Is Rus­sia win­ning the new bat­tle for in­flu­ence in CAR?

Arms deal ex­panded to in­clude mil­i­tary train­ing and mining ex­plo­ration

The East African - - OUTLOOK - By CAS­SAN­DRA VINOGRAD The Wash­ing­ton Post

Trucks pass through the re­mote rebel-held town of Ndele in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, car­ry­ing UN peace­keep­ers or goods for sale. But one con­voy last month held a dif­fer­ent cargo: Rus­sians.

“We were sur­prised to see them,” said rebel ad­min­is­tra­tor Dha­far Adoum. “We didn’t know what it was all about.”

What Adoum saw was a sign of Rus­sia’s sud­den in­ter­est in his wartorn na­tion, part of a wider push by Moscow to con­front US in­flu­ence over­seas. What started last year with an unusual arms deal has ex­panded to in­clude mil­i­tary train­ing and talk of mining ex­plo­ration. And with this foothold, some ob­servers be­lieve, Rus­sia is in po­si­tion to ex­pand its in­flu­ence through­out the con­ti­nent, un­set­tling Western coun­tries who have sup­ported the Cen­tral African Repub­lic for years.

“They’re all wor­ried, but they don’t re­ally know what to do,” said one UN of­fi­cial in the coun­try, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to de­scribe be­hind-the-scenes dis­cus­sions. “France, the US and EU ... They didn’t expect the Rus­sians step­ping in.”

Con­flict has gripped the Cen­tral African Repub­lic since 2013, when a pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coali­tion of rebels called the Seleka over­threw the gov­ern­ment and largely Chris­tian mili­tias known as the anti-bal­aka rose up and fought back. Thou­sands died in en­su­ing sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence. France sent troops to in­ter­vene, even­tu­ally hand­ing con­trol to a United Na­tions peace­keep­ing mission.

The elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Fausti­narchange Touadera in 2016 was seen as a sign of progress. But vi­o­lence broke out af­ter a brief post-elec­tion calm and has es­ca­lated sig­nif­i­cantly in 2018. Nearly 700,000 civil­ians have been dis­placed by fight­ing, dou­ble the num­ber from just over a year ago.

Out­side of Ban­gui, the cap­i­tal, Touadera’s gov­ern­ment wields lit­tle to no con­trol. Armed groups con­trol about 80 per­cent of the coun­try, along with ac­cess to pre­cious re­sources like gold and di­a­monds.

Mean­while, UN peace­keep­ers are over­stretched and un­der-re­sourced. Hu­man­i­tar­ian ap­peals fare no bet­ter. And Western in­ter­est in sup­port­ing the Cen­tral African Repub­lic has waned. Faced with an on­go­ing cri­sis, Touadera was forced to look else­where for help — and Rus­sia saw an op­por­tu­nity.

The first signs of a bud­ding friend­ship emerged last Oc­to­ber, when Touadera met Rus­sia’s for­eign min­is­ter in Sochi. The two dis­cussed pol­i­tics, trade and “the con­sid­er­able po­ten­tial for part­ner­ship in min­eral-re­sources ex­plo­ration,” ac­cord­ing to Rus­sia’s for­eign min­istry .

Just two months later, Rus­sia won an ex­emp­tion to a UN arms em­bargo to do­nate small arms and am­mu­ni­tion to the Cen­tral African Repub­lic’s mil­i­tary. Moscow sent the ship­ment in early 2018, along with five mil­i­tary and 170 civil­ian in­struc­tors to train two army bat­tal­ions.

While the arms-em­bargo ex­emp­tion was by the book, what fol­lowed has been more opaque. Touadera now has a Rus­sian se­cu­rity ad­viser and Rus­sians in his pres­i­den­tial guard. Merce­nar­ies from the same Rus­sian com­pany caught up in a re­cent Syr­ian clash are be­lieved to be in the coun­try. From the con­voy in rebel-held Ndele to Rus­sian emis­saries fly­ing around the coun­try, it’s un­clear who ex­actly is do­ing busi­ness on be­half of Moscow in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic.

Rus­sia and the Cen­tral African Repub­lic’s gov­ern­ment have also signed sev­eral bi­lat­eral deals, but no one, ac­cord­ing to Cen­tral African an­a­lyst Igo Acko, knows their con­tents or what is­sues they cover.

There are also con­cerns about whether Rus­sia is at­tempt­ing to play both sides of the con­flict. Rus­sian emis­saries have met with sev­eral armed groups, but “we don’t know what they talked about,” Acko said.

If Rus­sia wants to im­prove se­cu­rity, Acko said, it would be help­ful, given the chal­lenges fac­ing Mi­nusca, the UN peace­keep­ing mission, and the in­ef­fec­tive Cen­tral African army. Kenny Gluck, the deputy head of Mi­nusca, ac­knowl­edged some “nerves” around Rus­sia’s ef­forts but called Moscow’s arms do­na­tions a “very pos­i­tive thing.”

France, the US and EU ... They didn’t expect the Rus­sians step­ping in.” UN of­fi­cial in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic

Pic­ture: AFP

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vlad­mir Putin. He landed an unusual arms deal in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic. And now he is ex­pand­ing into other ar­eas.

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