The Wagner Group’s propaganda has a clear target: Paris.
“For those of you here for the first time, the Central African Republic is a country of opportunity, and everybody has the possibility to come back,” Pamir, the hero of the 2021 Russian movie Tourist, tells his assembled crew of military instructors. “Take advantage while the boat is full.”
Pamir (a callsign) and his dozen Russian compatriots are in the country on a training mission to help the embattled government regain control in the civil war-torn country. Unbeknownst to the Russians, there is a plot afoot: An ex-president, nefarious European powerbroker, and greedy Catholic priest are conspiring to launch a coup against the government.
But the Russians are in the way, so the French-speaking European raises a militia to attack their base.
“We need a little victory that will be globalized by the media,” the Francophone tells his ordained co-conspirator. He offers a word of prescient caution: “The Russians know how to fight—and, unfortunately, they do it well.”
The militants launch their assault on the base but are thwarted—almost single-handedly—by the brave Russians. The coup-plotters’ plan to disrupt the nascent country’s election is derailed, and the Russians go back home. Some, indeed, come back to continue helping the government try to maintain control.
As a movie, Tourist feels like a direct answer to the jingoistic Americana of Rambo 2 or Top Gun. But the film is more than just popcorn fodder. The film’s financier is one of the most powerful men in Russia, Yevgeny Prigozhin; and the subject matter is his own mercenary company, the Wagner Group.
Prigozhin and his quasi-private personal military have become an extension of the Russian state. The group is active from Syria, where his mercenaries have tortured and brutally murdered civilians; to Ukraine, where his forces have scored some of the only Russian military advances in recent months; to Francophone Africa, where he has won over some rare allies for an increasingly isolated Moscow.
The Wagner Group’s growing global footprint is causing some anxiety in Western capitals. But in a growing number of African nations, Russia is supplanting those old colonial powers as a reliable partner.
“The Central African Republic does not get a lot of attention,” Louisa Lombard, associate professor of anthropology at Yale, said. “But the attention that it does get these days is entirely about the Russians and Wagner.”
Lombard has studied and written extensively on conflict in the republic. “This is a country that has had more than a dozen peacekeeping missions since the mid-1990s,” she said. The largest of those missions launched in 2014.
“Despite the [Western] presence—of a lot of diplomats, and a lot of international peace builders—the Central Africans have not seen real improvement in their situation,” Lombard said. “In fact, there are still just about as many people displaced now as there ever have been; it’s been fairly stable at a quarter of the population over this entire period. Food security has not gotten better. Schools are still rarely open. All of these problems remain for Central Africans.”
That creates a space for Moscow. The Central African Republic “has been a kind of testing ground for [the Russians], a place to try out different things,” Lombard said.
Ostensibly, Wagner is in the region to bring security to the Sahel: to succeed where France and the United Nations have failed. Like in the group’s previous deployments to Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, Wagner—and its various affiliated companies—claims to be fighting rebel groups, building domestic security capacity, and carrying out development aid. It has been carrying out those missions, which it bills as explicitly anti-colonialist, in the region since roughly 2017.
There’s some truth to Wagner’s rosy assessment of its work in Africa. Its willingness to conduct dangerous operations—particularly in partnership with the military juntas that rule in Mali and Burkina Faso—is winning over local support.
The Central African Republic, or CAR, has signaled its plans to be a lasting importer of Russian grain and foodstuffs. The republic was one of just 14 countries to vote against a 2022 United Nations resolution calling on Russia to pay war reparations to Ukraine. During a visit from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Mali’s foreign minister pledged to deepen economic ties between the two countries—and blasted Western efforts to sanction Russia. When a coup brought a new military faction to power in Burkina Faso last fall, amid statements of concern from the United States and France, Prigozhin published a statement congratulating the coup plotters and their struggle against “colonialists, who robbed the people.”
As France exits the region, Russia’s successful courting of the Sahel has expanded its illiberal bloc of countries that serve as trading partners and diplomatic colleagues for an otherwise-isolated Moscow.