The role of Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic has once again come under the spotlight as allegations of war crimes emerge in a classified UN report obtained by an American media outlet.
Much of the Central African Republic (CAR) is controlled by various armed groups, a dynamic that has fuelled the violence in the country for over a decade.
In the past few years however a new actor, a Russian mercenary force, has been playing a disastrous role in exacerbating the violence. According to the recent New York Times investigation, quoting a classified UN report, hired guns associated with the Wagner Group — which is owned by Russian billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, also known as ‘Putin’s Chef' — have committed war crimes in the CAR in their bid to strengthen President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who has turned into Moscow's puppet as he "largely relies on Russian fighters and a 12,000 strong UN peacekeeping force".
Although Russia denied the UN's internal report alleging war crimes being committed by Russian mercenaries, the evidence collected by the UN investigators is damning.
The Russian mercenaries along with President Touadera's forces have carried out widespread human rights abuse which “included cases of excessive force, indiscriminate killings, occupation of schools and looting on a large scale, including of humanitarian organizations," according to The New York Times report quoting the contents of the UN report.
In light of the horrifying details of human rights abuse emerging from the troubled African nation, Russia has gone deep into the country's civil war. To explain the rationale behind Moscow's involvement in the country, Samuel Ramani, an expert on the Middle East and Africa, told TRT world that Russia "wants to secure access to CAR's diamond reserves and is leveraging its ground military presence".
Ramani continued saying Russia is also making the best use of its "chairmanship of the Kimberley Process on conflict diamonds and UNSC seat to ease sanctions against the CAR's blood diamonds".
“Beyond that, Russia sees CAR as a useful foothold in Central Africa, which helps expand its influence in Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Moreover, Russia wants to marginalise France as a diplomatic player in the CAR and emerge as a broker between conflicting factions, which showcases its prowess as an arbiter,” Ramani, who is currently a non-resident fellow at a think tank named the Gulf International Forum, added.
The violence on the ground intensified in December 2020 when the CAR's former president Francois Bozize faced court rejection for the presidential bid. Bozize couldn't handle his dismissal and he joined an armed rebel group. Since then, fighting has become worse, displacing more than 100,000 people. Another 107,000 people have already fled to neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Cameroon.
It's not the first time Russia's role in the CAR has come under criticism. In March this year, the UN slammed "Russian advisors" for "blurring" the lines between their trainers, who as per many accounts are the Wagner mercenaries, and the UN peacekeeping forces. As per the UN, such working relationships have led to severe human rights abuse in the country.
But such allegations barely ruffle any feathers of Moscow since it enjoys plausible deniability when it comes to answering for the Wagner Group's conduct in various conflict zones.
Veysel Kurt, an associate professor of international relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University, told TRT World that since Russian mercenaries are not officially affiliated with Moscow, it helps Russia to steer clear of any responsibility.
“Since 1989, states have entered a trend of reducing the number of personnel in areas where they conduct operations outside their territory without involving their military. The resulting power gap led to civil wars in Africa and the Balkans, and this gap was filled by military companies developing in the private sector,” said Kurt, who is an expert on proxy wars.
Ovigwe Eguegu, an Africa expert and Policy Advisor at China-based Development Reimagined, says the Russian intervention did help President Touadera's regime survive in the CAR but it "did not contribute to human security".
"Russia aims to be a major player in Africa but lacks the economic and political clout like China and the US. As such, it is leveraging its deep military and security expertise to achieve that. Hence its interests and growing military footprint in flashpoints like Mozambique, Libya, and CAR and its plan to build a Naval base in Sudan," Eguegu said.
"In CAR, Russia is demonstrating to African leaders that it is a competent security partner for regime security. Also, given CAR's central location, proximity to Sudan where Russia has plans to build a Naval base, and Libya where Russia is heavily involved, CAR will serve as a launchpad for Russia's military operations and its strategic engagement in Africa”.
The New York Times report further quoting the UN report says the activities of Russian mercenaries have caused reprisals against civilians, perpetuating "the cycle of violence" in the CAR.
De-bunking Moscow's argument that it has never sent more than so-called 550 ‘trainers’ to assist the CAR's government, the UN report, as per NYT, shows the figure even hitting 2,100 mark on some occasions.
The UN investigation into the Russian mercenaries started in late December last year when armed rebels renewed attacks to disrupt elections and invade Bangui, the capital of CAR.
In its counterattack, the government with the help of "Russian trainers" succeeded in pushing back the rebels, freeing several towns. But the so-called unarmed trainers dispatched by Moscow were apparently leading the government forces in the battle and they were later found involved in raping women, recruiting child soldiers and targetting unarmed civilians, according to NYT, citing the UN report.
In February, the CAR troops backed by the Wagner Group attacked worshippers in the Takwa mosque in Bambari, where rebels had taken shelter. At least 6 civilians were killed by the government forces, the report added.