President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic at the Russia-Africa Summit in 2019. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On June 15, CNN published a report implicating Russian private military contractors in a wide range of human rights abuses in the Central African Republic. Dozens of victims and witnesses spoke of summary killings, rape and torture, and indiscriminate violence against civilians, including the burning of homes. These testimonies are supported by a confidential United Nations report, obtained by CNN, which stated that “FACA [the Central African military] and bilateral forces, especially Russians… may have committed war crimes, especially in executing civilians and other individuals who were not taking part in hostilities.”

While the conduct of Russian private contractors has come under significant scrutiny in recent months, the Kremlin has been involved in CAR since as early as 2017. That year, Russia obtained an exemption from a UN Security Council arms embargo against FACA, and began supplying CAR with weapons and military instructors, largely through private contractors controlled by oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin. What began as a training mission soon expanded in scope and scale: there are now more than 2,300 Russian private contractors stationed in CAR, up from 175 in 2017.

Today, as CNN reports, they do “a lot less training and a lot more fighting,” and have played a significant role in the counter-offensive against rebel groups launched by the government in January. A Russian former intelligence officer, Valery Zakharov, is CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s national security advisor, and in 2018 he took on a diplomatic role in negotiating on behalf of the government with rebel groups. In 2019, President Touadéra said CAR would consider hosting a Russian military base, which would be one of Russia’s first in Africa.

Russia’s expanding presence

Russia’s military involvement in Africa is not limited to the Central African Republic. In 2018, Russian fighters arrived in Libya to join the forces of General Khalifa Haftar in that country’s civil war. Like in CAR, Moscow channeled its influence in Libya through government-supported private contractors. Many, if not all, of the 2,000 Russian participants in the Libya conflict belonged to the Wagner Group, a major contractor currently present in CAR.

Bloomberg reported in 2018 that Russia had recent military ties with at least 16 African countries. In addition to Libya and CAR, these included: Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the time, Bloomberg reported that the Wagner Group was present in at least 10 of these countries, a number that has since grown to at least 13 (see table below). Wagner Group operatives offer security services, military training, and political consulting in exchange for mining concessions and other economic opportunities. In Sudan, Russian mercenaries were recorded training pro-government militias in 2017. In Madagascar, Wagner Group personnel were hired in 2018 to train local armed forces and provide security for Russian political strategists. Wagner contractors arrived in Mozambique in September 2019 to join the fight against Islamist insurgents in the Cabo Delgado region, though reports indicate they have fared poorly in combat and may have left the country.

Not just a defense partner

Russia’s renewed post-Cold War interest in Africa dates to 2014, when Western countries imposed sanctions over the annexation of Crimea. Realizing it needed new partners, Moscow looked to Africa. Between 2012 and 2017, Russia doubled its volume of weapons sales to African countries, becoming the continent’s largest individual supplier of arms. Between 2013 and 2017, 39% of imported arms in Africa came from Russia, compared with 17% from China and 11% from the U.S.

As U.S. diplomat Michael Morrow described it at a Wilson Center event in February, one of Russia’s “lanes of appeal” in its policy towards Africa involves “cultivating the perception that African countries can turn to Moscow if their relations with Western states cool over issues like human rights, rule of law, and good governance.” In 2014, for instance, Russia helped Zimbabwe evade a European Union arms embargo by offering to swap weapons for a platinum concession, a deal worth a reported $3 billion.

Though its involvement in CAR has dominated the headlines, Russia’s extractive commercial engagement in Africa is much greater than its military involvement. Beyond Zimbabwe, Russian companies extract bauxite in Guinea, mine diamonds in Angola and Botswana, run nuclear energy projects in Rwanda and Zambia, and are developing oil and natural gas fields in Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Mozambique, and Nigeria. Between 2013 and 2018, Russia’s two-way trade with Africa more than doubled to $20.5 billion.

Russia’s future in Africa

Moscow’s willingness to partner with African countries, as President Putin announced at the inaugural 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, comes without the “political or other conditions” demanded by Western powers. Many African countries seem to find this message appealing, as evidenced by Russia’s doubling of both its trade and weapons sales with the continent since 2012.

However, Western countries are starting to take note of Russia’s expanding influence. France, alarmed by Russia’s growing defense and industrial ties with African countries (an approach described by one expert as remarkably similar to France’s own “Françafrique” strategy of the 20th century), has begun to push back. Earlier this month, France cut off military and financial aid to CAR, accusing the government of being “complicit” in a Russian-led anti-French campaign.

In December 2018, U.S. national security advisor John Bolton accused the Kremlin of using “predatory practices” to buy the support of African nations and announced a new strategy for combating Russian and Chinese influence on the continent, though it had no visible impact. With the new administration adopting a more confrontational approach toward Russia than its predecessor, there may be reason to expect an increase in U.S.-Russian competition or conflict in Africa in the near future.

John Dashe
Communications Intern,
Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement