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From the CAR to Eritrea, Russia’s African Ambitions Unfold

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From the CAR to Eritrea, Russia’s African Ambitions Unfold

Salem Solomon - VOA News

WASHINGTON - The Central African Republic might seem like an unusual venue for Russia’s evolving strategy in Africa. The CAR doesn’t boast Ethiopia’s booming economy or Angola’s deep oil reserves. It lacks a developed mining industry like Zambia or a strategic location like Djibouti.

But the landlocked country of fewer than 5 million people, most of whom survive on subsistence farming, has something else of interest to Moscow: conflict.

Since 2013, the CAR has grappled with a protracted civil war. Mass displacements, political instability, and competing factions of rebels and militia groups have weakened the government and eroded peoples’ trust in its institutions.

In the ensuing volatility, Russia has found opportunities to project power far beyond its borders and rekindle strategic partnerships in Africa that have been dormant since the end of the Cold War.

‘Armed Adventurism’

Russia has stepped up its presence in the CAR in the past few years. But its strategies there, which rely on the use of private contractors and mercenary groups, have been employed since the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s and, later, in Ukraine and Syria.

“We should think about mercenaries as an instrument which allows plausible deniability but also hard-power projection, which has multiple uses in contested areas,” said Kiril Avramov, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Intelligence Studies Project.

Avramov told VOA’s Russian service that Moscow officially bans mercenaries and security companies, but ex-military or intelligence officers often organize them, providing close ties to the Kremlin. Their work, which Avramov called “armed adventurism,” has helped Russia rebound from isolation and advance its political objectives.

One company, Wagner Group, has come under increasing scrutiny. This summer, three journalists investigating Wagner’s operations in the CAR were ambushed and killed. Footage captured by the journalists suggests Wagner may have been assisting both the government and rebels.

Marie-Noëlle Koyara, the CAR’s minister of defense, told VOA’s French-to-Africa service that the Russian journalists had not secured appropriate media credentials from the Ministry of Communication.

“All who arrive here to cover news, no matter what event, they are always welcome, but they have to respect the procedure,” Koyara said.

She hopes authorities can piece together what happened to the slain journalists “to take away lessons.” “We would really like to know the true cause of these assassinations,” Koyara said.

‘Club of Illiberals’

For Russia, private military contractors complement a broader strategy focused on strengthening state sovereignty, Avramov said. “The current Kremlin is trying to export counterrevolution,” he added. Rather than destabilize regimes, Russia looks for countries already besieged, from the CAR to Syria.

These governments welcome help, Avramov said, and that provides Russia with multiple opportunities, from weapons deals to training programs.

In the CAR, Moscow has gone a step further, cementing deals for political consultations, joint foreign operations and security details for the president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. In the future, mineral mining might present opportunities to “entrepreneurs and their little private armies,” Avramov said, even if the sector is currently underdeveloped.

But the country may be getting more than it bargains for. “You’re going to get what I call the ‘club of illiberals.’ You buy insurance, and then you receive a package,” Avramov said.

That package includes mercenary groups, such as Wagner, which often have ties to both oligarchs and political elites. “You somehow start losing a grasp (on) where the private ends and the state begins,” Avramov said.

Countries also can end up pawns in Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. In the CAR, Russia is “playing in the backyard of France and trying to sow division with the neighbors,” Avramov said.

And while Russia may not want the countries with which it aligns to plummet into chaos, quick resolutions to the battles it inserts itself into aren’t desirable, either. Drawn-out conflict means more time to sell arms, secure energy contracts and counterbalance China.

Despite outpacing Russia in political alliances and economic deals, Beijing faces real competition from Moscow, Avramov said. Compared to China, “(Russia) is punching above its weight, and it’s doing it in a very spectacular manner,” he added.

Logistics Facility

Two thousand kilometers from the CAR, Moscow sees opportunities in another country dealing with the fallout of war. Eritrea, in East Africa, emerged this summer from decades of active conflict with Ethiopia, followed by 20 years of isolation.

In August, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed plans to build a logistics center at the Port of Assab, in southern Eritrea, during a meeting with a high-level Eritrean delegation, according to RIA, a Russian state-owned news agency.

​Avramov said it makes sense for Russia to pursue the base, along with similar partnerships.

“We will see those activities on the rise,” he said, citing Russia’s desire for recognition as a world superpower and its need for diplomatic relationships.

Countries steeped in conflict give Moscow a chance to develop a longterm presence, Avramov added, despite limited resources. They also give the Kremlin a chance to send a message, both to China and the West.

“It’s a way of saying, ‘If you’re criticized for your human rights record, if you’re criticized for any of the things the West clings on, here is always another option,’” Avramov said.

This story originated in VOA’s Africa Division. Sandzhar Khamidov contributed reporting from the Russian service. Idrissa Fall contributed reporting from the French-to-Africa service.

About the Author(s)

Salem Solomon is a multimedia digital journalist with the Voice of America’s Africa Division. She covers the latest news from across the continent, and she also reports and edits in Amharic and Tigrigna.

Salem’s multimedia and data-driven projects include How Western DRC’s Ebola Outbreak Was Contained, Unrest: Ethiopia at a Crossroads, Zimbabwe in Transition, Hunger Across Africa and How Long Have Africa's Presidents Held Office?

Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Poynter.org and Reuters. She researches trends in analytics and digital journalism. For tips and inquiries, email: salemsolomon@voanews.com.

Comments

Bill C.

Wed, 11/14/2018 - 12:18pm

Addendum to my comment below:

I would argue that the starting point for many/most of our discussions, this would seem to be U.S./Western grand strategic objectives, for example (a) as per  Africa and (b) as described below:

Example No. 1:  From the AFRICOM website:

BEGIN QUOTE

Why the U.S. Military is in Somalia:

The U.S. response to the challenges in Somalia has been to work with the Federal Government and the Federal Member state administrations, in coordination with the African Union, the United Nations, and other partners working toward a common goal: to support Somali-led efforts to stabilize and rebuild their country along democratic and federal lines.

END QUOTE

http://www.africom.mil/media-room/article/30125/why-the-u-s-military-is…

Example No. 2:  From Trump NSS re: Africa:

BEGIN QUOTE 

ECONOMIC: We will expand trade and commercial ties to create jobs and build wealth for Americans and Africans. We will work with reform-oriented governments to help establish conditions that can transform them into trading partners and improve their business environment. We will support economic integration among African states. We will work with nations that seek to move beyond assistance to partnerships that promote prosperity. We will offer American goods and services, both because it is profitable for us and because it serves as an alternative to China’s often extractive economic footprint on the continent.

END QUOTE 

https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2… (See Pages 52 and 53.)

Thus, it is -- specifically -- from:

a.  The, shall we say, "building" aspect of U.S./Western grand strategy -- as described in my two quoted items above -- that I suggest: 

b.  We consider -- in relation to same -- Russia's (et. al's) "spoiling"/"frustrating"/"undermining" efforts; described in our article here by Salem Solomon, and elsewhere?

Bill C.

Tue, 11/13/2018 - 12:23pm

From our article above:

BEGIN QUOTE

For Russia, private military contractors complement a broader strategy focused on strengthening state sovereignty, Avramov said. “The current Kremlin is trying to export counterrevolution,” he added. Rather than destabilize regimes, Russia looks for countries already besieged, from the CAR to Syria. ...

Countries also can end up pawns in Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. In the CAR, Russia is “playing in the backyard of France and trying to sow division with the neighbors,” Avramov said. ...

“It’s a way of saying, ‘If you’re criticized for your human rights record, if you’re criticized for any of the things the West clings on, here is always another option,’” Avramov said. ...

END QUOTE

If one comes to understand U.S./the West grand strategy from the standpoint of:

a.  On a regional basis,

b.  Trying to achieve a "world revolution;" this, so as to:

1.  Transform outlying states and societies more along modern western lines.  And to, thereby,

2.  Gain (for the U.S./the West) greater power, influence and control throughout the world.

Then one can, very easily I suggest, understand why Russia (et. al) would want to (from our article above) "export counterrevolution" and, in general, frustrate our such strategic efforts. 

In this regard, consider the following:

BEGIN QUOTE

In our new book, we call this a strategy of “regional fracture.” This means that over the past two decades, Russia has exploited existing regional conflicts and cleavages, and created new ones. In doing so, it explicitly prevented its neighboring states from consolidating into more organic regional groupings.

Russia is now a direct party in some of these conflicts and a self-proclaimed “security provider” and peace broker in others, as political scientist Robert Nalbandov points out. At times, as in Georgia, Russia even assumes both roles at once.

The Kremlin has two main goals: retain influence in its former Soviet space, and elevate Russia’s significance in world politics. The problem is that fractured regions can become global security threats. They can harden ongoing conflicts, distort development and undermine prospects of democratic futures in the developing world, as discussed by Richard Giragosian.

END QUOTE

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/09/12/russia-has-a-lot-of-conflicts-along-its-borders-thats-by-design/?utm_term=.fa6c0166563f

(Also see the advertisement of "Russia Abroad:  Driving Regional Fracture in Post-Communist Eurasia and Beyond," Anna Ohanyan, Editor, found here:  http://press.georgetown.edu/book/georgetown/russia-abroad )