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Squeezed by Western sanctions — first in response to its illegal annexation of Crimea and then its subsequent invasion of Ukraine — Vladimir Putin’s regime has increasingly turned to new partnerships across Africa for greater global influence and economic lifelines. These new partnerships have yielded diplomatic support for Putin’s regime at the United Nations, advanced favorable views of the war in Ukraine in sections of African public opinion, landed new client states for Russian arms and mercenaries, and offered pathways for Moscow to evade sanctions. In 2019, Putin, following the playbook of his geopolitical rivals in the region (United States, France, Turkey, and China), launched his own summit with African leaders. The Kremlin professes to be an equal partner to the African continent, one that firmly rejects foreign meddling or imposition in the affairs of a sovereign nation — an indirect criticism of Western nations — and one without colonial baggage. 

This belies the Russian empire’s failed colonial projects of the 19th century and Soviet operations and satellite states in the region during the Cold War. But these new alliances between the Kremlin and its African partner regimes have been detrimental to the citizens of the countries concerned. Russia’s private mercenaries and hunger for natural resources has exacerbated human rights abuses, democratic erosion, corruption, and organized crime in total impunity. Simultaneously, ordinary citizens suffer the consequences of Russian disinformation campaigns and economic hardships from shortages of grain and fertilizer imports from Ukraine.

In this blog series, Russia’s Influence in Africa, we will explore three case studies — Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic — to understand the methods of the Kremlin and private mercenary groups to become the main international partners of these countries.

By Pavel Kutsevol, Alvaro Piaggio, and Mohamed Keita

Illustrations by Lucian French, designer

Russia has steadily become the main security, economic, and political partner of the Central African Republic’s (CAR) government since December 2017. Then-President Faustin-Archange Touadér turned to the Kremlin to supply light weaponry to the country’s shambolic military, which was embroiled in a protracted conflict against rebel groups. From advising Touadéra to operating commercial businesses and concessions in brewery, forestry, and mining to cultivating pro-Kremlin and anti-Western views in public opinion, operatives linked to Vladimir Putin’s regime have achieved an unmatched level of influence in the country’s affairs. But Russian activities in the country have exacerbated long-running lawlessness, corruption, violence, and human rights abuses with total impunity.   

Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the CAR has suffered from foreign meddling by former colonial power France and the spillover effects of neighboring conflicts. The country has undergone endless cycles of dictatorship, coups, rebellions, and civil wars fueled by power struggles and an appetite for mineral wealth. The people of CAR have known only repressive, kleptocratic rulers who have siphoned this wealth, leaving most citizens impoverished

The latest round of violence began in 2012, when an alliance of Muslim militia groups called Seleka launched an insurgency that overthrew the regime of François Bozizé. In response, a coalition of mostly Christian self-defense militias called anti-balaka began attacks against Seleka groups and Muslim citizens, plunging the country into a deep humanitarian and violent crisis. Thousands of people have been killed, more than 700,000 have become refugees and asylum seekers due to the turmoil, and approximately 75% of the population now lives in poverty. Despite peace efforts and deployments of UN-mandated peacekeeping forces, the CAR government still does not control large parts of the country, where rebel groups establish their own rules and operate with impunity.

The failures of Western-led peace efforts to stem violence in the country ultimately led President Touadera to request the support of Russia. In October 2017, he met with Sergei Lavrov in Sochi, Russia, and asked for the Kremlin’s support in rebuilding the Central African national army.

The UN carved out an exemption to the arms embargo imposed on the CAR in 2013 and authorized Russia to supply weapons to the CAR military. Russia’s first arms shipments in 2018 came with military advisers and mercenaries from the Wagner Group, who took up roles as military trainers, national security advisors, and personal bodyguards to the president.

Individuals close to the Kremlin exploited the Russian deployment in the country to strike political and economic deals. Valeriy Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence officer and Wagner member, became the top security adviser to Touadéra. Wagner founder Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin, personally established several mining, security, and logistics companies in the country. One of the companies, Lobaye Invest, acquired concessions to several gold and diamond mines.

Russian operatives also launched influence operations to cultivate pro-Kremlin and anti-western views in local public opinion. Their tactics included erecting billboards glorifying Russia in the CAR capital Bangui, financing a local radio station to echo pro-Russia views, spreading anti-western disinformation on Facebook, and sponsoring a soccer tournament and beauty pageant. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a political group with ties to Touadera’s regime staged a public rally supporting the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. 

Russian operatives went as far as bribing members of parliament to oust the more anti-Russian speaker of parliament. In February 2019, Russian operatives brokered a peace deal, supported by the UN, between the rebel groups and the government. Several human rights groups condemned this deal as it put warlords accused of crimes against humanity in positions of power.

As Touadera sought re-election in the December 2020 election, Russian operatives funded his campaign and sponsored messaging touting his successes and the Kremlin’s positive role. Violence marked the elections, and Touadera was re-elected. 

Individuals and groups scrutinizing or opposing the interests of the Kremlin have suffered deadly violence. In 2018, three Russian journalists were murdered while investigating Wagner’s activities in the CAR. In June 2021, a human rights lawyer and president of the CAR’s Association of Women Lawyers and Advocates, Nadia Carine Fornel Poutou, campaigned against impunity and died in a mysterious fire at her home. In 2022, journalist Jean Sinclair Maka Gbossokotto, who had criticized Russian activities in the country, died under suspicious circumstances following a meeting with an individual connected to Russia. Unsolved fires and suspected arson have hit buildings of Western interests, such as a European Union building in Bangui and the brewery of French company Castel.  

The presence of foreign, irregular military units operating with complete impunity is an explosive addition to an already volatile situation. Unsurprisingly, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has accused Russian military instructors and Wagner forces of “committing systemic and grave human rights and international humanitarian law violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances and summary execution.” 

The recent short-lived mutiny by Prigozhin briefly put Wagner’s future in question, but the Kremlin phoned Touadéra to assure him that Wagner’s operations would continue.

In July 2023, as Touadéra prepared to stage a controversial referendum to amend the constitution and abolish presidential term limits, a new contingent of Wagner arrived in the CAR, with presidential spokesperson Albert Yaloke Mokpem announcing that the mercenaries’ mission included “securing the constitutional referendum.”  

Pavel Kutsevol is a policy officer overseeing Eastern Europe and former Soviet Republics. Alvaro Piaggio is a senior policy officer. Mohamed Keita is an Africa senior policy officer.


Russia’s influence and operations in Africa have significantly expanded in the last five years. In the cases of the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Mali, Moscow has exploited openings created by the failures of Western efforts to stem security crises or the imposition of Western sanctions. For Moscow and its partner authoritarian regimes, alliances offer political, economic, and diplomatic lifelines. But the alignment that the Kremlin and its African partner regimes project is an untenable contradiction: Putin’s regime is waging a brutal war against Ukraine, a sovereign nation, while railing to Africans against Western military interventionism. The authoritarian leaders of the Kremlin’s partner regimes have also pushed back against foreign meddling while inviting Russia to intervene militarily in their countries. 

As part of its soft-power package, the Kremlin offers scholarships, professional training opportunities, and humanitarian aid to citizens of Mali, CAR, and Sudan. But the detrimental costs are much higher: summary executions, extrajudicial killings, corruption and organized crime, illicit smuggling of natural resources, disinformation, and democratic erosion in a culture of total impunity. The big losers of these alliances are undoubtedly the citizens living under these authoritarian rulers.