natural resources like diamonds, gold, oil, and uranium, the CAR’s population remains one of the world’s poorest. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), over 60% of the population are living in poverty. Following independence from France in 1960, the country has seen decades of conflict, most prominently between a primarily Muslim militant group, ex-Seleka, and a primarily Christian group, Anti-Balaka. Although the election of President Faustin Archange Touadéra in 2016 signifies progress towards peace and democracy, the CAR remains deeply challenged. Touadéra’s government mostly controls the capital, Bangui, while the rest of the country remains beyond official control, rife with violence that thinly spread UN peacekeeping forces are struggling to contain. Russia’s military deal comes at an important time for Touadéra’s government, as conflict only continues to escalate. In late 2017, intense fighting was only occurring in the eastern Haute-Kotto regions. However, violence has increased in the CAR’s central provinces of Ouaka, Basse-Kotto, and Bangui, and remains ongoing in the eastern and western regions. As French military intervention terminated in 2016, Moscow’s economic and military aid provides a tempting alternative to Western assistance, which often has stricter requirements.
For the most part, Russia’s strengthened ties with the CAR are likely to benefit the country, both economically and militarily. Following the first meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov and President Touadéra in October 2017, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs positively reported their joint “resolve to build up practical cooperation in the political, trade, economic, and cultural areas.” For the CAR, the military deal will be important in supporting Touadéra’s efforts to regain control over militia-dominated areas. Conversely, Russia is also likely to significantly benefit from Lavrov and Touadéra’s discussions of “considerable potential for partnership in mineral resources exploration.” Although these projects are clearly where Russia’s primary interest lies, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Artyom Kozhin reports that “these projects will [also] help stabilize the economic situation in CAR, promote the construction of the infrastructure, and serve as a basis for drawing additional investment to the country’s economy.”
Nonetheless, Moscow’s increased presence could also complicate the CAR’s present conflict. So far, Russia has mainly chosen to operate in the country through private military contractors, raising issues of accountability. This tactic is similar to Moscow’s strategy in Syria. The BBC reports that by indirectly using Wagner mercenaries, Moscow can officially deny responsibility for Russian casualties or the acts of private contractors on the ground. Although Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova chose not to disclose the affiliations of 170 civilian military instructors sent to the CAR this year, various Russian news sites, including The Bell and znak.com, have reported that Wagner is currently training CAR forces. Moreover, the New York Times reports that Western experts widely believe the civilian instructors to be associated with Wagner. The murky circumstances in which the three Russian journalists were killed last month while investigating Wagner’s connection to the CAR’s new military instructors already raises concerns regarding the involvement of Russian mercenaries in the CAR.
Beyond issues of accountability, Russia’s more prominent role in the CAR and many other African countries could also potentially increase tensions with Western powers. Following the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Moscow was forced to retreat from its positions across Africa, where it had been funding a proxy war with the West throughout the Cold War. Russia’s military deal with the CAR is just one of many new initiatives to expand the country’s influence across Africa again. These recent activities range from selling arms to Cameroon to holding stakes in Zimbabwe and Guinea’s mines to establishing military deals with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Angola, and Sudan. All too telling, recent coverage of Russia’s deals in Africa by a Russian state news agency, Ria Novosti, bore the headline: “Russia takes Africa without a fight.” The Washington Post reports that an in-country UN official believes this growing influence will raise security tensions, as France, the United States, and the European Union “didn’t expect the Russians stepping in.” While another proxy war with the West is unlikely at present, there is potential for African nations to once again be caught between the conflicting interests of larger powers. For now, however, Russia has framed its dealings with the CAR as “part of the common efforts of the international community… to normalize the situation and to provide a lasting solution to the drawn out internal armed conflict.”
Ultimately, although Russia’s involvement with the CAR could exacerbate these issues in the future, the most pressing need now is to resolve the CAR’s dire humanitarian crisis, caused by over four years of ongoing conflict. The UNDP reported last year that over 420,000 people have fled the country, and almost half the population require humanitarian assistance. Within a year, the number of civilians displaced by fighting has doubled, reaching 700,000. As the conflict has remained unresolved and even spread throughout the first half of 2018, it is likely these figures will only continue to rise.
A Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release issued in October 2017 re-affirmed support for joint efforts between CAR authorities and the international community to launch a “comprehensive process for the disarmament, demobilization and social re-integration of combatants.” Russia’s commitment to aid the CAR in economic growth, healthcare, and infrastructure bodes well for its future development. However, it is uncertain whether the recent military deal will help resolve current violence, particularly as the UN’s July report found that “the recent acquisition of weaponry by the Government has created an incentive for the active rearmament of ex-Selaka factions.” It is crucial that Russia and other international stakeholders bolster their support for non-conflict peace resolution methods like the African Union Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic, which was introduced last November and aims to organize an agreement between the government and the various militia groups operating in the CAR. Military deals will only fuel ongoing violence and threats to the security of the CAR’s civilians.
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