The 2017 National Security Strategy refocused U.S. foreign and defense policy to address resurgent major power competition with Russia and China. In U.S. foreign policy, Africa has emerged as a frontline for this competition, as in recent years both Moscow and Beijing have sought to expand their influence and promote their interests on the continent. Nowhere is the role of major powers more apparent than in the Central African Republic (CAR), where Russia has emerged as a key power broker amid a civil war that has simmered since 2012. Despite concerns about the need to counter other major powers, the best course for U.S. policy in CAR is to not allow competition with Russia and China to distract from the fundamental priority of supporting a democratic, inclusive path to peace.

Russian mercenaries guard the president and other government officials during May Day celebrations in Bangui, Central African Republic, May 1, 2019. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)
Russian mercenaries guard the president and other government officials during May Day celebrations in Bangui, Central African Republic, May 1, 2019. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)

CAR has experienced bouts of violent conflict since its independence in 1960. The most recent conflict began in 2012 and has inflamed existing tensions between religious and ethnic groups, escalating to ethnic cleansing in 2014. Despite progress, armed groups continue to control an estimated 70 percent of the country’s territory, where they often exploit local populations and natural resources for economic gain.

The CAR government has historically relied on international partners to provide security and basic services for its people. Unable to secure its borders, CAR has also suffered from the spillover effects of neighboring conflicts and illicit economic activities, serving as a safe haven for a variety of armed actors that destabilize the region. In February, the government signed a peace agreement with 14 recognized armed groups—the eighth such agreement in seven years—in hopes of finally putting an end to the fighting, but implementation has proven difficult.

Moscow’s Established Role

Against the backdrop of this complex conflict, CAR has signed a military cooperation deal with Russia, received military advisers from Moscow, and is considering hosting a Russian base. Russia began expanding its influence in CAR in 2017 following a request from democratically elected President Faustin Archange Touadéra to provide arms to the Central African Armed Forces (FACA). The FACA have been under a U.N. arms embargo since 2013, due to political instability and widespread human rights violations. Touadéra and the previous transitional government had both asked the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) to lift the embargo and equip the army, believing this to be the best means to provide security and regain territory controlled by the armed groups. The UNSC maintained the embargo. In December 2017, Russia obtained an exemption to the embargo and supplied CAR with military weapons and training.

Russia was able to use this opening to engage extensively in CAR’s affairs. Moscow has a direct avenue to the CAR government through Valery Zakharov, a former GRU (the intelligence arm of Russia’s military) official, who is now the national security advisor to Touadéra. In February of this year, Russia acted as a behind-the-scenes influencer in CAR’s latest peace agreement. In late October, Touadéra traveled to Sochi to participate in the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit, a gathering of hundreds of African leaders meant to highlight and secure Russia’s expanding influence in the continent. After meeting with President Putin in Sochi, Touadéra asked for more weapons shipments from Moscow and said he would consider hosting a Russian military base in CAR, which would be Russia’s first base in Africa.

On the ground, Russian oligarch and close Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin controls the Wagner Group, an armed Russian private military partnership that appears to advance the objectives of the Russian state and is providing personal security to Touadéra and his people. (Putin has given praise and military honors to Wagner Group mercenaries who fought and died in battles in Ukraine and Syria, even though private military companies are considered illegal in Russia.) Russian actors are also particularly active in eastern CAR, an underserved rebel held area, providing clinics by access across the Sudanese border, drawing upon its close relationship with the former Khartoum regime.

Moscow is pursuing an opportunistic strategy by building upon old relationships in Africa to appear as a major player on the global stage and gain support from African states on critical U.N. votes. By courting African nations through arms sales, energy investment, natural resource extraction, and symbolic humanitarian aid, the Kremlin has been redeveloping relationships with African countries since the early 2000s and the strategy is paying off. For example, during the critical 2014 General Assembly vote on the territorial integrity of Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, many African nations abstained or were absent from the vote.

A role for China?

The Sochi summit was highly reminiscent of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which Beijing has hosted every three years since 2006 to highlight its own expanding role in Africa. Both forums highlight rising Russian and Chinese influence in Africa, which has set off alarm bells in Western capitals.

In CAR, China does not have a role nearly as significant as Russia’s but is active. Beijing’s economic and security role in CAR is limited: trade between the two countries is low, a handful of Chinese companies are involved in mining in CAR, Chinese banks have not provided any major loans to CAR since 2011, and China has not sent peacekeepers to MINUSCA (the U.N. mission in CAR) as it has to other U.N. peacekeeping missions in Africa. But, China has taken steps to cultivate a relationship with Touadéra’s government over the past year by donating military vehicles, sending medical teams, and establishing a China-CAR Friendship Village.

Although China’s role in the country is still small, its potential economic influence looms large. China has stepped up its engagement with many African countries in recent years and poured millions into new infrastructure and connectivity projects under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Though China and CAR have yet to sign a memorandum to cooperate on Belt and Road, CAR’s strategic location at the crossroads of the continent makes it an important target for BRI connectivity projects. Touadéra expressed his support for the initiative in a meeting with Chinese President Xi after attending FOCAC in Beijing last fall, when he also praised China’s development model.

What about the U.S.?

U.S. priorities in Africa are increasingly articulated in Washington through the lens of countering Russian and Chinese influence. The 2018 U.S. strategy for Africa focused on addressing Russian and Chinese efforts to “gain a competitive advantage over the United States.” But the best way to counter Russian and Chinese influence in Africa is not by seeing the continent only through the lens of major-power competition. U.S. foreign policy is more effective when it addresses the real needs of citizens by identifying shared priorities, and reinforcing the values for which U.S. partnership has long been appreciated.

Although China’s role in CAR is small and largely a product of economic partnership, Russia has been able to make inroads by responding to the political and economic interests of particular leaders and elites. Russian presence and Chinese interest, left unbalanced, are unlikely to be conducive to long-term peace for CAR. Russia appears to be offering a strategy in CAR based on Moscow’s own authoritarian system: leverage over particular armed and political factions and privileged resource extraction. This model is not centered on the needs of citizens and is antagonistic to the rule of law. At the same time, this approach fills a gap left by reduced U.S. engagement, and appeals to many African leaders struggling with internal conflict.    

Despite seeking assistance from Russia, Touadéra has been clear that he wants to retain his partnership with the United States. When the crisis escalated in 2013, the U.S. increased aid and diplomacy efforts to prevent mass atrocities and mitigate the effect of the conflict on regional instability. Since then, it has been the leading single donor for humanitarian aid, and in 2014 began offering security assistance to police and justice sectors, expanding to include military professionalization and defense reforms in 2016. In the last two years alone, the United States has provided over $300 million in total aid. However, the U.S. also has recently taken steps to try to limit the budget, and its own contribution, for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in CAR, which is currently the main provider of security for the country. Such a move would be disastrous for CAR given that military and police forces are still being trained and equipped, and have only been partially redeployed.

Although it is important to consider the role that Russia and China play in CAR, it is also crucial not to lose sight of the fundamental priority of establishing lasting peace and stability, a goal that the U.S. shares with the other major partners working in CAR. The U.N., African Union, Economic Community of Central African States, and the European Union have demonstrated their commitment to CAR by leading and supporting initiatives such as the peacekeeping mission, the negotiation of the Khartoum peace agreement, the training of the Central African security forces, and creating a basket fund for the upcoming national elections.

The United States can best support CAR by providing complementary assistance to these initiatives. In the immediate term, the U.S. should prioritize efforts to hold parties to the terms of the peace agreement, reform the security sector to better represent and be held accountable to CAR citizens, and provide logistical support to ensure credible and accessible national elections. This type of engagement will promote the long-term development of the inclusive, democratic, and responsive government and security institutions needed to achieve a sustainable peace.

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