What Russia Wants from the Central African Republic

Russia is pursuing three strategic objectives in the CAR.

Despite the recent focus of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, Moscow’s political adventurism extends well beyond the fence of its own backyard and reaches as far as Central Africa. After Sudan and Eritrea, Moscow is now engaging with the strategically located and resource-rich Central African Republic (CAR). Here, the Kremlin is placing another high-risk, high-return bet attempting to become the lynchpin of the country’s political and economic balances.

Central African Republic has been going through turbulent times. In 2012, Seleka rebels overthrew the legitimate government, their leader, Michael Djotodia, declaring himself president. Over the two years that followed, a civil war brought roughly 5,000 casualties and displaced more than a million people. After the UN deployed 12,000 peacekeepers to stop the violence, Faustin Archange Touadéra won the 2016 presidential elections. However, vast portions of the country are still under rebel control, and in 2018 CAR ranks 188th out of 189 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index.

Thanks to its experience in complex operational contexts, the Kremlin is now navigating and exploiting such highly volatile environments for its benefit. Moscow has committed to help the CAR regain political stability. But this type of assistance from foreign powers never comes for free; in fact, Russia is pursuing three strategic objectives.

The first is political clout. Every resource deployed by Moscow in the CAR is also an asset to project influence in the country and consequently advance Russia’s interests in the region. As an example, Russian national Valery Zakharov was appointed special security adviser to President Touadera. On the one hand, Zakharov is going to bring precious expertise that the country needs to protect its government. On the other hand, it also gives Kremlin great leverage on the CAR’s security and defense policies.

By the same token, Artyom Kozhin, deputy director of the Information and Press Department of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, stated that Moscow is providing Bangui with free military and technical assistance, including five military officers and 170 civilian instructors, along with more than 5,000 AK-47s, sniper rifles and grenade launchers. This allows the Kremlin to touch other points of pressure in the CAR state apparatus; not by chance, Russia’s Ministry of Defense recently declared that it’s planning to place a five-person team inside its counterpart in Bangui.

But that is not all: Russia is using its relationship with the legitimate government as a foothold in the country to establish contacts with rebel leaders, including former self-declared president, Michael Djotodia. In March, Russian representatives met the head of the Seleka faction and, according to unverified sources, Russian officials even proposed to mediate between the rebel leaders and the central government.

Russia’s second strategic goal is economic gain. Indeed, Moscow’s military assistance to the government might turn into profitable defense-technology contracts. However, Russia already seized other shorter-term opportunities, obtaining mining exploration concessions that in the past had been assigned to China. The Central African Republic is rich in oil, diamonds, gold and uranium that Russia can extract, and the CAR government could need expensive Russian equipment to mine and process raw materials. In addition, Russia is negotiating with rebel leaders for access to important reserves of natural resources located in territories outside of government-controlled areas.

Finally, Moscow’s third goal is showcasing its ability to sustain — and win — the geopolitical struggle against the US, China and the European Union. To do this, projecting power abroad is essential, and even better on a global scale. In other words, power projection is not only a way to achieve political clout and economic gains for Moscow, but also an end in itself. Apparently, Russian efforts in the Central African Republic are paying off: Not only has Russia gained foothold in the country, but it has also outperformed its geopolitical competitors. Since Touadéra’s election, the US, China and the EU funneled more than $300 million, $152 million and $500 million in the CAR respectively, though none of them reaped important benefits in return. Conversely, with the opportunism that characterizes its foreign policy, Moscow is making the most out of its relatively small investment. However, it remains to be seen whether Russia’s striving to become the puppet master of CAR’s political and economic balances will prove sustainable in the long run, especially considering that the Kremlin is making deals with both the official government and the rebels.

Russia is experiencing a marked military fatigue due to its operations underway in other theaters like Syria. This is where the African interests of Moscow and oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin — owner of Russian private military company Wagner — intersect. Wagner deployed its contractors in CAR to alleviate Moscow’s burden, obtaining mining concessions in return. Three journalists working on a documentary about Wagner’s mysterious deals in CAR were killed there in July; a colleague investigating their death is recovering from apparent poisoning.

Moreover, it is not clear to what extent the Kremlin has the capability to back its foreign policy so far away from the motherland. A relevant element of this equation is whether Russia and China will manage to coexist in Central Africa, where both hold stakes. For China, Russia’s presence in the region is as ambiguous as the bilateral relations between the two countries. At the moment, Moscow and Beijing are experiencing a period of geopolitical alignment, due to their shared rivalry against the United States. As long as this alignment exists, the two powers will try to divide the spoils of the African continent. However, this caveat demonstrates that the Sino-Russian partnership is tactical, not strategic, and that the African interests of the Chinese dragon and the Russian bear could soon overlap.

*[This article has been updated on October 27, 2018.]

 The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Francesco Calzoni