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.”
Russia’s economy is in long-term decline, and its reach has diminished since the Soviet era. So the Kremlin is using diplomatic, economic and military tools to prospect for political influence and new markets in Africa—signing multibillion-dollar arms deals, bidding for big construction projects, boosting space communications, exploiting hydrocarbon reserves and launching publicized military interventions, alongside more clandestine operations. “The Russians want to implant themselves in the Central African Republic so they have an axis of influence through Sudan in the north and southwards into Angola,” says a senior United Nations security official in Bangui, CAR’s capital, who requested anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media. “The French are hated as the old colonial power. American troops have left. It’s a free country for the taking.”
“This fits into the Russian approach of being opportunistic in their attempt to inject themselves into areas of Western interest and project a great power image—but all on the cheap,” says Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague of what is an initially low-level intervention.