What is Russia Doing in the Central African Republic?

THOMAS FLICHY DE LA NEUVILLE | THE WEICHERT REPORT

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(From Left to Right): Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera meeting with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Vladimir Putin is leading a dynamic diplomatic offensive in the Central African Republic (CAR). Putin’s recent African foray comes in the form of arms sales to the Central African Republic (as well as military training for the CAR on how to use those Russian arms). However, a larger question of longevity arises when speaking of Russian diplomatic missions in Africa. After all, unlike the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, or North Korea, Africa shares no common border with the Russian Federation. And, with the Russian election fast approaching, Russia’s recent moves into Africa could be seen as nothing more than an attempt to diver the public attention to outside of Russia (since whenever Putin engages in a foreign policy endeavor, his otherwise torpid approval ratings increase).

Still, though, Russia’s successes in the Middle East have empowered it to move its gaze farther afield to Africa. Right now, the Russian “game” in Africa is small and limited to mostly diplomatic and economic overtures. Further, it’s no secret that Russia’s endeavors in Africa are tightly tethered to China’s own movements throughout the continent. In fact, Russia’s most recent attempts to align the CAR with its own foreign policy objectives comes at a time when the country had been partially abandoned to the Chinese. Moreover, both Chinese and Russian attempts to increase their standing and presence in Africa are complimentary. This is all about linking the vast mineral wealth of Africa–in the case of the Central African Republic, it is about connecting their oil fields–to the new Sahel-Saharan Silk Road that the Chinese have been building as a part of their overall One-Belt-One-Road initiative. As has been written about previously at The Weichert Report, the One-Belt-One-Road initiative is China’s grand vision to unite most of Europe and Asia (and everything between) together through Chinese-dominated trade routes. Russia also plays an outsized role in these plans.

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Some have called China’s recent actions in Africa as a form of “neo-colonialism.” For instance, the Chinese have taken over an old French colonial project that would have seen French power extend from Dakar to Djibouti, structured by a trans-Saharan trade route. The project was abandoned in 1898 at the time of the Fachoda Incident, thus benefiting the British North-South Empire. The Chinese and Russians are now performing a similar function in Africa that the European colonialists performed in the 19th century: they are securing the new Sahel-Saharan Silk Road, in order to link together their African “partners” with the larger trade system being created by China.

The Chinese have not only used trade to link itself with a range of African states, but the Chinese are also using the umbrella of United Nations peacekeeping operations to exponentially expand their reach into Africa. Under the imprimatur of the UN flag, Chinese troops now march across Africa. They claim to serve UN peacekeeping missions, but in reality, they are extending the influence of China–and securing China’s economic interests there. What’s more, the Russians could also be used as the security agents of China in Africa (especially since Putin’s regime has tied itself to the economic and diplomatic success of the Belt-and-Road Initiative). Where China can’t or won’t go in Africa, the Russians will–effectively tag-teaming influence operations for the Eurasian powers.

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Chinese troops are increasingly populating the ranks of UN peacekeeping missions, particularly in Africa.

This is especially true in the case of the Central African Republic (and its neighboring African states), since Russia has historically had investments and ties with these countries–particularly during the heady days of the Cold War. For instance, the former Soviet Union invested heavily in the development of the rich oil fields located in the CAR’s northern territories. Russia is an energy-producing superpower that has spent years enhancing its control over fossil fuel-rich regions (such as the Arctic and now the Middle East). The Russian foreign policy can best be described as a expansionary petro-policy: they go wherever there is oil and other natural resources and seek to dominate the outward flows of those resources. China behaves in a similar, mercantilistic fashion. All that the Russians would need do is to link the CAR oilfields with the Chinese-friendly Sudan and the Sino-Russian energy nexus for Africa will have been secured–thereby empowering the larger Belt-and-Road Initiative.

The Russian moves complicate Western strategy yet again as well. In December of 2017, the French announced their intentions to create a new counterterrorism and national security force for Africa (with the backing of other predominantly Muslim nations, notably Saudi Arabia). From Libya to Mali, the French have been increasingly involved in military operations in Africa. The Russian sale of anti-aircraft weapons to the CAR would potentially threaten the French military’s freedom of action in that part of the world–specifically complicating French helicopter movements. What’s more, the Russian anti-aircraft weapons sales garner goodwill from the notoriously anti-Western members (both African and non-African states) of the United Nations, thereby further empowering both China and Russia at the international level. Building out from these recent Russian sales, other agreements could be put in place: everything from further exploitation of the CAR’s aforementioned mining resources and the delivery of agriculture equipment.

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French President Emmanuel Macron on a recent visit to France’s “Sahel Counterterrorism Force” operating in West Africa. The helicopter is a ubiquitous component of French CT efforts in Africa. The recent sale of Russian anti-aircraft weapons to the Central African Republic drastically complicates French CT missions in this part of the world.

Since 2012, US special forces have tried to prevent this economic rapprochement through goodwill missions, such as the campaign to capture the African warlord Joseph Kony. What’s more, on January 7, 2018, the United States suddenly released $13 million to form the Central African Army. Thus, the challenge to Russian influence is currently to connect the CAR to North Sudan — where about one-third of the Russian soldiers repatriated from Syria are stationed. Meanwhile, German sources indicate that the Russians are also training the Sudanese and that contracts have been signed between Russian private companies and the government.

It is indeed in Sudan that the new Chinese trans-Saharan route will lead to the sea. In these circumstances, it seems important to be in Port Sudan before it is too late. As for the Chinese Saharan route, it is likely to bend gradually towards the south as terrorism moves down toward this part of Africa as well. The Russians are now well-positioned to take part in virtually every single part of the new Silk Road’s economic potential, and the United States, France, and the rest of the West seems to be playing catch-up. I’d expect more geopolitical competition moving southward, away from the Middle East and toward Africa, not less.

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thomasflichyThomas Flichy de La Neuville teaches geopolitics at France’s prestigious Saint-Cyr’s military academy. He has also recently been named as a Research Professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. Neuville has published numerous articles on international relations, some of which have been featured in The World Post.

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