CAR conflict: EU slaps sanctions on Russian group

Wednesday December 15 2021
DRC soldiers

DRC soldiers escort Christians to cross the Muslim area in the PK12 district, in Bangui, Central African Republic, on February 23, 2014. FILE PHOTO | AFP


The European Council of Ministers has imposed restrictions, including freezing assets, on a Russian mercenary group, sparking questions on how violence is fuelled by external players in Africa.

The Council on Monday said it was imposing sanctions on the Wagner Group, a Russian private military firm involved in controversial operations in several African countries including the Central African Republic (CAR).

A statement from the Council said the Wagner Group, associated firms and eight individuals involved in its operations will have assets in the EU frozen and the individuals barred from travelling to any of the 27 members of the EU.

“The individuals listed by the EU are involved in serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings, or in destabilising activities in some of the countries they operate in,” the Council said, listing Libya, Syria, Ukraine and the CAR.

“The group is also spreading its malign influence elsewhere, notably in the Sahel region. For these reasons the group constitutes a threat for the people in the countries where they are present, the wider region and for the European Union.”

Created in 2014, the Wagner Group is reportedly financed by Kremlin insider Yevgeny Prigozhin, sanctioned by the US for allegedly interfering with the 2016 US elections that Donald Trump won.


But Mr Prigozhin, nicknamed ‘Putin’s Chef’ for his close association with the Russian leader, has denied any links to the mercenary group led by Dimitriy Utkin, whom the EU sanctioned on Monday too.

As a private military firm, it has been used to buttress government operations or fight insurgencies in CAR, Mozambique, Sudan and Libya. But it has also been accused of torture, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary executions too.

And while the EU’s sanctions were heavily inclined toward the group’s activities in Ukraine and Syria, it also cited Russian mercenaries involved in working with the government in CAR but whose roles have been seen as atrocious.

Private security company

Among those banned from the EU is Valery Nikolaevich Zakharov, 51, whose title is ‘security counselor’ for CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Officially, CAR denies having any formal deal with Wagner, and the Russian government says it cannot interfere with the contracts of a private security company it doesn’t own.

But Wagner, experts say, may have profited from CAR’s desperate bid to control a country split into various rebel groups.
In 2017, the CAR president invited the Russians to help professionalise and strengthen the army, after the UN Security Council provided exemptions to an arms embargo for foreign entities training the army. Initially, the Russians did well, winning public support. But then they turned to abuses.

“Their [people’s] enthusiasm seems to be dimming, however, due to Touadéra’s outsized reliance on Russian advisers, his government’s growing tendency to stifle dissent and allegations of human rights abuses in the counter-insurgent campaign,” argued Pauline Bax, a senior editor and policy adviser for the Africa programme at the International Crisis Group, a security think tank.

“Rather than eradicating armed groups, the contractors are perpetrating abuses that increasingly drive violence in the provinces and fuel guerrilla warfare against government troops by rebels scattered in the bush,” she added in an official bulletin on the ICG website.

Wagner has kept its operations clandestine, though. They have no known office in Bangui and have no spokesperson on the ground. Yet the involvement in CAR also means the country struggles to balance between the security needs Russians provide to the government and the desire for financial support from the West, Bax added.

The EU decision came after months of revelations by US-based anti-graft watchdog, The Sentry, which claimed the Russian group had been involved in torture, rape, murder and abductions of enemies of the government in Bangui.

On Monday, Oliver Windridge, senior adviser at The Sentry, said the EU decision is “a positive move against a shadowy entity that has consistently been at the heart of serious human rights abuses around the world”.

“Today’s action must be part of ongoing efforts by the EU and its partners, including the UK and US, to combat the financial incentives and geopolitical gains that are the reason the Wagner Group exists,” he said.

“Only by making concerted long-term efforts can we ensure the victims of human rights abuses at the hands of the Wagner Group see some level of accountability.”

Since December last year, following disputed elections, the CAR has been in conflict as some groups who support former President Francois Bozizé (barred from taking part in elections) fight the government it wants to be removed.

Earlier this year, President Touadéra asked the UN Security Council to impose restrictions on rebel groups and their financiers he argued had made it difficult for the government to rebuild.