On its face, the Central African Republic (CAR) is an unusual target for Russia’s foreign strategy. The CAR doesn’t boast anything too tempting to foreign powers like Ethiopia’s economy, Angola’s deep oil reserves or Zambia’s mining industry. Being a landlocked country in the middle of the continent, CAR has no strategic importance location-wise, like Djibouti or perhaps other nations on the coast with easy access to the sea.
But CAR does have one thing that is very attractive to the Russian state and ruling class of oligarchs: conflict. The Republic has been ensconced in a civil war since 2012, largely a conflict between Muslim Seleka fighters and a coalition of Christian militias known as the Anti-Balakas.
The civil war has not been a fun experience for CAR, to say the least. Over 5,000 people have been killed and some 1.5 million displaced. For a country with a population of only five million, that is a devastating national blow. The fighting has drawn the intervention of several countries, including France, South Africa, the Congo, and Georgia, with the common aim of quelling the hostilities. The European Union even set up a special mission to CAR known as the European Union Military Operation in the Central African Republic, or EUFOR CAR.
But in all frankness, Russia’s inroads into CAR are not to maintain regional stability. For Moscow, the dysfunction in CAR is just another opportunity to project power far beyond its borders and rekindle strategic partnerships in Africa—partnerships that have been dormant since the end of the Cold War.
Russia’s Project Africa
During the Soviet era, Africa was an item relatively high on the Russian agenda. According to a CIA assessment of Russia’s foreign policy written during the 1980s, the Politburo’s project Africa was an attempt to “enhance Russia’s claims to a global superpower role” by creating ties with as many nations as possible on the continent while simultaneously “undermining Western political, economic, and military influence.” Of course, Moscow was also interested in “regime influence” in African countries. Early on the Soviets had their setbacks creating their semi-satellite states in Africa. These included the fall of the pro-Soviet government in Ghana in 1968, a failed quo in Sudan in 1971, and the expulsion of the USSR from Egypt in 1972. But in many instances, the Russians were able to capitalize on political turmoil in the continent for their advantage. For instance, the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia during the Ogaden War presented an opportunity to Russia (along with its Cuban allies) to assert themselves. In fact, Russian support during that conflict saved Ethiopia from a potentially devastating defeat.
During that time, the United States didn’t consider Russia’s presence in Africa to be a serious problem. Access to natural resources in Africa—namely minerals and oil—for American and Western markets was not seen to be endangered by the Russian program. Eventually, Moscow’s ventures in Africa began to peter out as the Soviet Union began to collapse under its own weight in the late 1980s. With the fall of the USSR, the very concept of a Russian problem in Africa seemed to have fallen into the dustbin of foreign policy history.
In recent years, however, there has been a clear resurgence of Russian power projection in Africa—and it seems to be as vibrant and dynamic as ever.
Russia has taken on itself a myriad of plans to increase its involvement in African nations. On the security end, Russia has found “non-conventional” ways of assisting its new African friends.
In CAR, for instance, private Russian contractors have been carrying out operations in various roles in what experts have called “armed adventurism.” This enterprise of mercenaries—which is undoubtedly undertaken with Moscow’s blessing and support—is nothing new for Russia. The strategy of relying on the use of such groups was used in the 1990s in Yugoslavia. It is today being undertaken in both Ukraine and Syria. But its use in CAR is different. There it is not being used as a means of maintaining pre-existing security interests but rather as a way of garnering new friends far from home. That’s the great thing about mercenaries: they allow long-range, efficient power projection while maintaining a good measure of plausible deniability. Russia is now very invested in CAR and has a strong interest in protecting its activities their. Last summer, three Russian journalists that flew to the Republic to investigate the shadowy contractor Vagner we’re suddenly attacked while in the middle of their investigation. Reportedly the three were ambushed by “unidentified characters.” Their bodies were later found near the town of Sibut, some 180 kilometers north of the capital Bangui.
But the situation in CAR is far from an isolated case.
Since mid-2017, Russia has signed dozens of military contracts with other African countries with unique security needs, including Sudan and the Congo, often involving private contractors as well. One recent piece of news worth mentioning is the deployment of Russian special forces in Libya. Officially, Russia (as well as the West) recognize the government in Tripoli. But, over the last few months, Moscow has begun to send troops to assist the government’s main adversary, former Libyan military officer turned warlord, Marshall Khalifa Haftar. While some sources in Russia’s defense ministry have reportedly confirmed the presence of their personnel in the country, Moscow’s official stance is to deny any involvement in the fighting in Libya.
In summary, Russia’s atypical military intervention, along with other “softer” tactics in the continent, from diplomatic tours to infrastructure deals, to even encouraging visitation and immigration to Russia from African countries, has coalesced over the past year into a powerful outreach effort in Africa. The move is highly—and eerily—reminiscent of China’s efforts over the recent period to create military and industry bonds in Africa. While China’s program in Africa has been drawing at least minimal attention from U.S. officials for some time, Russia’s renewed interest in Africa has not.
One thing is certain. At this rate, it will be only a matter of time before Russia’s entrenchment in Africa becomes an item the West will need to address.