Soldiers of a Russian PMC in the central african republic.

By Eren Ersozoglu and Ahmed Hassan

“Plausible deniability.” An essential weapon in the hybrid warfare arsenal of the Kremlin. By utilizing private military companies (PMCs), the Russian state enforces its existing spheres of influence, focusing not only on existing spheres such as former Soviet states like Ukraine and Belarus but also on new opportunities further afield in Africa, like the Central African Republic (CAR).
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France Withdraws

Wagner and Co. 

Wagner Group is just one cog in a growing Russian PMC machine; a machine providing military instructors, security advisors, and armed guards for VIPs, facilities, and mines. This includes protecting construction materials transported from Sudan, another African country with a Russian PMC presence. Operators frequently arrive with the weapons sent to the CAR, under the context of “military instructors.” 

While PMCs are technically ‘illegal’ in Russia, giving it relative obscurity, and allowing them to operate under the umbrella of plausible state deniability. Consequently, when the UN agreed to let Russia provide military advisors to CAR, the UN expected official Russian military personnel; PMCs were not in the equation. This PMC loophole utilized in regions of interest provided plausible deniability to the Russian government, which was advantageous when reports of ‘heavy-handed’ tactics from military and law enforcement officials trained by Russian PMCs came to light. Russian SOF or Wagner?

Sewa Security Services

Sewa Security Services are Russian PMCs that provide close protection for the CAR’s President Touadéra, while the UN was told that the ‘instructors’ were present for training exercises. Sewa exists as a subsidiary of Lobaye Invest, owned by, unsurprisingly, Yevgeny Prigozhin, aka “Putin’s Chef.” Prigozhin is also the owner of the Wagner Group. 

In 2020, CNN investigations discovered Russian troll farms in Ghana and Nigeria, outsourcing disinformation campaigns, and thus increasing plausible deniability. The extension of Russian influence does not only exist through the private military company Wagner Group. Companies such as Lobaye Invest also acted as the financier of a Russian radio station, soccer tournaments and beauty contest in CAR, solidifying ties.Sewa Security members guarding President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Source: CAR Government

Military Instructors

Beyond instructor functions, PMCs are present with the CAR armed forces to ensure “weapons are handled properly.” In real terms, Russian PMCs serving alongside CAR assets are now in essence active personnel ready for engagement if the need arises. This designation expands to securing mineral extraction projects, a keen interest of Russians. These extraction projects usually occur in disputed territory with a heavy rebel presence.

Three Russian journalists investigating the PMC presence in non-government control areas were ambushed and killed in July 2018. UN observers report that Russian PMCs are operating checkpoints and joint patrols with CAR forces. The Russian PMC machine in CAR is well and truly active, but with numbers undisclosed, the size of the PMC force is unclear. Russian trained SAOS-GSPR (Section d’Appui aux Opérations Spéciale – Groupement Spécial Chargé de la Protection Républicaine) with a Spetsnaz patch

Hand in Hand

As a German Foreign Ministry Report stated, Africa is Russia’s top geopolitical priority. CAR, also being one of Russia’s closest allies on the African continent, is set to be one of the six military bases to be established by Russia on the continent. The integration of PMCs, if successful, will provide the necessary stability to extend Russian soft power with vital UN votes, a flow of natural resources, and a growing market for Russian arms exports. 10 BRDM-2 armoured personnel carriers gifted by Russia. Source: CAR Government

The Inside Man

If the evidence of Russian state interest was in question, President Faustin Toudéra’s national security advisor is none other than Valery Zakharov, a former GRU intelligence officer. Zakharov’s appointment was facilitated by Yevgeny Prigozhin, furthering the Russian state and private business entanglements in the CAR.Colonel Konstantin Pikalov aka “Mazay” aka “The Colonel”. Source: Bellingcat

The Colonel

Colonel Konstantin Pikalov, aka “Mazay,” aka “The Colonel” under the guise of personal security, is influencing the direction of Russia’s Africa strategy, with Zakharov reportedly following his recommendations. Mazay was once a Russian military career officer, fighting in two Chechen wars, and involved with the PMC Slavonic Corps in Libya. Mazay is reportedly overseeing military issues in Africa through the “Convoy” Military Security Company, a Russian legal entity based in St. Petersburg. Mazay is serving as a liaison between the PMC military/political consultants and the Russian Ministry of Defense. This was highlighted by Bellingcat, which revealed email correspondence of Russian military instructions reaching Mazay in CAR. 

What’s Next?

Last week the Russian Ministry of Defense announced it is sending 300 soldiers to the CAR to avoid a Coup attempt, according to insiders. This fits in the narrative of Wagner and Russian regulars being deployed to support leaders that curry favor with the Kremlin. President Touadéra has already proven to be a loyal ally and has fully embraced Russian influence. If this Russian influence is better than France or the UN will be determined soon enough.

By Eren Ersozoglu and Ahmed Hassan

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