When Central African Republic (CAR) pleaded for help last year to fight marauding militias, former colonial ruler France offered guns it seized in Somalia. Russia objected and donated its own weapons.
By early February, Russia sent nine aircraft with weapons along with dozens of contractors to train local soldiers and secure mining projects, marking the start of its highest-profile military foray into sub-Saharan Africa for decades.
Muscling in on a country dominated by France for years served as a statement of intent about Moscow’s renewed push for global prestige and influence and is part of a wider campaign shaking up longstanding power dynamics on the continent.
Since Western nations sanctioned Russia for annexing Crimea in 2014, Moscow signed 19 military co-operation deals in sub-Saharan Africa, including with Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe according to its foreign and defence ministries and state media.
The continent’s 54 member states at the United Nations – three of which sit on the Security Council at any given time – form the organisation’s largest voting bloc and one of its most coherent, making attractive allies for Russia.
“The West is not much loved by many countries. And many see Russia as the country to oppose the West,” said Dmitri Bondarenko, an anthropologist and historian at Russia’s Institute for African Studies.
Apart from sending arms and contractors to CAR, Russian national Valery Zakharov is a security adviser to President Faustin-Archange Touadera. Russia’s defence ministry said last week it planned to establish a five-person team at the CAR defence ministry.
Russia’s moves come at a time when the defence ministry’s influence over Kremlin foreign policy is growing against a backdrop of heightened tension with the West.
When CAR made its plea in 2017, there was recognition a spike in ethnic fighting could turn into a larger conflict and its security forces were too weak to tackle myriad armed groups.
CAR has been under a UN arms embargo since 2013 so weapons shipments must be approved by the UN Security Council’s CAR sanctions committee, made up of the Council’s 15 members, including France and Russia. It operates by consensus.
France first offered to help CAR buy old weapons but it was too expensive. France then offered 1,400 AK47 assault rifles it seized in Somalia in 2016, according to a Security Council memo and four diplomats.
Russia objected on the grounds weapons seized for breaching the UN arms embargo on Somalia could not be recycled for use in another country under embargo, two diplomats said.
Mindful of the need for a quick solution, the sanctions committee approved Moscow’s donation of AK47s, sniper rifles, machineguns and grenade launchers in December, according to committee documents and diplomats.
“We presented our problem and Russia offered help, subject to Security Council approval,” said Albert Yaloke Mokpeme, CAR’s presidential spokesman. “If peace is restored tomorrow in CAR, I think everyone will be happy.”
Russia’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment about committee proceedings.
France’s foreign ministry said Russia must respect the terms of its arms embargo exemption to keep the weapons out of the wrong hands.
‘WE’RE NOT INTERESTED’
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union forged military and diplomatic ties with many African countries. It was involved in proxy wars in states such as Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique and helped independence movements fight Western colonial powers.
Russia is now trying to revive some relationships that lapsed after the Soviet Union’s collapse. It joins countries such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates looking to set up bases in Africa mediate in diplomatic stand-offs and strike business deals.
China has long had a major economic presence in Africa but has shied away from military involvement. It went a step further last year opening its first military base outside China in Djibouti.
Near the world’s busiest shipping lanes, Djibouti is also home to a large French base, the only US base in Africa, an Italian camp and Japan’s only overseas base.
Djibouti blocked Russian attempts to set up a base saying it wanted to avoid becoming the terrain for a proxy war. Moscow now plans to build a logistics centre at a port in neighbouring Eritrea.
While France has military bases outside Djibouti in former colonies Gabon, Ivory Coast and Senegal and its soldiers operate in Chad, Mali and Niger, analysts say Washington’s influence is on the wane.
Its trade with the continent halved in the past decade, much of that is due to US shale replacing oil imports from Africa. Diplomatic posts have gone unfilled and a task force based in CAR tracking warlord Joseph Kony left last year.
“Our actions on the diplomatic and military side sent a signal to our partners we’re not interested in Africa,” said Donald Bolduc, who commanded US Special Forces across the continent until last year.
US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy said Washington’s commitment to Africa was unwavering adding “there is space for other countries to play a positive role in the region”.
As part of Russia’s renewed push, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did a five-nation tour of Africa in March, attended a summit in South Africa in June and visited Rwanda, chair of the African Union, this year.
Russia also struck military co-operation deals with a number of African countries since 2015, though some have yet to come into force. Agreements typically involve providing weapons and training in areas such as counter-terrorism and piracy.
Analysts caution the deals often appear more symbolic than transformative and say it’s not clear if Russia has the resources, or desire, to continue expanding its presence.
As in the Cold War, military deals can come alongside economic links, such as mining and energy agreements. Ethiopia signed its deal in April, a month after Lavrov visited to discuss nuclear energy, agriculture and transportation projects.
Russian firms signed mineral deals in Sudan, which co-operates with Moscow in defence technology and Russia is looking at diamond and platinum projects in Zimbabwe as well as energy projects in Chad.
Over the past decade, Russian trade with sub-Saharan Africa increased fast, albeit from a low base. From 2010-2017, total trade rose to $4.2 billion a year from $1.6 billion, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies www.csis.org.
During the same period, China’s total trade with sub-Saharan Africa nearly doubled to $165 billion while US trade more than halved to $37 billion.
Since arriving in CAR, the Russians’ remit expanded beyond military advice into economic and diplomatic activities, a Western diplomat and security source said, fuelling the beginnings of a Western backlash.
In August, France, the United Kingdom and the United States blocked a Russian request to send more weapons. The US mission to the United Nations said in a note to the sanctions committee it was awaiting, “confirmation measures were taken to ensure the secure management of the previous donation”.
Estimates of the number of Russians in CAR vary widely, from 250 to 1,000. Touadera’s spokesman declined to provide details, nor say what activities the Russians were engaged in.
Yevgeny Shabayev, head of a chapter of a paramilitary Cossack organisation with ties to Russian security contractors, said there could be 1,000 in CAR and 5,000 to 10,000 across Africa, including Sudan, South Sudan and Libya.
A Russian private military contractor, the Wagner group, was thrust into the spotlight in July when three Russian journalists were killed in CAR while investigating its alleged presence there.
Reuters has been unable to confirm whether Wagner contractors are in CAR. People with ties to the group told Reuters it carried out clandestine combat missions on the Kremlin’s behalf in Ukraine and Syria.
Russian authorities deny Wagner contractors carry out their orders. They denied any role in the journalists’ deaths.
Russia also stepped into negotiations with militias in CAR, adding to Western misgivings about its presence.
According to a UN panel of experts, Touadera’s Russian adviser met militia leaders several times to discuss disarmament and distribution of natural resources revenue.
Russia said in August after brokering talks between armed groups Touadera expressed his gratitude for its involvement and it intended to continue mediation.
Reuters was unable to contact the adviser, Zakharov, for comment.
“There is a real division between that guy and the rest of the presidential advisers,” the security source said. “When you ask, ‘Can we see your colleague?’ they say, ‘Who, our colleague? We don’t know him’.”