This is from Newsweek (highly recommended):
There are new guests at the ruined palace where Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa once held court. During his rule over the Central African Republic in the 1970s, Bokassa used a year’s worth of development aid to stage an extravagant coronation, and he personally oversaw the torture of prisoners. He fed some to his pet crocodiles and lions.
But the French government that helped install Bokassa in 1966 ousted him in 1979, deploying paratroopers to prevent any countercoup. Now, four decades later, it is Russian soldiers who mill around this crumbling estate in Berengo—and the shifting power dynamic is raising concerns in the West. President Vladimir Putin is pushing into Africa, forging new partnerships and rekindling Cold War–era alliances. “There will be a battle for Africa,” says Evgeny Korendyasov, head of Russian-African studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, “and it will grow.”
How did Russia muscle its way into CAR? According to Reuters:
CAR has been under a U.N. arms embargo since 2013 so weapons shipments must be approved by the U.N. Security Council’s CAR sanctions committee, made up of the Council’s 15 members, including France and Russia. It operates by consensus.
France first offered to help CAR buy old weapons but the proposal was too expensive. France then offered 1,400 AK47 assault rifles it had seized off Somalia in 2016, according to a Security Council memo and four diplomats.
Russia objected on the grounds that weapons seized for breaching the U.N. arms embargo on Somalia could not be recycled for use in another country under embargo, two diplomats said. But mindful of the need for a quick solution, the sanctions committee approved Moscow’s donation of AK47s, sniper rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers in December, according to committee documents and diplomats.
Why Russia interested in the CAR now? Possible answers include (i) the potential for lucrative mining deals (Putin’s Chef, Evgeny Prigozhin, reportedly runs a diamond mine near Bangui and a gold mine in a rebel-held area); (ii) the CAR might be a great launching pad for Moscow’s ambitions in the Sahel and therefore a great addition to existing military deals on the Continent; and (iii) Russia’s defense firms might just be in it to run guns and make a quick buck in a country that remains overrun by all manner of rebel groups (some reports claim rebels control 80% of CAR’s territory).
And as for the CAR leadership, they just might be in the mood for a partner that delivers results without too much paperwork and rules:
President Touadéra has a number of incentives to work with Russia rather than France or the United States. Russia’s aid in arming the CAR’s military is a huge boon for the chronically underfunded state. The EU training mission in CAR has been agonizingly slow, leaving an underequipped and undertrained military to face a deteriorating security situation. Russian instructors, while certainly less concerned with the moral or ethical dilemmas of war, may give Touadéra the military he needs to combat the rebel groups across the country.