Last October, in the balmy, Black Sea city of Sochi, a meeting took place that, at the time, seemed unremarkable—dull, even. But this get-together between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the President of the Central African Republic (CAR) set in motion one of the most intriguing and unexpected interventions of a major world power in Africa in recent years.
Immediately after their meeting, the Russian foreign ministry gave little away, saying the pair sought to "build up practical cooperation" and explore the "considerable potential for partnership in mineral resources exploration". By the end of the year, Russia was poised to send in military instructors and provide government forces there with light arms after securing an exemption from the United Nations to CAR’s arms embargo. Training and supplies are desperately needed by CAR’s army, which collapsed in the wake of a rebellion in 2013. Since then, numerous armed groups have committed atrocities, thousands have died and fighting continues across the country.
Russia’s push into CAR’s turmoil is just one of many gambits that it is making across Africa in a bid to restore and amplify Moscow’s power abroad. Kremlin influence in that continent has waned since the Soviet era, during which the Kremlin was a powerful backer of Communism there for decades. More recently, China has made huge inroads in Africa but President Vladimir Putin is now hoping to extend Moscow’s reach and gain more footholds by delivering military, technological and economic aid to African states neglected by the West.
This year, Russia has struck military co-operation deals not only with CAR, but also with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea and Mozambique. The thinking is that Moscow wants to cultivate a crescent of influence from the north to old Soviet allies further south, particularly as the Trump administration winds down American endeavours overseas. Cairo and Moscow have signed a $3.5 billion arms package and put together plans for Russian-built nuclear power facilities in Egypt. In neighbouring Libya, Putin backs General Khalifa Haftar, the eastern strongman at odds with the Western-backed government in Tripoli. And in Sudan, Moscow may secure a deal to supply Khartoum with Russian-made jets and an air-defence system. Thousands of miles to the south, Lavrov made a tour earlier this year to several countries once aligned with the Soviets, including Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The agenda? More arms deals, energy projects and mining.
A land rich in diamonds, gold and uranium, CAR has become the new ground-zero of Russia’s renewed interest in cultivating African clients. The UN ranks this former French colony as the world’s least-developed country, one that has been wracked for decades following by coups and rebellions. Upwards of 75 percent of the country falls outside of government control, held instead by violent armed groups. Such unrest makes CAR an appealing vacuum into which Moscow can inject itself.
However, Moscow is going well beyond its initial remit to donate weapons. A Russian security advisor has got a job with CAR’s President, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Convoys of Russian military vehicles have been reported across the country. Military instructors are understood to have joined personal from CAR’s armed forces on patrol in volatile areas, with Russian officers holding talks with senior rebels. And mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked private military contractor, Wagner, are widely suspected to have been deployed in numerous areas. Past clandestine operations include supporting separatist militants in eastern Ukraine and regime forces in Syria.
The presence of a UN Security Council permanent member in Africa is nothing new. France and the UK have long benefited from ties to the continent following decades of colonial rule. The US has large contingents of troops there and was a key player in proxy conflicts against the Soviets. And China’s manoeuvres across the continent—issuing huge loans, building massive infrastructure projects, deploying soldiers in peacekeeping missions—is well documented. The success and longevity of these various rival and overlapping power-projection games waits to be seen.
“It's a shift from ‘Francafrique’ to ‘Euroafrique’ where key African states are becoming equal partners rather than just subaltern satellites”, says Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in European studies at King’s College London. Russian forces are blundering into this and making swift headway, but what if Paris pushes back.
“Everyone always says France is despised in these societies but when the chips are down, it's suddenly able to pull levers and flip contacts that opponents aren't even aware of,” adds Clarkson. “If the Russians aren't aware of the reach of French [military and intelligence] networks, then they're in for a shock.”