War and business: what does Russia want in the Central African Republic?

The Russian military presence in the Central African Republic is worrying the international community, with its paramilitary troops being accused of human rights violations in the region. Their presence is however linked to Moscow’s greater intentions of expanding its influence on the African continent.
Photo by FLORENT VERGNES/AFP

On 8 June 2021, the French government announced the suspension of its military cooperation and financial aid for the Central African Republic (CAR). This comes just a week after announcing a similar decision for its cooperation with Mali. While the latter has however been shaken by a political coup, France cites the Russian influence and “complicity” from the Central African government in a Russian anti-French campaign as its reasons for the suspension.

The Russian paramilitary presence in the CAR

Conflict in the CAR has never truly ceased since the civil war in 2013. The CAR has seen a brutal conflict take place between rebel forces and the government led by President Faustin Archange Touadera. The latter however controls only a third of the territory. This unstable situation in the country has led the UN to send a peace-keeping force, the MINUSCA. France equally had a military presence there, being already involved in counterterrorism missions in the Sahel zone.

Russia too is present in an undoubtedly military context. The soldiers on the territory are however not regular Russian armed forces on an official mission, but mercenaries. They belong to a so-called PMC (Private Military Company). It should be noted that PMCs, private companies that offer military services and employ fighting forces contractually, are officially banned in Russia. While the debate surrounding the legality and the problematics of PMCs is an issue too large to explore here, it adds to the obscure situation in the CAR. The paramilitary troops sent to the CAR are described as simple “instructors” for the Centralafrican armed forces (FACA) by Russia. However, reports and investigations have revealed that they may be far more active than the term “instructor” suggests.

The Wagner Group: operating in the shadows of legality  

Among the paramilitaries, the majority are sent to the territory by the “Wagner group”. As the best-known Russian PMC, the Wagner group is one of the most sensitive issues in Russian foreign politics; often, its very existence is simply denied. Allegedly funded by the oligarch and Putin ally Evgeny Prigozhin, Wagner mercenaries operate in a number of war zones and regions of conflict, among them the CAR.

Wagner has notably become a subject of discussion after allegations of severe human rights violations by its soldiers. Between December 2020 and April 2021, Wagner mercenaries are said to have committed acts such as torture, sexual violence and extra-judicial executions in the CAR. Similar allegations have been made against Wagner soldiers in Syria, ringing alarm bells for the UN.

Russian officials have maintained silence over these accusations and seem to be eager that others maintain silent too. A number of Russian investigative journalists working on finding out more about the paramilitaries have died in unclear circumstances. Journalist Maxim Borodin’s sudden death after falling from a balcony was considered a suicide by Russian authorities; the three journalists Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksander Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko were killed while investigating the group in the CAR in 2018. Up to this day, it is unclear why and by whom they were murdered.

Instead, efforts are made to cover all this up with propaganda. The Russian-produced film “Tourist”, allegedly directly financed by the Wagner Group, adds to the official narratives around the Russian mercenaries. Set in the CAR, the film depicts the Russian soldiers – Wagner is never directly mentioned however – as selfless instructors and war heroes, having come to save the African country from rebel forces. The term “tourist” is used in Russian to designate a soldier new to the battlefield.

Africa as a gold mine for Moscow

The military presence is however hardly explained by magnanimous intentions on Russia’s part; sending its mercenaries to the CAR hints at other interests in the background, for war is always business too. Aside from PMCs like Wagner sending their troops to the region, Russia is also sending weapons to the CAR government. While these deliveries – three so far in the last three years – are a “gift” according to Moscow, it is really an exchange for mining rights in the parts of the country controlled by Touadera’s regime. The CAR is known for its mineral-rich soil and its diamond mines. This factor shines a different light on the conflict and the foreign interests in the country.

It also forms part of a wider attempt to establish a significant Russian influence on the African continent. With the postcolonial withdrawal of European powers, Africa has in recent years become the playing field for a silent competition between other nations. Rivalling Russia, China is also looking to establish business and diplomatic relations in what is becoming a larger geopolitical competition for power. Under Putin, Russia has shown clear expansionary ambitions. Aside from territorial expansion such as the annexation of Crimea, it is also claiming military space in the Arctic and tightening business relations in Africa. Thus, the Russian activities on the continent rightfully represent an issue of worry for the international community. Reactions exist as France has proven – yet whether withdrawing and leaving the CAR to itself and to Moscow is the right choice, is another question.

Vocabulaire:

magnanimous = généreux

allegedly = prétendument

expansionary = expansionniste

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