BANGUI, Central African Republic—A small aircraft lands on a dusty runway in the Central African jungle. A tall, balding Russian diplomat, his face ruddy from the sun, disembarks to exchange nods and handshakes. The rebels are in camouflage uniforms, but he is in a dark blue suit and his manner is courtly as a local warlord invites him on a safari tour in a national park to look at rock formations now that all the elephants have been killed by rebel poachers.
The insurgents are heavily armed, controlling the country’s most important gold, diamond, and uranium mines. The seasoned Russian diplomat, now in his fifties, gained his experience in conflict resolution during Russia's ferocious Chechen wars. Now he's on a precarious mission trying to convince rebels to meet up for peace negotiations in what would be a prestigious achievement symbolizing Russia’s diplomatic takeover in this former French colony.
Such scenes were repeated often before a peace conference last August that ended with tentative optimism, but the mission of that diplomat was and is much greater than that of a mere envoy from Moscow’s ministry of foreign affairs. Valery Zakharov has been installed as the national security adviser to the president of the Central African Republic. He is Russia’s virtual proconsul in a nation that’s smack in the middle of a troubled continent rife with conflict and ripe with untapped mineral resources where United States policy is increasingly confused and contradictory.
The accusations leveled at Moscow here include all kinds of skulduggery from shady diamond trades to the even more mysterious deployment of Russian mercenaries and the murder of journalists sent to investigate them. Zakharov says these stories are mostly rumors, and suggests implausibly that the Kremlin’s strategy is benign. What’s certain is that it’s complicated—yet another effort to extend Russia’s influence along the old lines of the Soviet Union—and Zakharov's role is key.
Since last year, Moscow has sent weapons and hundreds of military personnel, advisers, and mercenaries here, allegedly in return for profitable contracts to extract the country’s natural resources. Perhaps belatedly, Russia’s push into Africa has raised concern in the West, and recently France propped up its support for CAR in a direct response to Moscow.
The Kremlin’s suspicious dealings in one of the world’s poorest countries raised even more eyebrows when the Russian state bank VTB reported a loan of $12 billion to CAR, then later issued a retraction saying that was a calculating error.
National Security Advisor Zakharov denies there’s a Russian takeover here. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast he claimed among other things that “Russia is just rebuilding ties with old friends.” Old friends of the Soviet Union, that is.
In the meantime, the war of words between Russia and former colonial power France continues to intensify in the face of Russia’s African renaissance, while Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, takes an increasingly bleak view of Russian activity on the continent at a time when the United States has been trying to extricate itself:
"Russia is seeking to increase its influence in the region through corrupt economic dealings,” Bolton said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation last week. “Across the continent, Russia advances its political and economic relationships with little regard to the rule of law or accountable and transparent governance. It continues to sell arms and energy in exchange for votes at the United Nations—votes that keep strongmen in power, undermine peace and security and run counter to the best interests of the African people. Russia also continues to extract natural resources from the region for its own benefit."
It is impossible not to notice the Russians on the bustling streets of Bangui. Arriving in the airport, three well-trained Russian-speaking men stand in line for the passport queue with khaki military bags on their shoulders. The taxi driver has Russian flags attached above his headlights flapping in the wind when he takes off.
“There is Russians everywhere in Bangui. We love Russia. They train FACA [i.e. the national army] and they help us reconquer our country,” says Achine, the taxi driver, while shaking his clenched fist victoriously.
A violent civil war has raged in this landlocked nation in the middle of Africa since 2013 when Muslim rebels called Séléka (i.e. alliance) conquered the capital Bangui and deposed President François Bozizé. In response to Séléka’s violence and looting, Christian Anti-Balaka (i.e. anti-machete) vigilantes began a bloody ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim minority. The Sélékas soon disbanded and gave up power over the capital to an internationally recognized government.
But even if the U.N. peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, has managed to establish a fragile stability in the capital, 80 percent of the country is still governed by 14 different Anti-Balaka and ex-Séléka militias fighting for control of territory and natural resources.
CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra had previously expressed disappointment with the lack of French commitment to his government since Paris withdrew forces from the country in 2016, but many observers still were surprised last year when Toudéra travelled to Sochi to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Toudéra wanted help rebuilding the national army and lifting the U.N. weapons embargo to get the upper hand in his fight against rebel groups. In return for its assistance, Russia would be “exploring the possibilities of the mutually beneficial development of Central African natural resources,” as one Kremlin press release put it.
Since then Zakharov has settled into his position. Moscow has sent at least nine arms shipments to Bangui. It recently increased its number of personnel to 255 civilian advisers, according to Zakharov, and an undisclosed increase in the number of military instructors on top of the five already acknowledged to be on the ground. But that’s not all.
The infamous Wagner Group, a controversial Kremlin-linked private military contractor with experience fighting in Ukraine and Syria, is also very active on the ground in CAR. The billionaire allegedly behind it, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is a crony of Russian President Vladimir Putin indicted by the Mueller investigation in the United States for his role funding Moscow's interference in the American elections. Three Russian journalists who traveled to CAR to investigate Wagner’s role in the war-ravaged country were killed under suspicious circumstances.
Zakharov, in his interview with The Daily Beast, categorically denied that there are any Russian private military contractors in CAR, describing such stories as “merely rumors.”
We met in Bangui's Hotel Ledger Plaza (built with money from Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi back in the day) where Zakharov appeared relaxed and right at home. In addition to his blue suit, he sported a shiny blue tie decorated with tiny grey sharks.
“Some say there are 5,000 spetsnaz [i.e. Russian special forces],” he noted. “But why should Russia do that? We are here in agreement with the U.N. Security Council. Nothing else.”
Zakharov was keen to explain Russia’s push into Africa as a continuation of the Soviet Union’s political endeavors on the continent that died out when the communist state collapsed.
“Russia has been in CAR since 1964. We helped build this country’s infrastructure. There were Russian teachers in the schools and Russian doctors in the hospitals,” Zakharov explained, pausing for a moment. “And now we are back,” he says, smiling.
Many agreements between Moscow and Bangui are kept secret, so few people have a full overview of what Russia is getting in return for its military and political support, according to Louisa Lombard, author of State of Rebellion: Violence and Intervention in the Central African Republic. But its diplomatic backing is quite open.
“This support is crucial given that the CAR government is losing friends in the region and beyond,” Lombard told The Daily Beast.
Zakharov refuses to go into details about Russia’s mining concessions, saying that there are no concrete agreements about what to do with the resources.
“We have plans to invest but we cannot say, 'We take 30 percent of the pie if we help you out.' It doesn’t work that way,” Zakharov says.
As far as the murdered journalists, Zakharov insists on the Russian government position that the journalists were killed in a roadside robbery because they “took a wrong route” and “they did not coordinate their movements with anybody, not the embassy or anyone else.”
The rhetorical spat between Russia and the former colonial power France has escalated meanwhile.
“Russia has asserted its presence in the Central African Republic in recent months, it is true, but I am not sure that this presence and the actions deployed by Moscow, like the agreements negotiated in Khartoum at the end of August, help to stabilize the country,” said France’s Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly.
The Russian Defense Ministry retaliated, saying there is “a certain jealousy” among foreign powers over Moscow’s role in CAR.
In October, EU foreign ministers declared that they would step up support for CAR’s internal security forces in what was seen as a direct response to Moscow’s increasing presence.
And last month France announced its own weapons delivery along with €24 million ($27.2 million) in bilateral aid.
“The Russians are smart,” said a Western diplomat in Bangui, who asked not to be identified too closely. “With France’s withdrawal in recent years, Russia saw their chance to make some money and took it. And CAR’s placement in the heart of Africa makes the country a gate to the north, south, east and west on the rest of the continent… Also, they just love to piss off the French.”
After decades of absence on the African continent, the Kremlin undoubtedly has launched a new era of power politics in Africa at a time when the U.S. is gradually retreating from the continent under the Trump administration.
This year alone, Russia signed arms deals with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, and Mozambique, and since 2015 it has signed military cooperation deals with 19 African states. Russia currently is in negotiations with Eritrea about establishing a “logistic center” to establish a greater foothold in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.
“During the Soviet Union we were already present in different African countries. And now we have just returned. We are rebuilding relations with old friends. We are not conquering Africa,” Zakharov said.
Most indications suggest that the Russians are in the Central African Republic to stay. Asked where he sees CAR in 30 years—a country currently ranking second lowest on the human development index—Zakharov was rather optimistic.
“The goal is to create something like the United Arab Emirates here. There are many resources. If they are exploited to the benefit of this country, it will change everything.”
Bangui as the new Dubai may be a little hard to imagine, but whatever happens here, Russia expects to be heavily involved.