Following the significant expansion of United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) forces throughout the African continent over the past half-decade, Russia is playing its own hand at advising indigenous forces while increasing its military footprint in central Africa.
At the end of last week Russia announced it would be significantly expanding its military advisory role in the Central African Republic (CAR) after earlier this year it established 175 trainers to CAR forces and donated hundreds of weapons weapons following an exemption from a United Nations arms embargo that would allow external forces to bolster the CAR government's fight against militia groups waging an insurgency.
Last Friday Russia said it is deploying 60 more instructors to engage it what international reports have described as "its most significant military foray in Africa in decades". And on Monday, a high Russian official who personally represents President Putin in the region indicated an open-ended commitment to the conflict which could involve sending more troops.
The Russian President's Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, addressed the issue of scope and timeline to the operations on Monday to reporters: "It all depends on the will of the country’s government, of its legitimate authorities," according to TASS. "When we have the opportunity, we always respond to requests. I am talking about cooperation in the sphere of security."
"So I am not ruling that out [sending additional military instructors to the Central African Republic]. If there is a need for more, there will be more," Bogdanov said.
Russia had initially sent military advisers and technical aid to country last March at the request of the CAR's president. The country has been in crisis since 2013 when the Islamist Seleka coalition from the north of the country took over Bangui - the country's capital and largest city - toppling then-President Francois Bozize. Chaos was unleashed further as counter-militias went after Muslims in the wake of massacres against Christians and followers of traditional African religions. The U.N. has cited that over 6,000 people were killed during the opening part of the crisis.
The Central African Republic (CAR):
Meanwhile Russian media sources have long confirmed that many of the Russians in CAR are private security contractors engaged in multiple roles such as "mediating negotiations among armed groups, securing mining projects and advising CAR's president," according to TASS.
According to Reuters, the number of Russian contractors in the country remains a matter of speculation:
Estimates of the total number of Russians in CAR vary widely, from 250 to 1,000. The foreign ministry did not respond directly to questions about the presence of private security contractors.
But Russia has also been quick to note that it coordinates with the U.N. and operates in accordance with its approved obligations: "There is an agreed framework, some restrictions, but we act in accordance with our obligations," the deputy foreign minister explained. The 60 additional instructors Russia lately announced will reportedly coordinate with U.N. forces already in the country.
Western media began more closely scrutinizing Russia's role in central Africa after three Russian journalists were murdered while reporting from the country in late July.
The three journalists were well-known for their independent and Russian-opposition reporting, and were said by their editors to be investigating a Russian private military company, called Wagner, with links to the Kremlin when they were ambushed near the village of Sibut, almost 200 miles north of CAR's capital of Bangui.