As violence intensifies in the Central African Republic, Russia is expanding its military and diplomatic involvement in the conflict.
On 22 December, Russia expanded its military intervention in the Central African Republic (CAR) by deploying 300 military instructors to the war-torn country. Russia dispatched these instructors at the request of CAR’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who feared that former President François Bozizé would derail the 27 December elections through a coup d’état. After Touadéra was re-elected via a relatively peaceful election process, Russia announced the withdrawal of these instructors on 15 January. However, Russian private military contractors (PMCs) remain active in CAR and on 26 January, they helped CAR troops kill 44 rebels.
Russia’s influence in CAR has grown considerably since 2017. In March 2018, Russian media outlet Znak revealed that the Wagner Group operated a facility in Krasnodar which trained PMCs for combat in CAR. The Russian Foreign Ministry admits to a military presence in the latter, and claims that Russia wishes to ‘strengthen the national security units of CAR’ and secure mutually beneficial mining contracts. However, Wagner Group PMCs also serve as bodyguards for CAR political elites and Valery Zakharov, a former Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) official, is Touadéra’s national security adviser.
As CAR was not a client state of the Soviet Union and has been embroiled in a state of civil war since December 2012, the depth of Russia’s involvement there is intriguing. Russia’s strategy towards CAR consists of three objectives.
First, Russia views its military intervention as a means of expanding its diplomatic leverage there and reducing France’s long-term influence. In order to maximise its influence, Russia has forged a robust security partnership with Touadéra’s regime and maintained backchannels with ex-Seleka rebels that dominate CAR’s northern regions. This hedging strategy mirrors Russia’s conduct in Libya, as Moscow militarily supports the Libyan National Army chief, Khalifa Haftar, while engaging with other rival factions.
Due to its diverse array of local partners, Russia has emerged as an indispensable diplomatic arbiter in CAR’s protracted conflict. Prior to Omar Al-Bashir’s overthrow as Sudan’s president in April 2019, Russian diplomacy complemented Khartoum’s efforts to construct a ‘Central African opposition alliance’. This plan sought to ease tensions between CAR’s ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka rebels. Russia also played a vital role in constructing the February 2019 peace agreement, which united Touadéra’s government and 14 non-state armed groups around the cause of peace. Through active cooperation with the African Union and the UN on national reconciliation in CAR, Russia has burnished its reputation as a diplomatic arbiter in sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition to bolstering its status and placing itself at the front of the line for mining sector contracts, Russia has used military force and diplomacy to counter France’s longstanding influence in CAR. France was the dominant international player during the first years of the civil war. However, the end of Operation Sangaris in October 2016 opened the door for greater Russian influence. Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean, director of Ifri’s Russia-NIS Center, described Russia’s presence in CAR as ‘one of the main irritants’ in Franco–Russian relations and stated that there is ‘no talk of cooperation’ between France and Russia in the country.
Russian media outlets have expressed frustration with France’s unwillingness to recognise what Moscow sees as its stabilising role in CAR. Due to these tensions, Russia has blocked France from transferring arms from Somalia to CAR, as it claims that these transfers violate the UN arms embargo. Russia is also embroiled in an information war with France in the country, as Yevgeny Prigozhin-aligned Facebook profiles bolster Touadéra’s standing and counter messages from French government-aligned social media accounts.
Second, Russia wishes to challenge the UN-backed sanctions regime against CAR, as these measures undermine Russia’s commercial interests. Its opposition to UN sanctions surfaced during the early stages of CAR’s civil war. In April 2014, Russia obstructed a US and France-led effort in the UN Security Council (UNSC) to impose sanctions on Bozizé and two of his political allies. More recently, Russia has reluctantly voted for UN resolutions extending sanctions on CAR but has lobbied aggressively for exemptions to the arms embargo and restrictions on CAR diamond exports.
In early 2018, the UN allowed Russia to donate light weaponry to CAR. This exemption resulted in Moscow’s transfer of two arms tranches to Touadéra’s regime. This breakthrough caused Russia to step up its challenge to the UN arms embargo. In September 2019, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov claimed that Russia was negotiating with France and other UN partners on expansive measures to ease the arms embargo. The breakdown of these negotiations caused a standoff at the UN in January 2020. Russia threatened to lift the arms embargo entirely and proposed a rival UNSC resolution to counter France’s embargo proposal. Russia and China ultimately abstained from the UN arms embargo, which rankled France. These tensions suggest that this will remain a contentious issue.
Russia has also lobbied for a more expansive easing of UN sanctions against CAR’s diamond industry. In 2016, CAR authorities were allowed to export diamonds from five conflict-free 'green zones'. As the stabilisation of additional regions in the country could result in further waivers, Russia wants to expand its role as a monitor of hostilities in CAR. Russia also served as 2020 chair of the Kimberley Process, which monitors ethics of exporting diamonds. As Russian state-aligned companies, such as diamond giant Alrosa and Prigozhin-aligned M-Invest, seek to expand their commercial deals in CAR, Russia will likely be more aggressive in negotiating exemptions from the UN sanctions regime.
Third, Russia regards its presence in CAR as a springboard for expanded influence in Central Africa. It has strengthened its relationship with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by condemning predatory resource extraction by foreign companies. Russia also wants to spearhead large-scale infrastructure projects in the DRC. In May 2019, Russia deployed military specialists to the Republic of Congo, and Wagner Group PMCs cooperate with Rwandan security forces in CAR. In addition, Russian civilian nuclear energy giant Rosatom views its October 2019 nuclear science centre construction deal with Rwanda as a gateway to Central Africa.
Turning to the diplomatic arena, Russia has stridently opposed external interference in the Burundi and Cameroon security crises and has expanded its informal arbitration role in the DRC. If Russia projects diplomatic influence in CAR and eventually establishes a military base there, as Touadéra has requested, Moscow could capitalise on the vacuum of US leadership in Central Africa and strengthen its challenge to French influence in the region.
As the CAR civil war passes its eighth anniversary, Russia has emerged as the leading external military and diplomatic stakeholder in the country. Since Touadéra’s short-term position is secure, Russia will seek to counter French power projection displays, such as its 24 December flyover mission, and work with the African Union on a more comprehensive peace settlement.
With the international community focused on other challenges – such as extremism in the Sahel, Al-Shabaab’s resurgence in Somalia and the Libyan civil war – Russia’s hegemony in CAR could quietly consolidate in 2021.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations, who specialises in post-1991 Russian foreign policy.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.