Putin and the Central African Republic: Implications of Russian Involvement for Future Peace Prospects
Moscow’s involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa is growing in a manner not seen since the Cold War. Since 2016, Russia weapons, advisors and mining contracts have been quietly trickling into the Central African Republic (CAR), in a new twist to the ongoing conflict. CAR is still recovering from the destabilizing effects of the 2013 civil war and the ensuing intercommunal violence. Despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping force with strong European backing, the Central African state only controls 20% of the country, and one quarter of the population remains displaced. Even prior to the recent violence, CAR ranked at the bottom of most development indicators, the result of a negligent colonial past and external backing for post-colonial autocrats. Today’s violence stems from these unresolved historical legacies and the state’s structural failings. The subtle presence of Russian weaponry and military expertise, a model tested and perfected in Ukraine and Syria, risks worsening ongoing violence and weakening democratic growth. External support for a peaceful resolution to the conflict requires engaging with local communities to renegotiate the social contract, rebuilding inter-communal trust, and ensuring the primacy of CAR’s nascent democratic institutions. Such policies require careful coordination between Addis Ababa, Washington, Paris, Brussels, and now, Moscow.
In 2013, coalition of armed groups known as the Séléka and largely composed of Muslim Central Africans marched on the capital, Bangui, in a bid to remove long-time President François Bozize. In response, a mostly Christian armed movement called the anti-Balaka formed, and thousands died in the ensuing sectarian violence. While the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) deters armed groups from marching on Bangui, it lacks the capacity to restore state presence in the rest of the country or to reduce communal tensions. MINUSCA’s attempt to disarm militias in Muslim districts of Bangui generated backlash from community members who fear reprisal attacks absent the presence of informal security actors. Outside of the capital, clashes continue between community self-defense groups, factions from the former Séléka movement, the anti-Balaka, and various transnational armed groups, including the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The ongoing African Union (AU) peace process attempts to bring together these disparate groups to mediate with the state, with participation from various civil society organizations. This inclusive process has buy-in from most armed groups, who see visible-EU support for the reformed Central African Armed Forces (FACA) as reducing their power to contest the state in the long term, increasing their incentives to negotiate in the short term. Central Africans fear the FACA due to its past involvement in sectarian violence and atrocities. The EU is currently on track to train and equip six battalions, creating a powerful military force that, theoretically, adheres to human rights standards. However, Russia’s involvement in CAR risks sidelining the AU peace process and the EU’s efforts to reform the FACA, while dampening ongoing democratic consolidation in CAR.
Russian engagement in CAR includes economic involvement, military aid, and attempts to build ties with the various armed groups active across the country. Following Moscow’s initial overture on security assistance in mid-2017, the two governments signed bilateral agreements on natural resource extraction. When Presidents Putin and Touadera met in Sochi in October, they discussed opportunities to cooperate on rebuilding CAR’s economy, with a focus on resource extraction, trade and infrastructure development. Russian trucks are now a common sight in northern CAR, carrying equipment to build medical facilities in several small towns. This development-investment strategy has borne fruit, as Bangui and Moscow signed multiple bilateral economic agreements over the last year. The opaque nature of these agreements hints at the involvement of Russian economic elites with close ties to Putin. They likely contain a subtle quid pro quo, in which Moscow provides Bangui with military support in return for Putin’s allies receiving discounted access to CAR’s vast resource wealth, which includes oil, minerals, and rare earths metals.
Moscow’s primary engagement with CAR occurs on the security front. The first joint meeting between the two governments resulted in an agreement for Moscow to provide CAR with security assistance. Moscow followed up by successfully lobbying the UN Security Council (UNSC) for an exemption from the arms embargo facing CAR. Throughout 2018, Russian armaments, ammunition, and civilian and military trainers began arriving into the country. The equipment provided includes 900 Makarov pistols, 5,200 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 140 sniper rifles, 840 Kalashnikov PK 7.62-millimeter machine guns, 270 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 20 man-portable anti-air defense systems, hand grenades, mortars and millions of rounds of ammunition. As the world’s second largest arms exporter (after the United States), Russia enjoys an advantage in supplying industrializing nations, as its equipment is inexpensive. Building off its role in the Cold War, Russia maintains its status as the largest arms supplier for Africa, accounting for 35% of arms imports in the continent. This explains the recent creation of Russian military across Africa, hinting at Moscow’s long-term strategic interests in the region. Amidst a growing appetite for military spending among African governments, increasing arms sales to African states allows Moscow to increase its influence while benefiting the influential Russia military industrial complex.
In addition to security sector assistance, Moscow has an active footprint in CAR in the form of Russian personal, serving in both official and unofficial capacities. There are about 1,400 Russian forces in CAR, most of whom are employed by private military contractors such as Wagner and Sewa Security Services. Russian citizen Valeri Zakarov is one of Touadera’s advisors, and the Central African Presidential Guard employs 400 former Russian special forces. The use of private military contractors (PMC) with unofficial ties to the Kremlin is an emerging component of Russian foreign policy, as demonstrated by events on the battlefields of Syria and Ukraine. Russian personnel in CAR are bolstering state capacity while also forging ties with various armed non-state actors, including the former Séléka fighters. Russian officials met with former Séléka leader Michael Djotodia and current Muslim rebel leaders Nourredine Adam and Abdoulaye Hissene. While a recent joint Russian-Sudanese attempt to mediate between the rebels and Bangui was largely rebuffed by the Touadera administration, which remains committed to the African Peace Process Initiative, Moscow’s growing involvement in the conflict is unavoidable due its economic investments and strategic interests. Entering in negotiations with rebel groups hedges the risk of clashes between rebels and Russians, and grants Russia access to rebel-held territory, which contains several resource rich sites. Moreover, expanding Russian influence with the government and armed factions is a cheap and effective way to undercut Western influence in the region. This intervention may intentionally coincide with growing American isolationism and fraying transatlantic ties, providing a new space for external powers to intervene in Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, Touadera originally agreed to meet with Putin due to his frustration with the under-resources UN mission in the country, and his anxiety over a potential loss of Western interest in the conflict. The Kremlin is bolstering its investments and arms supplies to CAR with the presence of Russian personnel, in order to secure access to natural resources and undercut US influence.
Moscow’s invigorated economic and security engagement in CAR generated surprise in foreign capitals. The EU and U.S. openly welcome Russian support for the Central African state, yet reports indicate that senior western policymakers are deeply unsettled by this unfolding dynamic. The EU continues to focus on training the FACA and Western support for MINUSCA and the AU Peace Process Initiative remains strong. The French, who hold relatively healthy ties with Russia compared to other western states, continue to resist unwelcome foreign involvement in their former colony. Under the policy of Françafrique, Paris holds a vested interest in remaining the so-called gatekeeper for external interventions in Francophone Africa. Even non-western powers are wary of Russia’s engagement, including China. Highly visible Chinese engagement with African states easily outpaced regional initiatives by the United States and Russia. Beijing is aims to hold premium diplomatic access to African capitals, a position it is loath to lose. In response to Moscow’s newfound interest in CAR, Beijing is stepping up its own involvement. In 2018, China absolved the government of CAR of $17 billion of debt, created a training program for Central African government officials and donated military equipment to the FACA. Previously, Chinese firms were present in oil drilling in the northeast, although they shuttered operations during the civil war, after the Séléka-aligned Rebirth of Central Africa (FPRC) criticized the close nature of Beijing-Bangui ties. While Moscow and Beijing push for deeper, potentially competitive, engagement in CAR, Washington and Paris risk being crowded out.
Russia is Washington’s current bogeyman. Moscow’s attempts to support its client states often end up on the opposing end of U.S. foreign policy interests. While Americans may exaggerate the extent to which Russia is a consistently destabilizing force, current Russian involvement in CAR risks exacerbating violence, undercutting the democratic gains and weakening the AU peace process.
First, Russian security involvement will further proliferate small arms in CAR, increasing the lethality of the conflict. The FACA participated in atrocities during the outbreak of the conflict, siding with the anti-Balaka and targeting Muslim civilians for reprisal attacks. Russian efforts to train FACA battalions separate from the EU risks creating a splintered state security service, with one branch lacking human rights training and civilian oversight. Moreover, even if Russian support to the FACA overlaps with current EU efforts, the risk of arms spillage is high, as the FACA is plagued by corruption and theft. Past research highlights how increased small arms flows prolong conflicts and increase civilian casualty rates.
Second, Russian involvement is working against the delicate peace process. The AU Peace Process Initiative relies on momentum from the recent Bangui forum to engage with all armed factions, civil society, and the government. This process is broadly inclusive and encourages groups to compile lists of grievances, which can serve as a starting point for future negotiations. Reconciliation at this stage is critical, and Russian attempts to start a new peace process without consulting Bangui represent a dangerous trend. Forum shopping occurs when international actors fail to collaborate in a domestic context, leading different domestic factions to selectively engage with deals that suit them. This race to the bottom fosters distrust and empowers spoilers. In the case of CAR, the presence of a separate peace deal could provide rebel factions with additional leverage over the Touadera administration, or splinter rebel groups and prolong the conflict regardless of the outcome of the AU Peace Process Initiative.
Third, Russian security support for the government combined with investments in the extractive resources sector weakens CAR’s democratic institutions. President Touadera enjoys international support and a reputation as a reformer committed to democratic norms. Yet Central African political institutions remain weak, in terms of capacity and popular support. Historically, external involvement played a crucial role in African elites’ incentives to engage in political reform. External security assistance and access to natural resource rents increase the costs of reform for elites. Powerful backers provide crucial support for elites who rule over hollow states with little legitimacy, as was the case with the French-backed Central African autocrats who dominated most of the postcolonial era. Resource rents provide revenue to elites independent of taxation, eroding bottom-up accountability and the state’s provision of public goods. While these outcomes are far from likely in the short term, the pressures of external military support and increased resource exploitation for CAR, which has a history of unaccountable autocrats, does not bode well. Democratic consolidation enables conflict resolution by providing non-violent means through which communities can resolve contentious issues. In CAR, representation in government and equal distribution of public goods could go a long way to resolving the root grievances at the heart of the conflict.
While the current nature of Russian involvement will further destabilize CAR, careful cooperation between Moscow, Washington, Paris and relevant multilateral institutions could turn Moscow’s new African engagement into a catalyst for peace. On the security front, Russia should work with the United Nations and European Union to provide secure weapons storages and serial numbers to decrease the risks of arms spillage. With that, Russian support for the FACA would promote stability. It would bolster the current trend in which armed groups see their power relative to the state decreasing in the long run. Negotiating from a position from strength while being aware of future time horizons encourages actors to compromise. Moreover, a strong FACA is a crucial step in ensuring state presence across CAR. In terms of the peace process, Russian ties with rebel groups could open up new avenues for back channeling in support of the AU peace process, in which certain armed groups see mainstream external actors as pro-government. Moreover, the limited presence of Russia could spur more productive engagement by other great powers. On one hand, it would limit French dominance over CAR’s domestic affairs. Moreover, it can spur greater US attention to CAR. Finally, Russian investment in CAR’s natural resource industry, coupled with strong western support for democratic reform and local participation, could spur economic growth. The government needs additional revenue to invest in infrastructure and provide public goods. This would support the peace process at the local level, by spurring cross-community trade and restoring state legitimacy. If Russia’s economic interests in CAR win out over its desire to weaken American influence, Moscow can engage collaboratively with other great powers to assist Central Africans in creating sustainable peace.