Investigating the Russian government has historically been a dangerous business, and yet the circumstances surrounding the deaths of journalists Alexander Rastorguyev, Kirill Radchenk and Orkhan Dzhemal in the Central African Republic late last month still managed to raise eyebrows. Part of the reason the tragedy has continued to attract international attention weeks later is because it highlights a story that had flown under the radar for months: the unexpected presence of Russian mercenaries in one of the most obscure parts of the world.
Russia’s presence in the Central African Republic is a relatively new phenomenon. While Soviet activity there was not unheard of, France has traditionally maintained political and economic dominance over its former colony at the expense of other actors. After a civil war that led to the ouster of President Francois Bozize in 2013, French and United Nations peacekeepers were deployed to quell the violence and oversee a democratic transition. While the subsequent elections proceeded fairly well, two years later the country remains in desperate straits. The government does not control large sections of the country, the U.N. mission has struggled to fulfill its mandate, disarmament efforts are constantly delayed and joint efforts by the U.N. and the European Union to rebuild the country’s military, the Central African Armed Forces, have been slow going.
An increasingly desperate President Faustin-Archange Touadera, faced with a deteriorating security situation and an international community weary of the peacekeeping mission, has pressed Russia for help. In October 2017, the president met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Sochi to discuss strengthening economic ties. Touadera also met with President Vladimir Putin in May to discuss humanitarian and economic cooperation. Since those meetings, Touadera appointed a Russian national as one of his national security advisers. Earlier this week, Russia and the Central African Republic signed a military deal to expand the training of the Central African military, according to Russian news agencies.