Beyond Ukraine: Putin’s chef serves the CAR on a silver platter
For the fourth instalment of our Beyond Ukraine series, where we analyse the broader, global impact of the invasion of Ukraine, we have assessed the influence this conflict could have on the geopolitical direction and stability of the Central African Republic (CAR).
With the Ukraine conflict dominating the geopolitical space, the Kremlin-backed elusive mercenaries, the Wagner group, have fallen under the international spotlight. Attention is now not only looking at their role in the invasion of Ukraine, but their activities and operations elsewhere in the world, which serve to underpin Russian interests and global grand strategy.
As our series aims to highlight, the present invasion of Ukraine has global implications. As the conflict has worsened and become more entrenched, this has altered some of Wagner’s priorities, creating a global ripple effect, especially in the CAR - a gold and diamond rich African state.
The purpose of Wagner is to redress complex local military and terrorism-involved conflicts. While unlike other state forces, their methods are not constrained by human rights responsibilities, which a selection of governments view as advantageous. The group’s non-state nature allows governments to be as brutish in their military efforts as they please, to achieve strategic aims. In turn, Wagner seeks payment in concessions in the form of natural resources, substantial commercial contracts, or access to strategic locations, such as airbases or ports.
Furthermore, Wagner’s main financial sponsor is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-linked oligarch, dubbed “Putin’s chef” - a nod to Prigozhin’s catering businesses that have hosted dinners for Putin. Prigozhin has a long history of being met with sanctions by Western intelligence agencies. In 2016, the oligarch was sanctioned by the United States (US ) for funding the Internet Research Agency (IRA) through his parent company, Concord. The IRA were then found to have contributed to the widely reported meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Such actions weaken arguments by the Russian state that Prigozhin is an independent actor who does not represent the interests of the government. With regard to Wagner specifically, their relationship with the Russian state is very apparent. Not least shown by the group’s training camp in Molkino in southern Russia being attached to a Russian special forces base, guarded by regular soldiers.
In line with Russia’s long-term goals of re-asserting their position in Africa, a region that was highly connected to Russia in the Soviet Union era, notably the Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Angola, Wagner operatives recently have increasingly begun to move in on the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa has become something of a playground for Wagner. Their presence has been recorded in Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, the CAR and Mali. Out of these areas of operation, the CAR has been one of the region’s most welcome recipients of these mercenaries. Since 2018, Wagner has propped up the weak government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Uncoincidentally, Wagner’s arrival coincided with a Prigozhin-linked company being awarded diamond and gold mining licences. And attesting to the mercenaries’ warm welcome by the CAR, their headquarters in the country are on the grounds of a now dilapidated former presidential palace at Berengo, a two-hour drive from the capital Bangui.
Consolidating their place in the CAR, in 2020 more than a 1000 Wagner troops, alongside approximately 300 Rwandan troops had a pivotal role in thwarting the Coalition des patriotes pour le changement (CPC) rebel army’s attempt to seize the capital, Bangui. The CPC is a coalition of major rebel groups including Anti-balaka, UPC, FPRC, 3R and MPC in the CAR, created in 2020 to disrupt the 2020–21 CAR general election. Following the Constitutional Court of the CAR rejecting the candidature of former president François Bozizé, the former president met with a MPC leader. The coalition of rebel groups was subsequently created in support of Bozizé and against the elected president, Touadéra.
The rebels then began to move towards the capital after Touadéra won the December 2020 elections. The Russians then advanced into the countryside, routing out more rebels as they footslogged on.
Despite Wagner’s unsolicited methods, it is undeniable that the CAR is experiencing one of the most stable security periods it has seen in decades, more so than the endeavours of France and South Africa in the CAR in earlier years. The current stability in the CAR is widely attributable to Wagner, by forcibly keeping many of the previous prevalent armed groups at bay, who regularly controlled parts of the country during Bozizé’s presidency. However, this has come at a price. The mercenaries often reportedly carry out indiscriminate violence against civilians. Their troops are also regularly accused of conflating local ethnic groups and Muslims in general.
Meanwhile, external to the security environment, Wagner’s presence has had surprising broader cultural influences on the CAR. In addition to Prigozhin’s catering ventures, the oligarch also has connections to the film industry. In 2021, the film ‘Tourist’ was released, portraying an extremely pro-Russian narrative. The film rights are owned by Aurum LLC, a company founded by Prigozhin. In the film, Russian mercenaries are shown to be benevolent heroes, saving a poor African country. Its plot is often parallel to reality, namely Russian fighters agreeing to train the CAR army and then battle alongside them against rebel groups. Meanwhile at other points, the film conveniently distorts the truth; the rebels alone are depicted carrying out indiscriminate killing, torture and bullying the UN, acts which Wagner are accused of doing themselves by the EU and human rights groups.
Although there are no cinemas in Bangui, the film’s Russian producers held a large premiere at the national stadium in the city. This was attended by government ministers, a representative of the Russian culture ministry, 10,000 viewers and a number of men linked to Wagner. The film, primarily shot in Russian, was dubbed into the local language of Sango. What came next was even more remarkable, in that the film seemingly has had a notable influence on the city. There have been reports of citizens wearing film merchandise around Bangui, after thousands of t-shirts were handed out at the premiere. Further accounts also tell of children playing Tourist the way many would play ‘cops and robbers’, showing how the film is seeping into, at least, the capital’s cultural norms.
Aside from merchandise, one of the clearest visible symbols of the CAR and Wagner allegiance can be seen in the form of a physical statue. In November 2021, following the film's release, a statue was erected in Bangui, featuring four soldiers protecting a mother holding two children and bearing visual similarity to characters in Tourist. Initially this may appear strange, however it follows a global trend of statues secretly being erected in areas of Wagner operations - Syria, Ukraine and Russia, all of which show Russian mercenaries defending vulnerable members of the population. The final example of cultural Russian injection into the CAR is the language itself. In 2019, Russian was added to its secondary school curriculum and from November 2021 , the language was taught as mandatory in universities across the CAR.
The above developments point towards a Russian strategy of cultural homogenisation in the CAR. Each action slowly sows the seeds for Wagner troops and potentially state troops, to be welcomed in the country for some time. With local populations adopting Russian culture in language, and potentially select youth enamoured by Russia through the lens of an action movie, Russia is attempting to reframe the international and at times, local narrative surrounding Wagner’s human rights abuses.
Given the local government’s reliance on Wagner to maintain control, it is unsurprising that as the Ukraine conflict erupted, the CAR’s loyalty to Russia was unwavering. The CAR was one out of six African nations to abstain from the UN vote condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The CAR also recognised the two independent Ukrainian breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The dependence on Wagner is also bilateral in that it has resulted in the CAR militants being taken out of the country and sent to Ukraine to aid the Russian invasion. In February 2022, the month of the invasion, it was reported more than the 100 CAR rebels from Union for Peace (UPC) militant groups were taken by Wagner for military training to Russia, set to fight in Ukraine. In line with the recent stabilisation, in the last four months, hundreds of UPC rebels surrendered to the CAR government, essentially leaving them at the whim of Wagner forces.
Alongside the departure of local militants, a notable decrease in Wagner troops has also been reported. A Bangui officer stated that usually they witness five or six Wagner troops leaving the CAR, however for the first time, they are seeing dozens of Wagner troops leaving. Though local officers are being told that the exit is merely part of the rotation policy and that the troops will be replaced.
Below we have included a graph showing all incidents involving Wagner in the CAR since 2021. The data shows since November 2021, there has been a significant decrease in incidents. Notable Russian military build-up along Ukraine’s border began at approximately the same time, suggesting some Wagner troops were pulled out of the CAR for the invasion.
Given the reported decrease in Wagner troops, it calls into question the immediate stability of the CAR, due to the key part that the mercenaries play in upholding the government. The reality is the CAR is now too much of a strategic stronghold for Russia to give up, even in times of their own domestic strife. Russia potentially may lean even more on the CAR following the plummet of the rouble. Russia was able to introduce capital control measures to help stabilise the currency, but there are speculations that gold reserves were being used by the Russian government to prop up the Russian rouble . The earlier mentioned metal mining contracts awarded to Prigozhin are expected to likely be a useful resource in this instance. In terms of manpower, if Wagner troops are lacking, Russia could send FSB personnel in their place. As the line between the private-state nature is often blurred with Wagner, FSB introduction to the group is always a possibility.
Whilst the continued presence of Wagner in the CAR may offer the government short-term stability, it is not a viable long-term strategy. Wagner is indifferent to the political context behind conflict; even when they win on the ground, they are unable to address the grievances and dynamics that led to the initial rebellion. When they ultimately end up leaving conflict zones, the population and armed groups are unlikely to feel ‘liberated’, leaving the CAR vulnerable to renewed conflict when Wagner does leave.
The utilisation of the CAR militants by Wagner also has broader regional implications. Although approximately 100 militants were sent to Russia, a large portion of UPC fighters have returned to CAR, with intelligence indicating there are plans to send them to Mali, another area of growing Wagner operations. As France has formally announced its plans to exit Mali, in part, due to local opposition and reports of Wagner present in the country, the Malian government has increased their reliance on Wagner forces, which will include militants originating from the CAR. Going forward, Wagner will likely continue to pop up in unstable African nations, sourcing lucrative contracts that can fund their actions back home. As such, a new Russian sphere of influence is forming in Sub-Saharan Africa, which may serve to take advantage of the withdrawal of Western powers that have historically dominated the continent.
Amber has routinely carried out multiple analytical projects, utilising a wide range of OSINT tools, focussing on global violent and nonviolent actors, including the far-right and criminal and terrorist kidnapping groups.
Amber holds an MA in International Security from the University of Sussex, where she conducted in-depth research into Eurasian politics, cyberwarfare and civil unrest in the Middle East.