Russia and Rwanda sent military personnel to the Central African Republic to support its government against rebel groups, Reuters reported on December 20, citing CAR’s official and security sources.
The Rwandan Defense Ministry confirmed the deployment. Russia denied it.
“Apart from five employees of [the Russian Defense Ministry’s] representative office at the CAR Defense Ministry in Bangui, there aren’t any other Russian military personnel here,” Russia’s Ambassador to CAR Vladimir Titorenko said on December 21.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov also denied the deployment on the same day.
"We are not sending troops, we are complying with all UN resolutions," he said.
The claims that Russia only had five defense ministry employees in CAR, and that Moscow did not send in additional troops, are false.
The Russian foreign ministry confirmed the deployment to CAR on December 22.
"For the purpose of providing assistance to [the capital] Bangui in strengthening the defenses of the Central African Republic Russia promptly responded to the request of its leadership to dispatch a group of 300 instructors to train personnel for the national armed forces," the ministry said in a statement.
The foreign ministry did not provide any explanation as to what caused its initial denials.
Russia says its military instructors are in CAR under a 2018 defense cooperation agreement with the country’s government. And that Russia has boosted military presence there to support its government against paramilitary groups who are “seeking to destabilize the internal situation and frustrate” the December 27 presidential election in CAR.
However, Russia’s involvement in the landlocked African state has been murky.
In March 2018, Russia’s foreign ministry announced it was exploring “the mutually beneficial development” of the country’s natural resources.
Three months later, in July 2018, three Russian journalists were killed in CAR while investigating what a Russian private military company Wagner Group with ties to the Kremlin was doing there.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is reportedly the owner of PMC Wagner.
On September 23, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on "entities and individuals working on behalf of Prigozhin to advance Russia’s interest” in CAR.
The Treasury said Prigozhin owns or controls two companies that conduct mining operations in CAR. The first is Russia-based M Finans that is primarily involved in the mining of precious metals and private security. The other firm, CAR-based Lobaye Invest, is mainly involved in the extraction of gold and diamonds.
The Treasury noted that “[b]oth M Finans and Lobaye Invest have been linked to PMC Wagner’s operations in CAR.”
According to Bloomberg, Prigozhin’s expansion in CAR coincided with a spike in Russian diplomatic activity. The publication said it was difficult to separate Prigozhin’s interests from that of the Russian state.
Africa Report said Wagner had supplied more than 1,000 personnel to CAR in 2019 for training and security purposes.
The situation in CAR escalated after the anti-government rebels seized Bambari, the country’s fourth largest city, on December 22. United Nations peacekeepers and national security forces retook the city the following day.
Last week, the officials in CAR accused the country’s ex-president Francois Bozizé of attempting to seize power in a military coup with the help of the rebels.
Bozizé, who originally seized power in a 2003 military coup, was elected president in 2005 and re-elected in 2011. A Muslim rebel coalition known as Séléka outed him from power in 2013. Last January, Bozizé said nothing would stop him from running in the election against incumbent President Faustin-Archange Touadera.
Earlier in December, the country’s Constitutional Court banned the ex-president from running in the election citing the sanctions the UN imposed against Bozizé in 2014.
In 2019, the government and 14 rebel groups signed a peace deal, but violence and instability continued to rack the country. Government control is largely limited to the capital.
Seeking help to bolster CAR’s armed forces and establish central authority, Touadera in recent years has turned to Moscow.
On December 27, voters reportedly turned out in large numbers to vote in the CAR presidential and legislative elections despite threats from rebel groups to descend on the capital.
Provisional results are expected by the end of the week. The election will go to a second round if none of the 16 presidential candidates captures at least 50% of the vote.
On December 25, unidentified combatants killed three and wounded two UN peacekeepers tasked with helping provide security during the elections.