‘BATTLE FOR AFRICA’: RUSSIA PUSHES INTO ‘FREE COUNTRY FOR THE TAKING’ IN ATTEMPT TO RIVAL THE WEST
There are new guests at the ruined palace where Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa once held court. During his rule over the Central African Republic (CAR) in the 1970s, Bokassa used a year’s worth of development aid to stage an extravagant coronation and personally oversaw the torture of prisoners. He fed some to his pet crocodiles and lions.
But the French government that helped install Bokassa in 1966 ousted him in 1979, deploying paratroopers to prevent any counter-coup. Now, four decades later, it is Russian soldiers who mill around this crumbling estate in Berengo—and the shifting power dynamic is raising concerns in the West. President Vladimir Putin is pushing into Africa, forging new partnerships and rekindling Cold War–era alliances. “There will be a battle for Africa,” says Evgeny Korendyasov, head of Russian-African studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, “and it will grow.”
Russia’s economy is in long-term decline, and its reach has diminished since the Soviet era. So the Kremlin is using diplomatic, economic and military tools to prospect for political influence and new markets in Africa—signing multibillion-dollar arms deals, bidding for big construction projects, boosting space communications, exploiting hydrocarbon reserves and launching publicized military interventions, alongside more clandestine operations. “The Russians want to implant themselves in the Central African Republic so they have an axis of influence through Sudan in the north and southwards into Angola,” says a senior United Nations security official in Bangui, CAR’s capital, who requested anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media. “The French are hated as the old colonial power. American troops have left. It’s a free country for the taking.”
The U.N. ranks CAR as the least-developed country in the world—rich in minerals but fragmented and poorly governed. Conflict erupted here in 2013 when a mainly Muslim coalition of rebels called the Seleka toppled the government. Widespread atrocities prompted Christian communities to form vigilante militias known as the anti-balaka. Thousands died in clashes. A brief calm followed the election of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in 2016, but violence broke out later that year between rival Seleka factions and has continued to escalate. The decades following independence were marked by coup and instability, and international deployments have failed to create a sustainable peace. The Kremlin sees an opening.