Partisan Warfare in Melitopol: Ukrainians Attack Armored Train, Assassinate Collaborators

AIS Special Report on Ukraine no. 6.

May 25, 2022

During the dangerous years that followed the German invasion of the Soviet Union in WWII, Ukraine gained a much-deserved reputation for intense partisan warfare designed to liberate the motherland from Nazi control. Most of the partisans fought within the Soviet framework of Josif Stalin’s Kremlin, itself the cruel perpetrator of a Ukrainian genocide in the 1930s, but others fought both Soviet communists and German Nazis in the interest of establishing a free and independent Ukraine.

The city of Melitopol is an important industrial center in Ukraine’s south-eastern Zaporizhzhia oblast (administrative region). Melitopol suffered greatly while occupied by the German Army from October 1941 to October 1943, with its entire Jewish population eliminated by SS Einsatzgruppen death squads. During the occupation, bands of partisans roamed the Zaporizhzhia region, risking certain death at the end of a noose to disrupt rail transport and pounce on isolated patrols or collaborators.

Decades later, the partisans have returned, but instead of working to expel Hitler’s executioners, they are now committed to driving out occupiers from a similarly sinister regime, represented by Vladimir Putin’s corrupt and merciless collection of thugs and war-criminals. Typically, the partisans are civilian fighters operating behind enemy lines with support from the Ukrainian Special Forces and have been especially active in Zaporizhzhia.

Poster for the Ukrainian “Day of Heroes.” The figure in front of the Red and Black flag represents the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets during WWII and continued to battle Russian communists until 1949.

After Ukraine finally shed the Soviet yoke in 1991, Melitopol enjoyed three decades of peace and prosperity until Putin’s Russian legions stormed Ukraine, justifying the slaughter of innocents, bizarrely, as a necessary step in “de-nazifying” its independent neighbor.  When a Russian amphibious force entered Melitopol on February 26, 2022, Russian government-controlled media reported that “Melitopol residents welcomed the Russian troops… some elderly citizens took to the streets waving red [Soviet-era] flags” (TASS [Moscow], February 5, 2022). Undermining these dubious claims of a popular welcome is the fact that the city was not fully occupied until March 1.

Partisan Attack on an Armored Train

Known as “the Gateway to the Crimea,” Melitopol is an important rail junction for trains running between Moscow and the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula. It is unsurprising then that certain individuals somewhat less enthused about the arrival of the Russian occupiers than the Soviet-flag wavers mentioned in the official account have targeted rail infrastructure around Melitopol, including an apparently successful attack on one of Russia’s modernized armored trains. [1]

A ten-car Russian armored train heading northeast from Crimea through Melitopol was either destroyed or seriously damaged on May 18 by local partisans assisted by Ukrainian special forces. Local media reported that an explosive placed on the rails detonated under a rail-car carrying Russian military personnel, producing an unknown number of casualties and causing damage to the train and the rails (Ria-Melitopol, May 18, 2022; Ukrayinska Pravda, May 18, 2022). These reports seemed to indicate a massive failure in the sophisticated bomb-detecting sensors and electronics installed in Russia’s armored trains in recent years.

However, according to the (Ukrainian) Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration (ZRMA), the train was not destroyed by a bomb, but was rather derailed by saboteurs. The widely-reported explosion was, according to ZRMA, the result of an ammunition shipment that detonated when the train overturned. The ZRMA added that the Russian occupiers are constantly running overloaded trains on the tracks without providing the necessary maintenance (Express, May 19, 2022).  The claim was startling, as Russia maintains brigades of railway troops (Zheleznodorozhniki –ZhDK) specializing in security, repair and maintenance activities. It is not inconsistent, however, with the revelations of incompetence in the Russian command. The attack was not the first on the line; on April 28, Ukraine’s Special Forces destroyed a railway bridge in the Zaporizhzhia region used to carry fuel and military goods from Crimea to Melitopol (Pravda [Kiev], April 28, 2022; Ua.Interfax [Kiev], April 28, 2022).  

The Shavgulidze Wedge

If the Melitopol armored train was indeed derailed, it was probably through the use of a particularly useful but simple device known as the Shavgulidze Wedge. Invented in WWII by Georgian inventor and partisan leader Tengiz Shavgulidze, this 20-kilogram steel device can be installed on rails in just a few minutes and effectively derails entire trains. The beauty of the device is that it allows a train to be derailed without the use of explosives, an important factor in avoiding detection by the bomb-sniffing equipment carried by Russian armored trains.

Reports indicate the blast on the rail-line was followed by machine-gun fire, though it is not clear if the latter was the product of a gunfight with saboteurs or the response of nervous and panicky Russian troops. A locomotive following the armored train to the front with ten tankers of fuel and lubricants was forced to stop until the damaged armored train was removed by two large cranes and the twisted tracks repaired (Ukrinform.net, May 18, 2022). Melitopol’s mayor, Ivan Fedorov, later warned that “the earth will burn under the feet of the invaders… the armored train is just the beginning” (Express, May 19, 2022).

The Covert Struggle in Melitopol

Partisan activity in and around Melitopol is keeping the Russian occupiers on edge, especially those servicemen who were assured by their commanders of a hero’s welcome as liberators. Nervous troops are often responsible for atrocities against civilians, a self-defeating response as brutal acts of retaliation have historically often stiffened the opposition rather than intimidate it.

At the time of the armored train attack, Melitopol’s mayor reported the death of more than 100 Russian “occupiers” in over 20 “resistance operations” since the start of the Russian invasion (Ukrinform.net, May 18, 2022). Ukrainian forces have been intensely occupied with the discovery and elimination of pro-Russian saboteurs working behind Ukrainian lines; earlier this month, the Ukrainian Security Service announced it had eliminated 140 enemy sabotage groups working behind Ukrainian lines and rounded up 4,000 pro-Russian collaborators (Facebook, May 6, 2022).

Other than the poorly-armed and lightly-equipped pro-Russian militias in the now-ruined Donbas region, Russian authorities have had great difficulty in their efforts to recruit and field pro-Russian militias in Ukraine, apparent proof that Ukrainians are not seeking freedom from the cabal of “Nazis and drug-addicts” that Moscow insists are ruling the country. The dismissal of top Russian intelligence officials charged with these efforts suggests that even Russia’s security forces did not take Putin’s threats of invasion seriously until it was too late to organize pro-Russian partisan groups. Russian manpower much needed on the Donbas front is thus forced to search for partisans in southern Ukraine with little local cooperation.

The explosion of a hand grenade next door to the Russian military HQ in Melitopol on the same day as the train attack brought on wild fire from Russian troops. Two senior officials of the Russian occupation had been assassinated in the street earlier in the day (KyivPost, May 18, 2022). Five days later, in another part of the Zaporizhzhia oblast, a pro-Russian mayor appointed by Moscow and his two bodyguards were wounded in an attempted assassination by partisans, with the Kremlin describing the incident as a “terror attack” (Moscow Times, May 23, 2022). Posters showing Russian soldiers suffering death at the hands of partisans have also begun to appear in the occupied regions of Zaparizhzhia.

Partisans alone cannot drive the Russian Army from Ukraine, but their activities do raise questions about the viability and expense in blood and treasure of a permanent occupation of Ukraine. If even a Ukrainian defeat cannot enable the enforcement of the Russian writ in Ukraine due to partisan resistance, then the entire rationale for the invasion and its prospects for success is open to question. If Putin’s own intelligence chiefs understood this, there is little wonder that they quietly believed the Russian leader’s threats were just bluff and consequently few preparations were made  to create a network of Kremlin loyalists inside Ukraine prior to February 2022. Censorship and media manipulation may have helped create some kind of popular consensus in favor of the war inside Russia, but the men around Putin are fully aware of the difficulties they will face in occupying Ukraine. It was, after all, their grandfathers and grandmothers who took to the woods and marshes to make Germany’s occupation of the Soviet Union unsustainable.

Note

  1. For more on the armored trains and their role in the Ukraine conflict, see: “Rail War in Ukraine: The Battle for Logistical Superiority Will Determine the Victor,” AIS Special Report on Ukraine no. 5, May 2, 2022, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?cat=129

Rail War in Ukraine: The Battle for Logistical Superiority Will Determine the Victor

AIS Special Report on Ukraine no. 5

May 2, 2022

“Breaking the railway supply lines of the enemy — which is the most efficient means of supply — can radically change the situation in our favor.”

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, March 17, 2022.

Russian Armored Train Enters Ukraine

Russian missiles struck five railway stations and rail hubs in western and central Ukraine in just one hour on April 25. The attacks were meant to inhibit the transportation by rail of European and North American arms and supplies to Ukrainian military forces. Three days later, Ukrainian Special Forces blew up a railway bridge in Yakymivka (Zaporizhzhia Region of Ukraine) used by Russian forces to deliver fuel and military supplies from Crimea to Melitopol and beyond (Pravda [Kiev], April 28, 2022; Ua.Interfax [Kiev], April 28, 2022). The rail war in Ukraine is very real and victory provides the key to success for either side.

Intensified Russian efforts in late April to destroy Ukrainian rail infrastructure marked a change in Russia’s strategic approach; prior to that, Russian forces appeared intent on seizing as much of the rail system intact as possible. Russia’s ground forces simply cannot operate at any significant distance from its rail-lines, having as a result of its vast distances and climatic challenges an almost hereditary attachment to rail-supply at the expense of other means of distributing war materiel and supplies.  When it became obvious a Russian drive on Kiev, dependent on a mismanaged and neglected fleet of supply trucks, was not going to work, Moscow backed away from the northern theater to concentrate on eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Donbas is an industrial area well-covered with rail lines, allowing truck resupply of the frontline from rail-cars along short supply lines.

Purpose-built military trucks are in such short supply after nearly two months of fighting that inadequate civilian trucks incapable of off-road operations are now being pressed into service. Many truck losses appear to have simply been the result of poor maintenance, related in equal part to corrupt practices in the officer corps and a reliance on quickly-trained short-service conscripts to keep machines, goods and personnel moving (CNN, April 14, 2022).

Ukraine’s Rail System

Ukrainian Railways (Ukrzaliznytsya) is a massive operation, encompassing some 13,500 miles of rail, 1450 stations and 230,000 employees. Ukraine’s first railway was built by British troops in Crimea in 1855 during the war between Russia and the British, French, Ottoman and Sardinian alliance. Russian forces destroyed the line after the allied troops had left. It was an ignominious start for what eventually became a massive rail network.

Ukrainian Rail System

Keeping Ukrainian railcars moving in the midst of a war has been a major challenge, especially after Ukrzaliznytsya was charged with the task of moving millions of refugees to Ukraine’s western borders; at one point, 190,000 people were being moved each day. Damaged rail is a constant threat and, lacking anything like Russia’s corps of railway troops, civilian employees have found themselves carrying out repairs under fire. By April 1, over 70 Ukrzaliznytsya employees had been killed in Russian attacks (Kyiv Independent, April 1, 2022). Schedules must be altered daily after accounting for reports of damage to rail lines or their seizure by Russian forces. One way the Ukrainian rail has adjusted has been to decentralize control of the rail lines, with regional managers assuming more autonomous roles while top executives work from mobile command posts in disguised rail cars, moving every few hours to prevent being targeted by Russian forces (CNN, March 14, 2022). Railway employees have also helped defense efforts by producing anti-tank “hedgehogs” from rails in the shops.

According to the Ukrzaliznytsia chairman, Russian forces are now continually shelling Ukrainian infrastructure, including trains, rail stations and the quarters of railway workers (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, March 19, 2022). An April 8 missile attack using cluster munitions on the Kramatorsk rail station in Donetsk region killed as many as 59 people and wounded over 100 others.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has urged Ukrainian citizens to attack rail and other parts of the Russian military supply chain with Molotov cocktails and whatever other weapons are at hand (Eurasian Times, March 9, 2022). On March 17, Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych even urged Ukrainians to wage a “total rail war” against Russian forces, especially in the south, where Russian operations threaten to cut Ukraine from the sea (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, March 19, 2022).  

Partisans in Belarus

Most Russian supply trains in the north came through the Belarusian town of Homyel (or Gomel), just north of Ukraine. There have been reports of Belarusian “partisans” sabotaging switches and signals along lines used by the Russian military, while Ukrainian military forces attacked the lines inside northern Ukraine (Express [London], March 21, 2022).

Belarus’ state railway was the target of hacking efforts during the pre-war build-up of forces on the Ukrainian border. Creating turmoil in freight operations, the hack was carried out by the “Belarussian Cyber-Partisans” to oppose the presence of Russian “occupying troops” in Belarus (Railtech.com, January 25, 2022). Cyber-attacks on Belarus Railway’s outdated computer operating systems also helped foul the deployment of Russian military forces (Washington Post, April 23, 2022).

Ukrzaliznytsia chairman Oleksander Kamyshin claimed rail communications between Belarus and Ukraine stopped in mid-March after he appealed directly to Belarusian rail-workers to not carry out “criminal orders” and to instead refuse to carry Russian troops and equipment to Ukraine (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, March 19, 2022).

Reports from the Belarussian opposition in March indicated employees of the state railway company, Belaroeskaja Tsjyhoenka, were sabotaging rail lines used by Russian forces to enter Ukraine (Railtech.com, March 21, 2022). Setting fire to isolated railway signaling cabinets was a common way of disrupting rail traffic without killing Belarusian railway employees, but authorities came down hard, promising terrorism convictions with a minimum 20-year sentence for saboteurs. By mid-March, eight alleged saboteurs had been arrested, with some making televised “confessions.” Their appearance suggested beatings by security forces had occurred (Voice of Belarus, March 11, 2022). Belarusian security forces have diminished the number and degree of sabotage acts by deploying drones and more patrols, but it is too late for the Russians, who have now withdrawn from the northern front.

Even on the Russian side of the border, sabotage remains a threat; on April 12, a rail bridge in Belgorod Oblast (administrative region) near the border with Ukraine was badly damaged in an explosion, forcing a diversion of military supplies (Guardian, April 12, 2022).

Russia’s “Starvation Strategy”  

According to German Minister of Agriculture Cem Özdemir, Russia is not only at war with Ukraine, but with the entire international community. In what he described as Putin’s “starvation strategy,” Russian troops were “deliberately destroying agricultural infrastructure and supply chains” (Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, April 17, 2022). Most of Ukraine’s immense agricultural output is shipped from ports on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. These are now blockaded by the Russian Black Sea Fleet, based in the Crimean port of Sebastopol. Ukraine’s main agricultural exports include barley, sunflower oil (50% of world supply), corn (17% of global supply) and wheat (12% of global supply).

Once harvested, grains and other agricultural products must be kept moving through the system to their destinations. With Black Sea ports closed, however, Ukraine is faced with the task of shipping its harvests destined for Africa, Asia and the Middle-East northwest to Baltic Sea ports through a rail system that lacks anything near sufficient capacity (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, April 12, 2022). Shipping by sea is far cheaper than shipping by rail, so the infrastructure for rail-transport of its agricultural production to more distant ports in northern Europe was never developed.

Ukrainian Freight Train (International Railway Journal)

A major complication in connecting to the EU rail network is the difference in rail gauges, up to now regarded as a nuisance that would cost more to correct than endure. Beginning in the 1840s, Russia began using a rail gauge of 1524 mm (5 feet), adjusted in Soviet times to 1520 mm. This was still out of sync with the Standard Gauge of 1435 mm in use in most of Europe, making it impossible to roll a train from one track to the other, a problem independent Ukraine inherited.  When Ukrainian rail wagons reach any of its western borders, they need to be hoisted and set down on new bogies (chassis) designed for standard gauge rail, a process known as “break of gauge transloading.” Expensive and time-consuming, the process is also limited to the number of facilities capable of carrying out this procedure. Engines must also be switched, as they cannot be converted to a change of gauge. Offloading onto European narrow-gauge wagons is possible, but slower and more labor intensive. Ukrzaliznytsya is now trying to purchase additional machinery to speed things up at the border. Grain exports in March were only one-tenth of those a year prior.

To address the issue, Ukraine hopes to have an enlarged transfer station at the Polish border begin moving 50,000 tons of grain per month in July, increasing to 100,000 tons by September (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, April 12, 2022). The Ukrainian Railway Company announced plans in 2020 to build a 1.435 mm gauge track from Lviv in western Ukraine up to the Polish border and through to the old Austro-Hungarian fortress-city of Przemyśl, now part of Poland, but construction in current conditions seems unlikely.

Even after rail-transported grain successfully reaches EU rail-lines, new problems present themselves. Most European nations ship grain by inland water-ways; consequently, they have only a small number of grain cars as part of their rolling stock. As Europe is not the end destination for most Ukrainian grain, this must be shipped to ports in northern Europe, such as Gdansk, though other ports may be needed to handle the shipments (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, April 12, 2022). Part of the problem could be addressed by an immediate effort to build new fleets of grain cars, but it will be difficult to attract EU or Western investment for such a project. The Black Sea ports must reopen at some point – when that happens, there will be an expensive oversupply of grain cars in Europe.

Other export goods, including minerals and chemicals, are also getting caught in the border bottlenecks. By April 7, half the rail wagons in Ukraine were stuck at the Polish border, waiting for a change of chassis, wagon inspections and EU permits to proceed to the seaport of Gdansk (Reuters, April 7, 2022). Ukraine is also exploring the possibility of exporting its resources by rail through Hungary, Slovakia and Romania – a first shipment of 71,000 tons of corn was moved through the Romanian port of Constanta on April 28. Inability to move Ukraine’s exports will devastate its economy – if the war stopped today, Ukraine still faces years of recovery.

On April 30, Ukraine’s agricultural ministry accused Russian occupiers of stealing “several hundred thousand tons” of grain in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions, warning that farmers might decline to bring in the next crop if they think it will just be taken without compensation. Fighting in Luhansk is already preventing sowing the next crop (RFE/RL, April 30, 2022).

Ninety-five percent of Ukraine’s agricultural exports are shipped from Black Sea ports, meaning the Russian blockade is strangling important hubs for global food supply. Many of the African, Arab and Asian regimes that failed to oppose Putin’s invasion will find themselves battling internal unrest and insecurity due to food shortages – historically a major motivator in changes of regime.

Russia’s Armored Trains and Railway Troops

As trains began to make their appearance in Imperial Russia in the 1830s, there was a growing need for a corps of railway troops with mixed construction, repair and combat capabilities to keep, maintain and protect vital rail connections. Though armored trains had been introduced by World War One and were used extensively during the war and the Civil War that followed, Russia still lost some 60% of its track and 80% of its locomotives and carriages in the two conflicts. After the launch of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, both Germans and Soviets operated armored trains in Ukrainian and Russian territory, occasionally battling head-to-head. After the war, armored trains were operated in Siberia during the Sino-Russian border clashes of the 1960s, and again during the Chechen wars and lingering insecurity in the Norther Caucasus that was threatening Russian rail connections. Russia currently has ten railroad brigades to take care of security, construction, repair and maintenance activities. Military trains and the troops that serve on them (known as Zheleznodorozhniki -ZhDK) have played such an important part in Russian history that every August 6 is celebrated as the “Day of the Railway Troops.”

Even after the loss of vast territories in the Soviet collapse, Russia still operates commercial and passenger trains over 53,000 miles of track. It was a wave of attacks on trains and railway infrastructure in 2009-2010 in the Caucasus and other parts of Russia that brought the current generation of armored trains to Russian rails. [1] Prior to the pandemic, Russia’s Defense Ministry had four armored trains in service to secure its vital rail infrastructure; the Amur, the Terek, the Don and the Baikal. Of these, only the Terek was designed and built to be an armored train, the rest being conversions from passenger stock and civilian locomotives. The Interior Ministry ran its own improvised armored train, the Kozma Minin, during the fighting in the North Caucasus. [2] In 2015, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu cancelled his predecessor’s order to dismantle the armored trains and remove them from service. The Defense Ministry’s four armored trains were instead given an electronics overhaul in 2016, adding radar and anti-mine technology. [3]

Russian supply trains remain susceptible to attack by Ukrainian SU-27 fighters and Bayraktar TB2 drones. A February 28 video released by the Ukrainian Armed Forces purported to show a successful drone attack on a Russian military fuel convoy (Eurasian Times, March 3, 2022). The metal plate of the armored trains is sufficient to protect from small-arms fire and shell fragments, but cannot survive attacks from modern missiles and other weapons, a concern when Russian air superiority has not yet been established. Russia’s armored trains are likely providing escort or reconnaissance services to supply trains coming through Crimea, fulfilling one of the trains’ principal roles – the prevention of sabotage and partisan attacks on rail supply lines. The two remaining trains in the Caucasus may be used to guard military supply trains heading to the Donbas region.

Armored Trains Appear in Ukraine

Moving north from Crimea, a Russian armored train arrived at the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol on February 7 (Novoye Vremya [Kiev], March 8, 2022). [4] According to Russian sources, the train carried away five passenger carriages carrying 248 non-Ukrainian nationals from Kherson to Armyansk in northern Crimea (360tv.ru, March 8 2022).

Russian Armored Train in Ukraine (Illia Pomomarenko, Twitter, March 8 2022)

A second armored train was spotted in the Kherson region of Ukraine a few days later. Also believed to have come up from Crimea, the train was operating on a track with no connection to the line on which the first Russian armored train was observed (CNN, March 10, 2022). An unverified report from Ukraine claimed the train was being used in combat near Mariupol (The National [Abu Dhabi], March 9, 2022).

The armored trains have been cited as symbols of Russian military weakness and reliance on obsolete equipment, inspiring mockery from one Ukrainian media source: “We are waiting for the appearance of military airships in the skies of Ukraine, combat wheelbarrows on the roads, and dueling pistols handed out to the plowmen” (Televiziyna Sluzhba Novyn [Kiev], March 31, 2022).

The approach of the armored trains through Crimea was made possible by the 2014 Russian annexation of the peninsula, which is separated by the narrow Kerch Strait from the Russian mainland. Access to and from the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyans’k on the Sea of Azov can be attained only by passage through the Strait. Defying a 2003 treaty guaranteeing freedom of navigation through the Kerch Strait for both Russia and Ukraine, Moscow took sole control of the strait in 2014. Moscow ordered a bridge built across the strait that opened in 2018; the second phase, a rail bridge, was opened the following year. Perhaps acknowledging the strategic importance of this link for plans to use Crimea as a base for operations in Ukraine, Putin attended the opening, taking the first train across the strait. Prior to this, Russian trains traveling to occupied Crimea were carried across the strait on barges.

In 2021, Russia closed the strait to Ukrainian and American warships from April 24 to October 31. The closure occurred after the US decided to send two destroyers to the Black Sea as a show of strength in response to growing Russian military activity in eastern Ukraine. The Biden administration backed off from the deployment after Putin suggested the Black Sea may be an “unsafe” environment for American naval ships.

The Armored Trains – Firepower

Russian armored trains carry anti-aircraft defenses in the shape of two ZU-23-2 twin 23 mm autocannons developed in the 1950s Soviet Union (MK.RU, August 12, 2016).  The ZU-23-2 was widely used by North Vietnamese forces against American aircraft during the Vietnam War, and later found heavy use in conflicts in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Georgia, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. China reverse-engineered the weapon and made it available for export as the “Type-85” and later offered an upgraded version, “Type-87.” The ZU-23-2 lacks modern range-finding and targeting equipment common to newer anti-aircraft weapons.

Firing the ZSU-23-2 guns of Armored Train Baikal (Dmitry Rogulin)

Though the ZU-23-2s can be used against land targets, the trains’ main ground defenses are provided by outdated T-62 main battle tanks, last manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1975. However, the T-62 still provides defensive firepower with a 115 mm smoothbore tank gun, a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun and a 12.7 mm DShK “Dushka” antiaircraft heavy machine-gun. On occasion, the more modern T-72 MBT may be carried on the train instead of the T-62.

The armored trains also carry a BPM-2 infantry fighting vehicle, armed with a 30 mm autocannon, a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun, a grenade launcher and anti-tank guided missiles. When deployed off the train, the BPM-2 can carry seven soldiers. The tanks and BMP-2s can be taken off the trains to provide mobility and firepower to a desantniy ortryad (raiding team), ready to carry out attacks, conduct surveillance or defend the train.

Electronic jamming equipment prevents the detonation of electronically-triggered IEDs on the railway tracks and disrupts radio communications with blasts of white noise. Pressure-triggered explosive devices typically do little damage to armored trains, which typically run a flatbed car weighted-down with sandbags in front of the train to absorb the shock of such explosions. Track maintenance crews carried on the train are usually able to restore damaged tracks very quickly.

Tactical Pipelines

Russia has tried using tactical pipelines to extend its military operational zones and diminish its reliance on rail tankers and trucks. The Soviets began work on military pipelines in the 1930s as a means of supplying fuel and water to military units under combat conditions.

Russian Tactical Pipeline Layer

Today, portable trunk pipelines can be laid at a rate of 60 to 80 km per day using automated pipe-laying machines. Pipeline troops can install pumping stations and provide defensive and maintenance services to the pipelines, which often tap into existing civilian pipelines or offshore tankers (OE Watch, October 2018). The PMTP-100 collapsible pipelines currently in use can deliver 1200 tons of fuel per day (Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, August 21, 2018). Despite success in exercises, Russia’s pipeline troops appeared to be unable to supply the Russian column stuck without fuel north of Kiev.

Outlook – Consequences for the Donbas Campaign

Russia never intended to take all of Ukraine by force, a fool’s pursuit at best with long-ranging consequences. The Russian plan relied on a lightning strike into Kiev, followed by a change of government, the campaign being supported by a blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. The failure of this plan has led to a withdrawal from northern Ukraine and a new focus on the southern coast and the eastern Donbas region.

Experienced Ukrainian defenders in the Donbas region are well emplaced after seven years of warfare against pro-Moscow separatists and their Russian advisors. This has been confirmed by the slow pace of the new Russian offensive there despite being whipped on by Russia’s grim new commander in Ukraine, General Aleksander Dvornikov.

One of the main Russian supply corridors for the battle for the Donbas region is the rail route from the Russian supply base at Valuyki, established for the purpose in 2015, and the rail-hub of Kupyansk in Ukraine. Kupyansk’s mayor, Hennadiy Matsehora, surrendered the city to the Russians as they approached on February 27 and was later arrested and charged with treason by Ukrainian authorities.

Rail lines from Crimea are being used to supply Russian troops moving eastwards along the northern coast of the Sea of Azov to take Berdyans’k and Mariupal as part of an effort to encircle Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region and cut their supply lines.

Despite the difficult situation, there are still paths to save Ukraine – breaking the rail bottlenecks at the north-western borders would represent a major contribution to this effort, allowing Ukrainian goods to get to market while alleviating a war-induced crush on global grain supplies.  Ukraine must keep its rail lines to the west open to permit revenue-producing exports and allow the inward bound movement of weapons and munitions from the NATO alliance.

While shortages of warplanes and missiles have prevented Ukraine from destroying stalled supply columns in detail and effectively ending the ability of Russia to invade its neighbor, it seems clear that NATO forces with air superiority could have treated the 40 km logjam on roads near Kiev much like the ten-hour “turkey shoot” of an Iraqi column in 1991 on the Kuwait to Basra highway that destroyed at least 1500 vehicles.

Russian military and political objectives are barely attainable due to poor intelligence, inept planning and a barely operational military logistics system. More than anything, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed the Russian armed forces would be quickly annihilated in any conventional war against the NATO alliance. Only deploying Russia’s strategic nuclear capabilities as a last defensive resort could prevent this, but in light of what we’re witnessing in Ukraine, one has to wonder whether Russia’s strategic nuclear forces have escaped the incompetence and corruption that permeates the rest of its military.

NOTES

1.“Armored Trains Return to the Russian North Caucasus,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 7(36), February 23, 2010, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3866.

2. For the Kozma Minin, see: “Russian Interior Ministry Revives its Armored Train in the North Caucasus,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, May 14, 2013, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=275

3. See “Russia’s Counter-Insurgency Armored Trains Enter the Electronics Age,” AIS Special Report, February 28, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3873.

4. Video of the train’s arrival can be seen at https://eurasiantimes.com/russian-armored-train-automatic-cannons-ukraine-invasion/ (March 9, 2022).

Russia’s Broken Steamroller: Why the Structure of the Russian Army Prevents Victory in Ukraine

AIS Special Report on Ukraine No. 4

April 7, 2022

Andrew McGregor

Strategic speculation regarding a potential clash of European powers in the early 20th century often cited the likely impact of “the Russian Steamroller,” referring to the massive Imperial Russian army of 1.4 million men and a reserve of over 3 million more. Despite a surprisingly poor performance against Japan in 1904-05, the spectre of millions of armed Russians rolling across Europe in an irresistible wave still figured into the military calculations of other European powers. When a European war did break out in 1914, a smaller German force quickly destroyed the invading Russian masses around the lakes of East Prussia. New armies were raised from the seemingly endless manpower of Russia and some 15 million Russians eventually passed through the army ranks, leaving two million dead on the battlefields of Eastern Europe before Russia made an early exit from the conflict.

Russia’s disastrous role in the Great War contributed to a civil war and an earth-shaking post-war political change that saw Tsars and princes replaced with Bolsheviks and commissars. Though the army of the new Soviet Union remained huge, its equipment was poor and its timid leadership was all that was left after Stalin’s pre-war purge of “anti-revolutionary” elements in the officer corps. This encouraged Germany to tackle the “Steamroller” head-on once again in 1941. Despite its numbers, the almost leaderless Red Army collapsed and the Germans were within sight of Moscow before the army’s headlong retreat could be halted. Germany ultimately lost the war in the East (in large part due to massive Allied aid to Moscow), but not before it succeeded in killing some ten million Soviet soldiers out of the 26 million that served in the wartime Red Army.

Mass Soviet armies threatened Europe throughout the Cold War, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the military divided and confused regarding its composition and role. Since the beginning of the Cold War, the military goal of the Soviets and their Russian successors has been to field an army capable of taking on American forces (and their NATO allies) while spending a mere fraction of the US military budget. Needless to say, this is an unrealistic goal and efforts to keep up with American military spending have already broken the Kremlin’s bank once before.

Embarrassing defeats at the hands of Chechen resistance fighters in the 1990s helped bring internal recognition that reforms were badly needed in the Russian army. Poorly trained conscripts performed so ineptly in the Caucasus that frontline officers begged to be spared further reinforcements of draftees.

Russia thus began a gradual transformation to a more professional force with a focus on elite elements rather than the massed armies that had served Russia in the past. However, efforts to build a smaller and more professional military continue to be held back by Russia’s perceived need to field forces large enough to engage with its strategic “peers” in Europe. The financial inability of Russia to fund an army with training, armament and numbers comparable to NATO forces while also maintaining expensive elite forces has led to imbalances in the structure of the Russian Army, imbalances that sabotaged Moscow’s plans for a quick and decisive victory in Ukraine.

Unexpectedly forced into a conventional war unlike the lightning strike by elite troops that Moscow had planned for, Russia’s military seems unable to overcome resistance from a much smaller army, even with the benefit of short supply lines and a huge superiority in arms, armor, aircraft and weapons systems. So what is wrong with the Russian Army?

Not anticipating a campaign of any length, Russia did not field its army in the usual way as brigades, divisions and armies, deploying its forces instead in the battalion tactical groups (BTGs) the army has favored for use in the Donbas region. The BTGs, which focus on mobility backed by artillery, do not carry the same level of battlefield maintenance and repair support services as the larger formations, partly explaining the logistical problems experienced after Russia’s “special military operation” failed to take out the Zelensky government in the first 48 hours (ECFR, March 15, 2022). Roughly 125 BTGs have been deployed in Ukraine.

The new focus on elite troops and the common practice of scripting large-scale military exercises in peacetime have damaged the army’s ability to fight in a conventional manner. Poor land-air coordination of Russian forces prevents effective offensive airstrikes with confusion prevailing over the identification of ground forces as friend or foe. Wretched staff-work and military intelligence efforts bordering on outright incompetence speak to the neglect and lethargy still common to large parts of the Russian military. A basic inability to identify useful military targets may be contributing to the Russian destruction of civilian targets throughout Ukraine.

The Russian army also seems to be unable to use drones to their full advantage in pressing home their attacks. Ukraine’s use of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones has been much more effective in comparison, taking full advantage of the Russian invasion’s reliance on roads and rail to move men and materiel at this time of year.

It is noteworthy that no single general appears to be in command of the campaign, partly due to the Kremlin’s reluctance to elevate operations in Ukraine in the public eye to the status of an “invasion” or “war,” terms that have actually been banned from public discussion of the operation. Confident of a quick victory, Putin may have decided to retain overall command for himself in order to claim credit for a legacy-building contribution to the reconstruction of the Soviet Empire so mourned by the Russian president. Putin has not, however, admitted to any responsibility for a war that has badly damaged Russia’s economy, exposed its military and battered its international reputation.

General Valery Gerasimov (CNBC)

Despite being the author of Russia’s central military doctrine, commander of the Russian Armed Forces General Valery Gerasimov briefly went missing from public view after March 11, along with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and intelligence chiefs Igor Kostyukov (GRU) and Alexander Bortnikov (FSB). The FSB, responsible for domestic intelligence, has a clandestine foreign intelligence branch that was responsible for forming partisan groups and encouraging public support for the invasion in Ukraine, failing dismally on both counts. Shoigu and Gerasimov reappeared in a March 26 press conference, but it is unclear whether the two are still actively in command of Russian operations in Ukraine. Putin’s dissatisfaction with the efforts of his military and intelligence leaders became obvious in his March 16 declaration, when he warned the Russian nation will distinguish between true patriots and “scum and traitors” who will be dealt with in a Stalin-style purge.

THE PROFESSIONALS – THE CONTRACT CORE OF THE RUSSIAN ARMY

Conscript losses in the Chechen wars hastened the implementation of proposals to develop a professional corps of volunteer soldiers under three-year, renewable contracts. The kontraktniki, as the contract troops are known, now form two-thirds of Russia’s 600,000-man army and enjoy far better conditions and benefits than conscript troops. Proposals to further expand the contract force continue to founder on the financial difficulty of paying contractors 30 times what a conscript is paid (plus benefits and pensions).

Citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) were first given the opportunity of enlisting in the Russian army in January 2004. According to new rules introduced in 2010 aimed at addressing the unpopularity of military service in Russia, citizens of the CIS were allowed to sign a five-year military service contract, with the possibility of obtaining Russian citizenship after three years. [1] Recruitment began to intensify in the Northern Caucasus and Central Asian states, where military service was still seen as a traditional and honorable occupation offering opportunities of advancement. Enlistment also proved popular with ethnic Ukrainians; a breakdown of ethnic origins in the Russian Federation Army in 2018 revealed over half the officers in the army at that time were ethnic Ukrainians (Newizv.ru, February 28, 2022).

Russia often has difficulty convincing contract soldiers to renew their three-year deal in the best of times; convincing kontraktniki whose contracts are expiring to sign up for another hitch during the dirty and demoralizing war in Ukraine may prove a challenge. Little attention has been given to the proper training of non-commissioned officers (NCOs), leaving the lower ranks more dependent on junior officers for initiative and leadership. Russia has, however, revived the controversial post of “political commissar,” albeit in a new form, with lessons in Marxist dialectical materialism replaced by instruction in patriotism and devotion to the state. Besides the new focus on patriotism as a core military value, some effort has been made in recent years to alleviate the notoriously brutal conditions of service in the Russian army, including better pay, pensions and improved living quarters.

Much has been made of the experience Russian forces gained in Syria since 2015, but this experience has been limited to elements of the air force, special forces, intelligence services, military police and select naval ships. Russian infantry of the regular forces have not participated in the ongoing conflict in Syria. Ukrainian troops, on the other hand, have been regularly rotated through frontline positions in the Donbas region since 2014, fighting pro-Russian militias and their Russian advisors. Regular exposure to combat no doubt provided motivation in the Ukrainian ranks to absorb the intensive training provided by elite NATO troops for the past seven years.

THE CONSCRIPTS – THE STEAMROLLER ON LIFE SUPPORT

The persistence of conscription in Russia when most competing Western nations have moved entirely to professional volunteer forces reflects both an authoritarian fear of a politicized professional military seizing control and an inability to finance a purely professional force.

The deployment of nearly helpless conscripts against highly-skilled and motivated Chechen resistance forces in the 1990s led to a massive distaste for compulsory service in Russian society. As a result, the armed forces found themselves left with only those not clever enough or wealthy enough to avoid the draft, some even resorting to self-mutilation to avoid service. What was left was the slow-witted, the unhealthy and underweight poor, the drug-addled and drink-besotted and the less-than-patriotic graduates of Russia’s prison system. At one point in the 1990s, the Russian conscription class contained far more ex-convicts than recruits with a higher education. It was unsuitable material with which to build a modern army.

For any recruit holding a misguided belief in a military future, there was the dedovshchina, a deeply ingrained system of violent hazing of first-year conscripts by second-year conscripts that led to thousands of unnecessary deaths every year, including those who looked to suicide as a means of escaping the abuse. While a change to only a single year of conscription and other reforms have helped, the reputation established by this iniquitous tradition continues to deter young Russians from military service. Unfortunately, the dedovshchina is now being replaced by ethnic rivalries in the lower ranks, forcing the command to consider creating ethnically-based units to keep rival groups apart, though this is unlikely to proceed due to Moscow’s traditional suspicion of its national minorities. The army of the Russian Federation is far from homogenously Russian and Christian despite its close alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church; it includes Muslim Tatars, ethnic-Koreans, and Muslims from Central Asia and the North Caucasus, among others.

The army recruits through semi-annual drafts, the spring draft coming on April 1 and the fall draft launching on October 1. In recent years, the annual number of recruits has been between 260,000 to 270,000. Very few, if any, children of the Russian elite are ever absorbed into the service through conscription.

Captured Russian Conscripts in Kiev

In 2008, then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov promised to stop sending conscripts to “hot-spots” where combat is ongoing and reduced the conscription period from two years to one. With basic and secondary training taking six to seven months, conscripts are only available for service for a few months before finishing their year-long enlistment.

Due to the difficulty in turning low-quality conscripts into active service troops with the short training period (complicated by conscripts’ focus on their release date rather than developing military skills), draftees are typically unable to operate advanced weapons systems and are instead used in more labor-intensive support roles such as wood-cutting, construction, cooking and transportation. For tasks requiring technological skills, contractors are used exclusively.

A March 7 declaration by Putin that no conscripts were currently deployed in Ukraine was followed a day later by an admission by the Ministry of Defense that conscripts were indeed fighting in Ukraine. In Putin’s mind, his claim may have been technically true – there are numerous reports since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict of Russian conscripts nearing the end of their enlistment being forced, even physically, to sign three-year contracts changing their status from conscript to contract soldier. The change in status, however, is no substitute for the additional training and combat experience real contract troops have received. Ultimately, the addition of poorly trained warm bodies to Russian combat units in the middle of a conflict will do little to enhance their effectiveness, though it may keep these units busy chasing deserters.

THE RESERVE – TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

Most of Russia’s reserve forces are basically non-functional, with little money available for mobilization, monthly exercises and other training necessary to keep reserve troops in fighting trim. It cannot, therefore, be counted on to replace Russian losses in an extended conflict. Until recently, Russia’s active reserve amounted to only a few thousand soldiers, forcing Moscow to avoid protracted conflicts in which losses could not be easily replaced.

Apparently with an invasion of Ukraine in mind, the Kremlin began to take the problem of the reserves seriously in August 2021. Until that point, reservists were spread out through the country, receiving little or no training. Contact with the armed forces was minimal – reservists were expected to report in themselves in the event of a mobilization and there was no system to keep track of the locations of reservists after they finished their one-year of conscript service. Mobilization of the reserve counted very much on who would feel inclined to show up at the local collection center. By this point, Russia’s armed millions had become little more than a fiction.

To deal with this problem, the Russian command formed the Special Combat Army Reserve (Boevoy Armeyskiy Rezerv Strany – BARS), a kind of reserve form of the kontraktniki, where volunteers with military training could sign three-year contracts, receiving compensation for three-days of training a month. Employers would also be compensated for the loss of labor on service days. The plan was to build a capable reserve of 100,000 troops, likely in preparation for the invasion of Ukraine and possibly other regions on Putin’s “restore the Soviet Union” list.

Vladimir Putin announced on March 8 that Russian reserve troops were not serving in Ukraine, though the announcement came on the heels of Putin’s false assertion that Russian conscripts were not present in Ukraine. Given the intensity of the fighting in Ukraine, it will be impossible to avoid the necessity of temporarily rotating kontraktniki units out of the frontlines; if Russian reserves are not in Ukraine now, they may soon be.

MERCENARIES AND FOREIGN FIGHTERS: WHAT WOULD BREZHNEV SAY?

Russia’s experiment in using private military contractors (PMCs) with close ties to private Russian mining firms and investment companies to extend Russian influence abroad has yielded dividends for the Kremlin. At the same time, it allows Moscow to deny culpability for the war crimes and corrupt practices of these formations. From their early use in Syria and Ukraine’s Donbas region, the PMCs (most notable of which is the notorious “Wagner Group”) have now deployed in Sudan, Mali, Mozambique, Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR), offering military services as well as assistance in electoral manipulation, disinformation campaigns, VIP protection and intimidation operations. This new phase of establishing Russian influence abroad marks a drastic deviation from the Soviet era, when the Soviet Union was one of the firmest opponents of “white mercenaries” in Africa, most of whom were staunch anti-communists and hindrances to the spread of Soviet influence.

While the employees of Russia’s PMCs do not fall under official Russian control and are commonly referred to as mercenaries, they are not mercenaries in the true sense in that they are only allowed to operate to the benefit of Russian interests in operations approved by the Kremlin; any attempt to freelance in the traditional way of mercenaries would subject these soldiers to the severe penalties for “mercenarism” included in Russia’s criminal code. The PMCs also quietly receive logistical and transport support from the Russian Defense Ministry, though some Defense Ministry officials may resent the ability of the PMCs and their directors to enrich themselves through access to gas, oil and mineral wealth in the regions where they operate. Putin appears to be following the long-established Soviet practice of encouraging rivalries rather than cooperation amongst national security agencies and their proxies with the intention of preventing any one agency of becoming strong enough to overthrow the regime.

In many cases the PMCs now substitute for the usual work of civilian Russian intelligence agencies overseas, maintaining instead close relations with the GRU, the intelligence agency of Russia’s Ministry of Defense. GRU special forces were instrumental in seizing Crimea in 2014 and have been operating in the Donbas region since then.

The unexpected Russian demand for additional manpower in what was expected to be a brief and decisive operation in Ukraine is now draining personnel from the regions in which the PMCs operate. In some cases, these are not only Russians being pulled to the battlefields of Ukraine, but local fighters who have signed on to the PMCs as mercenaries and interpreters in Africa or Syria.

Elements of the Russian Wagner Group in Libya have been observed leaving for eastern Ukraine, with the remainder of the force locking down at Sirte, or further south at the Brak al-Shati military base and the Tamenhint airbase in Fezzan. Russian regulars are also reported to be leaving Abkhazia and South Ossetia for Ukraine, signs the Russian command is desperate for experienced troops to allow relief for frontline forces.

Syrians are now being recruited for mercenary service in Ukraine. Roughly 300 Syrians are undergoing advanced training in Russia, with the prospect of many more to follow. Most of the Syrian recruits are former members of Syria’s 25th Special Mission Forces Division, specialized in mechanized warfare using Russian equipment and accustomed to working closely with Russian Special Forces units. On March 11, President Putin authorized the recruitment of up to 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East.

OUTLOOK

Destroyed Russian T-8OU Main Battle Tank

Moscow’s agreement to postpone the invasion of Ukraine until the completion of the Beijing Olympics was a strategic mistake based on Russian assumptions that the war would be over in days. Frozen ground that might have allowed the off-road movement of armor and other military vehicles has now turned into the notorious Rasputitsa that bogged down German invaders 80 years ago. Hundreds of combat vehicles have been lost in the first five weeks of fighting to mud or Ukrainian attacks; according to Ukrainian intelligence, Russian authorities were dismayed to discover that “mothballed” replacements had been stripped of their valuable electronics and optical devices by their corrupt custodians.

Putin is reaching the end of his constitutional mandate as president. Unless he sends out firm signs that he plans on further constitutional manipulation to preserve his rule, failure in Ukraine, either real or perceived, may loosen his grip as new players seek to position themselves in a post-Putin struggle for power.

A Russian occupation of Ukraine seems impossible at the moment. The growing evidence of Russian war crimes in an unprovoked conflict will preclude the legitimacy of any Russian-backed Ukrainian government. Russian excesses could force a strongarm military occupation instead, tying up large numbers of troops with little chance of recruiting local “pro-Moscow” partisans to do the dirty work of occupation outside the Donbas region, at least in the short to medium-term. Concentrating nearly all of its effective troops in Ukraine leaves the rest of Russia’s enormous land-mass nearly defenseless and dependent on Russia’s nuclear option to deter incursions on its borders.

While adding conscripts to the invasion force mix may bring units up to strength, it cannot be reasonably thought that additions of poorly trained conscripts forced into frontline service will contribute in any meaningful way to combat effectiveness, and may even work against it. The use of foreign mercenaries in the “liberation” of Ukraine will only further diminish the Kremlin’s credibility and the legitimacy of its “special military operation.”

Parts of the Russian integrated military doctrine such as information manipulation and cyberstrikes have stuttered when called upon so far, having achieved far greater success in manipulating public opinion inside Russia than in the international arena, where its clumsy claims of “crisis actors” and insistence that Ukrainian troops are committing war crimes against Ukrainian civilians have found little resonance. If the regime in Moscow survives the war, it will be forced to address the structural problems of its military and the contribution these problems have made to the growing debacle in Ukraine. Whether this can be carried out effectively and honestly in a state where even mention of the word “invasion” is an offense is highly questionable.

NOTE

  1. The largely moribund Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) consists of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan. Georgia withdrew from the CIS due to Russian aggression in 2008; Ukraine withdrew for the same reason in 2018. Turkmenistan participates at a distance as an associate member.

Putin’s New Russian Empire is Suddenly on the Rocks: How the War in Ukraine Threatens Russian Interests in Sudan

AIS Special Report on Ukraine No.3

March 24, 2022

Andrew McGregor

Blue and yellow flags carried by anti-government protesters are a new and unusual sight in the streets of Khartoum. However, these banners are less a show of support for besieged Ukrainians than a rejection of a Sudanese military regime that continues to grow closer to Russia even as President Vladimir Putin’s army carries out widely condemned atrocities and war crimes in a sovereign state. At stake is not only Sudan’s own sovereignty, but the ability of its rulers to offer food security and a path to development.

With the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, Sudan ended over a quarter-century of military-Islamist rule. Though promises were made that a joint civilian-military transitional government would lead to a new era of democratic civilian rule, a military coup in October 2021 ended that experiment and led to the severing of most economic and financial ties to the West, including $US 700 million of American aid.

General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan (Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency)

The junta’s leader, General ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan, is typical of the Islamist military officers who enjoyed great power during al-Bashir’s rule, but his ambitious deputy, Lieutenant-General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” represents a new and growing power in Sudan as commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Created from the remnants of the infamous Janjaweed, the RSF was intended to serve as a paramilitary focused on establishing security in Darfur under the guidance of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS – now rebranded as the General Intelligence Services – GIS) rather than the military. The RSF quickly developed a reputation for atrocities and war crimes in restive Darfur. [1] Since then, it has exploited its independence to grow vastly in strength while establishing its own economic base. Besides serving as revenue-producing rental troops in Libya and Yemen, the RSF now acts as a regime-defending internal security force in most Sudanese cities, including the capital of Khartoum, where the RSF was accused of rapes, murders and massacres after al-Bashir’s overthrow.

With Western nations and international institutions avoiding any interaction with Sudan’s military rulers, Russia has helped provide diplomatic support for the coup leaders at the UN and elsewhere. Russia has also provided direct and indirect support to the Sudanese military and the RSF in return for access to Sudanese resources, especially gold, and an agreement to permit the establishment of a Russian naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Internally, however, Khartoum’s dalliance with Putin’s Russia and the activities of Russian “Wagner Group” mercenaries closely tied to the Kremlin have aggravated opposition to the regime rather than appease it. There have been continuous street protests since the coup, with scores killed by security forces. The participation of Russian mercenaries in repressing popular opposition and manipulating information sources has scandalized many Sudanese. [2]

Rather than back off from an unpopular association with Moscow, Hemetti chose to lead an ill-timed and ill-advised eight-day mission to Moscow only one day before the invasion of Ukraine. Hemetti’s request for supplies of Russian arms and military assistance in exchange for a Red Sea naval base at the same time Russian troops were slaughtering Ukrainian civilians and Sudanese citizens were going hungry was met with disbelief in many quarters.

Sudan, like many other African nations, is a major consumer of Russian and Ukrainian wheat, these sources providing 35% of Sudan’s supply in 2021 (BNNBloomberg, March 15, 2022). Soaring prices for grain are not helped by the retreat of international donors after the military coup, including those agencies that might be the most helpful in securing affordable and reliable supplies. Despite this, Hemetti’s primary focus remained on obtaining weapons rather than provisions.

Sudan abstained on the UN General Assembly motion to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demand Russia’s immediate withdrawal. Despite intense diplomatic pressure from the US and the EU to condemn Russia’s invasion, the military-dominated Sovereign Council that currently governs Sudan would go no further than calling for negotiations and a diplomatic solution.

Sudan’s civilian opposition coalition, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and rejects Russian interference in Sudanese affairs. The National Umma Party (NUP), one of Sudan’s largest, was specific, objecting that Hemetti’s visit to Moscow did not serve Sudanese interests while declaring the invasion was an “unjust war against a free people to force them to give up their sovereignty” (Radio Dabanga, March 1, 2022). Though Russia’s growing presence and influence in Sudan appears to threaten Sudan’s sovereignty as well, events in Ukraine may reverse this trend and even threaten the African nation’s governing structure.

Sudanese Support for Russia – At a Cost

Hemetti and a large Sudanese delegation arrived in Moscow for a week-long visit on February 23, 2022, the day before the attack on Ukraine was launched. It was not Hemetti’s first trip to Moscow; in 2019 he visited on an arms-shopping mission. Since 2017, Sudan has been a leading purchaser of Russian arms, which now represent 50% of Sudanese purchases. [3]

Patrushev and Hemetti, February 25, 2022 (Sudan Tribune)

Notably, the delegation did not include a representative of the Sudanese armed forces. In Sudan, it is Hemetti’s RSF that works closely with Russian mercenaries of the infamous Wagner Group, who have been deployed in support of the military regime. One of Hemetti’s main concerns was reported to involve obtaining Russian weapons for his RSF as well as the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) (Sudan Tribune, February 25, 2022). Among the high-end items sought by Hemetti were S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems and Sukhoi Su-35 jet-fighters at a time when tensions with Ethiopia are high. Other countries, such as Egypt and Indonesia, have recently backed out of deals for the purchase of Su-35s due to their second-rate radar systems and the possibility of US sanctions designed to prevent large weapons purchases from Russia (Forbes, January 11, 2022).

Russian-made Sudanese Sukhoi Su-35 in Sudanese Colors (MilitaryWatchMagazine)

On arrival, Hemetti expressed his support for the independence of the two Russian-engineered republics in the Donbas regions and Russia’s military pressure on Ukraine, declaring: “The whole world must realize that [Russia] has the right to defend its people” (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2022). Hemetti’s remarks seemed to echo Russian assertions that Putin is defending ethnic Russians from genocide at the hands of Ukrainian “Nazis.” Widely condemned almost immediately, Hemetti’s remarks created a diplomatic stir that Sudan’s Foreign Ministry addressed by stating: “We consider that publishing that statement in this manner is a deliberate distortion, taking the speech of the First Deputy out of context, and a cheap attempt to fish in troubled waters” (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2022). Accused of war crimes himself in Darfur, Hemetti is unlikely to have any qualms about establishing closer ties to Putin’s Russia even as it commits war crimes in Ukraine.

An Arabic-language news-site based in London, al-Araby al-Jadid, claimed that al-Burhan told Egyptian authorities he suspected Hemetti and his RSF of planning a coup to replace him with another military figurehead (Sudan Tribune, February 26, 2022). Though al-Burhan is the senior figure in the junta that overthrew President Omar al-Bashir, Hemetti has emerged as the real power, as witnessed by his direct dealings with senior Russian officials such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, head of the Russian Federation Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin.

After Hemetti’s visit to Moscow, al-Burhan made a call to Saudi Arabia to talk to officials there about Red Sea security issues – in other words, a discussion of Hemetti’s views on allowing a Russian Red Sea naval base directly opposite the Saudi cities of Mecca and Jeddah.

Sudanese Gold, Russian Miners

In early March, an executive with a leading Sudanese gold company revealed to the Telegraph that Russia has been smuggling roughly 30 tonnes of gold from Sudan each year to build up its reserves and weaken the effect of sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Working in collusion with Hemetti and his RSF, Russian mining firm M-Invest (closely tied to the “Wagner Group”), through its local subsidiary Meroe Gold, has been smuggling gold in small planes from military airstrips (The Telegraph, March 3, 2022; Government.ru, November 24, 2017). In response to the allegations, Hemetti said the identity of the end buyers of smuggled Sudanese gold was unimportant; what mattered was who was selling the gold. The RSF chief claimed 40 individuals had already been arrested, but declined to provide any further information (VOA, March 10, 2022). Russian involvement in the Sudanese mining sector began in 2017 with the signing of several agreements between former president Omar al-Bashir and Vladimir Putin.

Sudan’s Minister of Minerals, Muhammad Bashir Abunmo, rejected the claims of Russian smuggling as “baseless accusations” devised to “justify the Western campaign against Russia.” The minister, a member of Minni Minnawi’s faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-MM), insisted that Meroe Gold produces only three tons of gold per year, and that much of that was retained by the Sudanese government (Sudan Tribune, March 12, 2022). The Sudanese acting ambassador to Russia, Onor Ahmad Onor, also rejected the claims: “I have nothing to say other than it is fake news and a story created from the imagination of the Telegraph reporter” (VOA, March 10, 2022). Moscow has also denied the allegations.

On Hemetti’s return, the opposition Forces for Freedom and Change, accused Russia of “stealing resources” and interfering in Sudanese affairs to support its role in “regional and international conflicts” (Middle East Monitor, March 3, 2022). Sudan desperately needs the gold to try to avert an economic collapse brought on by the military coup, so any losses due to smuggling will only contribute to the nation’s financial crisis.

Secret documents obtained by anti-corruption NGO Global Witness in 2020 revealed the complex financial network the RSF has established (including its own bank account in Abu Dhabi), allowing it to independently obtain 1,000 vehicles from Dubai suppliers, most of them Toyota 4x4s that can be converted to lightly armored, machine-gun mounted “technicals” of the type widely used in the Sahara and Sahel regions. Important parts of the network appear to be controlled by Hemetti’s younger brothers, Al-Goni Hamdan Daglo and ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daglo, the deputy head of the RSF. Much of the financing for this network comes from the al-Junaid gold company, which trades in the output of the RSF-controlled gold mines in the Jabal Amr region of Darfur, seized by the RSF in 2017. Al-Junaid is officially owned by ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daglo and his two sons (Global Witness, April 5, 2020).

RSF operations in Yemen provide another revenue stream, courtesy of financing provided by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to Hemetti: “People ask where do we get this money from? We have the salaries of our troops fighting abroad and our gold investments, money from gold and other investments” (Global Witness, December 9, 2019).

A Russian Naval Base on the Red Sea?

After extensive discussions, a 25-year agreement allowing the establishment of a Russian naval base on Sudan’s east coast was signed in 2017 by al-Bashir and Putin, though it was not immediately implemented. [4] The agreement, renewable for further ten-year terms with the consent of both parties, came as al-Bashir complained he needed Russian support to fend off alleged American aggression against Sudan. Under its conditions, Russia will be able to use the base and install 300 Russian personnel to support up to four Russian naval ships (including those powered by nuclear energy) operating in the Red Sea. In return, Sudan would receive Russian arms and other military equipment.

After President Putin authorized his Defense Ministry to establish the Russian base in November 2020, Prime Minister Mikhael Mishustin emphasized that the facility would be “defensive and not aimed against other countries” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 20, 2020). Russia describes the planned base as a “material-technical support facility.”

The agreement was suspended after Sudanese officials had second thoughts about certain clauses in 2021. Many civil and military leaders were less than enthusiastic about the project. Armed Forces chief-of-staff and former Sudanese point-man on the project, General Muhammad ‘Uthman al-Hussein, described the pact as including “clauses that were somewhat harmful to the country,” forcing a general review (AFP, June 2, 2021). Last September, Khartoum was reported to be seeking a modification of the terms surrounding the new Russian base to include not only arms as compensation, but also badly-needed economic assistance. The Sudanese also floated the idea of replacing the 25-year agreement with one covering only five years, with the potential of renewing the agreement up to a 25-year period (The Arab Weekly, September 16, 2021).

The stalled agreement was a focus of Hemetti’s visit to Moscow as the two parties moved towards implementation. On March 3, Hemetti declared: “We have 730 kilometres along the Red Sea. If any country wants to open a base and it is in our interests and doesn’t threaten our national security we have no problem in dealing with anyone, Russian or otherwise” (Reuters, March 3, 2022; AfricaNews, March 2, 2022). Hemetti, however, insisted that the decision was ultimately that of the defense minister, “so it is not my responsibility. But if there is any benefit from the base, in addition to its commitment to community responsibility, for the people of eastern Sudan, we do not object to its establishment” (Sudan Tribune, March 2, 2022).

Hemetti added that he was perplexed by the opposition to a Russian base in Sudan, pointing out that many African countries hosted military bases belonging to foreign powers. Authorities in Cairo were reported to be surprised and angered by Hemetti’s remarks, having no desire to see Russian naval ships patrolling off Egypt’s Red Sea coast near the entrance to the Suez Canal. A demand for clarification was issued almost immediately (Middle East Monitor, March 7, 2022). Egypt abandoned its initial neutral stance on the conflict in Ukraine to vote in favor of the UN General Assembly’s denunciation of the Russian invasion. The change came partly because of diplomatic pressure applied by Ukrainian and American representatives despite demands from the Russian ambassador that Egypt support the invasion.

The location of a Russian Red Sea base remains up in the air, however. Sudan’s Red Sea Coast is little developed, largely due to a lack of suitable ports and an extreme shortage of fresh water that limits population concentrations. Coastal navigation is complicated by numerous shoals, rocky islands and a massive coral reef running parallel to the coast that limits the number of approaches. Russia appears to have been under the impression they could build their naval facilities near Port Sudan, which has rail and road connections to Khartoum, or at the historical port of Suakin, some 50 km south of Port Sudan with access to the same transportation network. Both ports are located near passages through the reef. Suakin was replaced by Port Sudan during the British occupation in 1909 when it proved unable to accommodate seagoing warships and freighters with a deep draft, though modern dredging has helped improve access. The Sudanese coastal navy operates out of Flamingo Bay, just north of the commercial docks in Port Sudan.

Beja Tribesmen Protesting in Port Sudan – The Flag is that of the Beja Congress (al-Arabiya)

Port Sudan is located in Sudan’s unsettled Red Sea Province, where power struggles between the Hadendowa and Bani Amer branches of the Beja people have resulted in blockades of the Khartoum-Port Sudan highway and the closure of port terminals by protesters (Sudan Tribune, February 23, 2022). When Hemetti travelled to Port Sudan after his return from Moscow, he was met by large street protests partly inspired by local fears of a Russian takeover (Al-Jazeera, March 18, 2022).

Arakiyai – Port in the Middle of Nowhere (Map by Abdul-Razak M. Mohamed)

Last year, Sudanese military authorities, eager for Russian arms and training but wary of a permanent Russian military presence in Sudan, instead suggested a Russian base at Arakiyai, a tiny fishing village with no infrastructure well north of Port Sudan and served only by a minor coastal road from the south (Radio Dabanga, December 7, 2021). The village is rarely even marked on maps. Constructing a new and isolated Russian base at Arakiyai from scratch would be far more difficult and expensive than incorporating existing infrastructure at Port Sudan. Ultimately, it would mean a delay of several years before the base could become operational.

The presence of a Russian nuclear-powered fleet in the Red Sea would ultimately be unacceptable to the West, which relies on free access to the Suez Canal at the sea’s northern end for shipments of oil, resources and commercial products bound for Europe and beyond. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, wary of a Russian-Iranian axis in the region, also object to a Russian naval base on the Sudanese coast.

Outlook

It seems difficult to believe that the Sudanese junta would have mounted their coup without some kind of understanding from Russia that they would step in to replace the economic support Sudan was receiving from the West. Even in better times, however, it was never realistic to expect that Russian investments could make up for the billions of dollars of financial support suspended by the EU, the US and the IMF/World Bank after the military coup. Regardless of the outcome of the Ukraine conflict, Russia’s economy is shattered for years to come and their arms stocks are being drained by the fighting. There will be no largesse, military or financial, from Moscow’s direction for some years to come. Hemetti, with a nation of hungry and impoverished citizens looking for leadership, may discover his Russian gambit to avoid troublesome “Western interference” will be his downfall. Until a democratic civilian government is soon installed in Khartoum, Sudan will be hard pressed to find financial assistance unless it turns to China, another authoritarian state that will seek major concessions in return for economic and military support.

Hemetti, with his third-grade education and no background in economics or international relations, is playing a dangerous game by allying the junta with Russia and committing to the establishment of a Russian naval base in the strategically sensitive Red Sea. Moscow cares nothing for the quality of life in Sudan; the Wagner Group even less. Though Hemetti can count on the support of the paramilitary RSF, he does not necessarily have the backing of the officer corps of the Sudanese army, including the chief of the ruling Sovereign Council, General ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan. Hemetti has essentially usurped the functions of Sudan’s foreign relations ministry, dealing with other nations on his own authority.

After Hemetti’s Moscow call, al-Burhan made a separate visit to his patrons in the United Arab Emirates, perhaps to shore up support in the event of a confrontation with Hemetti, who appears to be edging Sudan’s formal military leadership to the side. Hemetti’s rise and the inclusion of former Darfuri rebels in the Sudanese cabinet are indicators the growing political strength of Darfur’s Arab and indigenous African tribes in what has traditionally been the private reserve of the three great riverain Arab groups who live along the Nile north of Khartoum – the Ja’alin, the Danagla and the Sha’iqiya. Years of tribal manipulation and ruthless repression in Darfur (the source of most of the Sudanese Army’s manpower and most members of the RSF) are now coming back to haunt the riverain tribes who historically regard the peoples of Darfur as unsophisticated, uneducated and undeserving of political power.

The establishment of a naval base in the Red Sea was part of a greater Putin-inspired project to create an overseas presence as part of the foundation of a neo-Soviet Empire. However, Russia’s economic, diplomatic and military setbacks in its still unresolved conflict with Ukraine are almost certain to postpone, if not cancel, Russia’s imperial ambitions. In Sudan, Hemetti has succeeded in creating an independently financed security machine, but for the 44 million Sudanese who do not benefit from being part of the RSF, external relief and assistance is needed now. With almost daily demonstrations against military rule in Sudan, it is unlikely that brute force alone, even if aided by Russian mercenaries, will be enough to secure and sustain the military government.

Notes

  1. See: “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial ‘Rapid Support Forces’,” Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=852
  2. The Security Service of Ukraine (Sluzhba bezpeky Ukrayiny – SBU) claimed in 2019 to have copies of the personal documents of 149 Wagner Group mercenaries who travelled to Sudan on Russian Ministry of Defense airliners to suppress pro-democracy protests in 2019 (info, Gordonua.com, January 28). See: “Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime,” Eurasian Daily Monitor, February 6, 2019, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4356
  3. See: “Russia’s Arms Sales to Sudan a First Step in Return to Africa: Part One, Eurasian Daily Monitor, February 11, 2009, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2593 ; Part Two, Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 12, 2009, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2596
  4. See: “Will Khartoum’s Appeal to Putin for Arms and Protection Bring Russian Naval Bases to the Red Sea?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 6, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4081

Jihad in Ukraine: Putin’s Chechen Legion and the Ghosts of WWII

AIS Special Report on Ukraine No.2

March 10, 2022

Andrew McGregor

Packing Boxcars with Chechen Deportees, February 1944

The day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began was the 78th anniversary of the Russian deportation of the Muslim Chechen and Ingush peoples of the North Caucasus. Carried out in 1944 with the utmost brutality, American trucks supplied for the Russian war effort transported the related ethnic groups to railyards where they were packed onto freight cars in scenes similar to the German transport of Jews to concentration camps. Thousands died on their way to internal exile in Central Asia, where hundreds of thousands more died of cold and starvation. Their crime? Joseph Stalin’s never substantiated allegations of Chechen cooperation with invading Nazis. The most bitter irony was that the deportations were only possible since most Chechen and Ingush men of military age were serving on the front-lines of the Red Army’s struggle with Nazi Germany. At war’s end, these men were decorated and deported to join their dead or dying families in exile.

Today, after two ultimately unsuccessful wars for independence from Russia that killed 100 to 200 thousand Chechen civilians between 1994 and 2000, we now see the incongruous sight of thousands of armed followers of Ramzan Kadyrov, Vladimir Putin’s coarse and violent appointee as Chechen leader, engaged in fighting in Ukraine to eliminate the “Nazis” Putin claims are running that country. One of Kadyrov’s first steps in expressing his appreciation of Putin’s sponsorship was the dismantling of the national memorial to the victims of the 1944 deportation in the Chechen capital, Grozny. The memorial was constructed from the scattered and broken tombstones of generations of Chechens; in their quest to eliminate the Chechens, Stalin’s men had not ignored the dead.

Perhaps the most hardline of all Putin’s acolytes, Kadyrov favors a Russian annexation of all Ukraine, achieved through extreme measures against the Ukrainian people, even suggesting the Russian army was “coddling” Ukrainians: “We need to change our tactics in order to convince them… Putin must give the appropriate order so we can finish with these Nazis” (Newlinesmag.com, March 3, 2022).

The Kadyrovtsy

Kadyrov’s armed followers, known as the “Kadyrovtsy,” are members of the Russian National Guard. The Rosgvardyia, as it is known, was formed in 2016 as an internal security establishment separate from the armed forces and reporting directly to the president. Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s former bodyguard and martial arts sparring partner, was appointed commander-in-chief of the National Guard at its formation. Zolotov is working closely with Kadyrov on the deployment of Chechen guardsmen in Ukraine. Ten thousand Chechen guardsmen, many of whom have combat experience in the long-running Donbas and Luhansk conflict in eastern Ukraine, are believed to already be operating in Ukraine, with the possibility of further deployments.

Muslim Kadyrovtsy at Prayer in the Ukrainian Forest

On March 3, a seemingly over-enthusiastic Kadyrov announced a pro-Putin “jihad” as he threatened the “shaytan-s [devils]” from Ukraine’s “nationalist battalions,” claiming the Chechens had their addresses and those of their families: “Nazis know this. Like jackals, they are hiding behind the backs of the military men.” The Chechen leader urged Ukraine’s military to turn on the nationalists or leave them to the Chechen special forces: “We won’t stop. We have an order, we have jihad!” (Pravda, March 4, 2022).

By March 5th, Kadyrov was falsely claiming President Zelensky had fled Ukraine: “He ran away so fast that no one could even see his clean pair of heels.” Kadyrov advised the Ukrainian president to turn the country over to former president Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian politician who was deposed by a popular rising in 2014 and since sentenced in absentia to 13 years in prison for treason. Kadyrov told Zelensky: “There is still time to return to Kyiv, accept Russia’s demands and ask for forgiveness… But don’t push your luck too much” (Pravda, March 5, 2022).

Kadyrov also warned that Ukrainians were planning aggressive action against Russia that had only been halted by the actions of President Putin, “a far-sighted strategist.” Again echoing Putin’s WWII-influenced rhetoric, Kadyrov declared nine days of “special military operations” had made it “obvious that we are not just dealing with Banderites, but with ruthless killers who do not disdain any methods. They and their fanatics plunged the whole of Ukraine into complete darkness… [the special operation] must be carried out to the complete defeat of Bandera’s followers” (Sputnik News, March 4, 2022). Kadyrov’s characterization of the Ukrainians as “Banderites” is a reference to Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), a controversial Ukrainian nationalist leader who initially cooperated with Nazi Germany against the Russians in WWII in the belief Germany would recognize an independent Ukraine. Disabused of this notion, he spent much of the war in a German concentration camp. He returned to his violent brand of nationalism after the war, but was killed with cyanide by a KGB assassin in 1959.

Bandera’s legacy is often invoked by Ukrainian nationalists as a symbol of anti-Russian resistance, while Russia’s leaders invoke it as proof of Ukraine’s ongoing allegiance to fascism; when Russia annexed Crimea in February-March 2014, Vladimir Putin declared he was saving Crimeans from Ukrainian leaders who were the “ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II” (Washington Post, March 25, 2014).

Recruiting Posters for the SS Division Galicia

Another troubling legacy of the war is the ongoing historical dispute over the activities of the SS Division Galicia (Galicia is a name for western Ukraine), a mostly volunteer Ukrainian Waffen SS unit active between 1943 and 1945. Recruiting for European Waffen SS units focused on the destruction of Russian communism and the overthrow of Joseph Stalin, which appealed strongly to many Ukrainians who had fresh memories of the Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made 1932-33 famine in Ukraine that killed at least four million people, possibly many more. [1] Though small numerically in comparison with the millions of Ukrainians who served in the Red Army, the intent of the division’s volunteers remains divisive, with some hailing them as anti-communist heroes, while others accuse them of anti-Semitism and war crimes.

The Kadyrovtsy at Hostomel

When the Russian airborne assault on Hostomel Airport turned into a debacle on the first day of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine, Russian mechanized forces were moved up to try and take the airport and rescue surviving paratroopers in the woods outside Hostomel. [2]

Ukrainian sources claimed that a Chechen National Guard column was crushed outside Hostomel Airport on February 26, with the destruction of 56 Chechen/Russian tanks and the death of hundreds of Kadyrovtsy. Though these precise claims are likely exaggerated and are impossible to confirm in current conditions, there does seem little doubt that a mechanized Chechen column was ambushed and halted outside of Hostomel. Turkish-designed TB-2 Bayraktar UAVs, now made in Ukraine under license, may have been used in the attack on the Chechens. The successful use of these attack drones has been reported against other Russian convoys in Ukraine. The office of the Ukrainian president confirmed the destruction of “a convoy of Chechen special forces” near Hostomel on February 26 (Kyiv Independent, February 27, 2022).

General Magomed Tushayev with Ramzan Kadyrov

Also reported was the death during the clash of the commander of the Chechen forces in Ukraine, General Magomed Tushayev of the National Guard’s 141st motorized regiment (Ukrinform, February 27, 2022; Interfax-Ukraine, February 27, 2022). The claim was quickly dismissed by Kadyrov, who said he had spoken to Tushayev by phone and posted what he said were recent photos and a video of the general in the northern suburbs of Kiev.

Chechen Battalions Fighting for Ukraine

The opportunity to fight Russians continues to attract Chechen fighters who reject the rule of Kadyrov and Putin. Some have been active against pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine since 2014; others continue to arrive on the battlefields from Europe, the Caucasus and Syria. The leading Chechen-led formations include:

The Dzhokar Dudayev Battalion: The battalion was initially formed by Chechens in exile in Europe to join the fighting against Russians and pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The unit became less active after the death in combat of its capable leader, Isa Munayev, while fighting pro-Russian separatists at the Battle of Debaltseve in 2015. Munayev had been the military commander of Chechen forces during the 1999-2000 battle for Grozny, the Chechen capital, where he became known for his expertise in urban warfare tactics. The battalion was revived after the Russian offensive on Ukraine was launched in February, with a reported 300 volunteers, mostly from various republics of the Caucasus. Adam Osmayev, who succeeded Munayev, remains the battalion commander. His wife, fellow fighter Amina Okueva, was killed in an ambush that also wounded Osmayev in October 2017.

Adam Osmayev (Radio Svoboda)

In 2012, Osmayev was accused of plotting to assassinate Vladimir Putin and was arrested in Odessa by special forces agents and tortured. He spent two-and-a-half years in a Ukrainian prison but successfully fought off extradition attempts and was eventually acquitted on all charges and released (BBC, October 31, 2017; The Sun [London], October 7, 2021). After Kadyrov announced the presence of his loyalists in Ukraine on February 26, Osmayev took to video to confirm “real Chechens” continued to oppose Russia: “I want to assure Ukrainians that real Chechens are defending Ukraine today… These puppets fighting for Russia are a shame to our whole nation — we consider them only traitors” (Newlinesmag.com, March 3, 2022). The battalion is named for Dzhokar Dudayev, a former Soviet Air Force general who became Chechnya’s first president from 1991 until his death in 1996 when a satellite call he was making was intercepted by Russian aircraft, giving them the coordinates for a laser-guided missile strike. His six successors were all killed in action or assassinated by Russian agents, the latest in 2015.

Georgian, Ukrainian and Chechen fighters in Eastern Ukraine (Adam Osmayev)

The Shaykh Mansur Battalion: Another formation of volunteers from Chechnya and other Caucasus republics heavily involved the 2015-15 fighting in eastern Ukraine, this unit has similarly been revived. While its total strength is unknown, it includes both Chechens and Crimean Tatars, another Muslim minority that has suffered significantly under Russian rule, including its wholesale deportation to Central Asia in 1944. This unit has a more Islamist orientation than the Dzhokar Dudayev Battalion. The battalion is named for Shaykh Mansur, an 18th century Chechen military commander and religious leader who battled the Russian armies of Catherine the Great in the North Caucasus.

Osmayev and the Shaytanov Affair

Among the units facing the Chechen column outside Hostomel was Ukraine’s “Alpha” special forces group. Normally occupied with counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism tasks, the formation reports to the Security Service of Ukraine (Sluzhba bezpeky Ukrayiny – SBU) rather than the Ministry of Defense.

Arrest of Major-General Valeriy Shaytanov, October 2020

As part of its counter-intelligence work, the SBU arrested its own chief, Major General Valeriy Shaytanov, in 2020 on charges of high treason and terrorism related to plotting the assassinations of Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and Commander Adam Osmayev (Radio Svoboda, October 8, 2020; Radio Svoboda, October 19, 2020). Osmayev claimed to have been part of the operation that captured Shaytanov by allowing loyal Ukrainian SBU agents to fake his death in a scheme designed to trap the traitor (The Sun [London], October 7, 2021). The SBU general was allegedly turned by a colonel of the Russian Security Service (Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti – FSB) in 2014 while they worked on a joint anti-terrorism project (Interfax Ukraine, April 15, 2020; RFERL, April 17, 2020).

Outlook

Coverage of the ongoing war in Ukraine tends to ignore the ghosts of the USSR and their role in the ideology behind the invasion of Ukraine. World War Two is a settled issue in most parts of the world, but less so in some of the former states of the Soviet Union, where it continues to inspire and even define certain conflicts. What can sound like crude propaganda, such as Putin calling the Zelensky government a cabal of “Nazis,” may even reflect sincere convictions, regardless of their accuracy. In Ukraine, the ghost of Stepan Bandera still stalks the steppes and cities, a divisive figure from the past that inspires some and incenses others. Many Chechens continue to frame their relations with Russia through the experience of Stalin’s genocidal campaign against their people. Some have made their peace with Russia and see a way forward through allegiance to the pro-Putin Kadyrov regime; others will never forget the deportations or Putin’s ruthless repression of Chechen independence in 1999-2000.

Unfortunately for Moscow, the deployment of the Kadyrovtsy could lead to the resurrection of the Chechen independence struggle, especially if Russia’s military offensive falters and Putin’s war in Ukraine begins to work against him. Weakness is spotted quickly in the North Caucasus, and Kadyrov’s early bluster may be replaced by the realization that many of his best-armed supporters are now fighting and dying far from Grozny.

Note

  1. Remarkably, Stalin and his methods still have supporters, even in the West. In 2019, Dougal MacDonald, a University of Alberta lecturer and candidate for the Marxist-Leninist Party, used Holodomor commemoration week to claim that “in Canada, former Nazi collaborators and their spawn have long led the phony [sic] Holodomor campaign.” The “educator” was supported by 43 fellow academics after many calls came for his dismissal (National Post, December 6, 2019).
  2. See “Russian Airborne Disaster at Hostomel Airport,” AIS Special Report on Ukraine, March 8, 2022, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4812.

Russian Airborne Disaster at Hostomel Airport

AIS Special Report on Ukraine No.1

March 8, 2022

Andrew McGregor

Overconfidence has been the enemy in many military operations. A belief in the superiority of Russian arms and special forces appears to have undermined a bold Russian attempt to end its ongoing “special military operation” in Ukraine on the first day of the conflict.

Russian Airborne Assault on Hostomel Airport, February 24, 2022

Just a few miles northwest of Kiev is Hostomel Airport (a.k.a. Gostomel, a.k.a. Antonov Airport), a busy facility built in 1959 and now used primarily for cargo flights and tests of Antonov aircraft. Seizing Hostomel on the first day of Russia’s “special military operation” was part of a plan designed to use the skills of the Russian Special Forces and Russian airlift capability to strike a quick and fatal blow to Ukrainian resistance. Once the special forces overcame the airport’s guards, Russian troops, armor, artillery, ammunition and other materiel could be airlifted to the airport where they could be easily launched into Kiev to depose the Ukrainian government.

The task of seizing Hostomel was entrusted to the Russian Airborne Forces (Vozdushno-desantnye voyska Rossii – VDV). The Russian paratroopers who landed at Hostomel appeared to belong to the 31st Guards Air Assault Brigade, a unit with extensive combat experience in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and the “separatist” Ukrainian Donbas region.

A Downed Russian Ka-52 Helicopter Gunship (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

The attack began when roughly 30 Russian Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” attack helicopters, flying low to evade radar, began launching guided missiles and firing 30mm cannons at the airport’s defenses. Despite strong resistance from Ukrainian ground units that brought down several helicopters, the attack continued for three hours, with Russian Sukhoi Su-25 “Frogfoot” jet fighters joining in. The Ukrainians claimed to have downed as many as five to seven Russian helicopters during the assault, whether by missile fire or attacks by Ukrainian MiG-29s. One Ka-52 “Alligator” was recorded crashing into the Dnieper River (19fortyfive.com, February 28, 2022). Another victim of the assault was the six-engine Antonov An-225 Mriya transport, the world’s largest aircraft, destroyed in its hanger by Russian fire.  

When the Russian command decided it had suppressed most of the defensive fire, a wave of Mi-8 “Hip” assault transport helicopters arrived carrying airborne troops. Once on the ground they fanned out, dispersing the small unit of Ukrainian National Guard defenders while preparing for the arrival of at least 18 Ilyushin Il-76 air-transports already in the air. For a brief time, it appeared that the audacious Russian plan was working and Kiev would be theirs in a matter of hours..

Major General Andrei Sukhovetsky

However, the Russians had failed to clear the region around the airport, and soon found themselves under fire from special forces of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, the 3rd “Prince Svyatoslav” Special Forces Regiment, and local partisan fighters (Ukrinform.net, March 4, 2022). During the fighting, a sniper inflicted a serious loss to the Russian command by killing Major General Andrei Sukhovetsky, the chief-of-staff of the Russian Airborne (Pravda, March 3, 2022). The general was a veteran of combat in Chechnya, Abkhazia, Crimea and Syria; his presence on the frontline suggests how deeply important this attack was to Moscow’s Ukraine strategy.

The critical moment in the battle appeared to come when the Ukrainian National Guard’s well-trained 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade counterattacked with air support from a pair of Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-24M attack aircraft. Ukrainian Mi-24P “Hind” helicopter gunships and MiG-29s were also deployed to eliminate Russian paratroopers who had fled into the forest or the nearby village of Hostomel. Russia’s main battlefield asset, its artillery, appeared to play little role in preventing the arrival of Ukrainian reinforcements. Unable to land, the Ilyushin transports with their troops and armor were turned back in mid-air.

Ukrainian National Guard 4th Brigade Troops with a Ukrainian Flag Damaged During the Fighting at Hostomel

Ukraine reported it had retaken the airport by the evening of February 24, though Moscow insisted Russians were still in control (Anadolu Agency, February  25, 2022). Russian ground attacks by mechanized troops intended to relieve the paratroopers were ambushed with anti-tank missiles, halting their advance. Nonetheless, the next day the Russian ministry of defense claimed the recapture of Hostomel Airport and the death of 200 Ukrainian “nationalists” during the first day of battle. Fighting around the airport continued for days, until Ukraine announced it had again retaken the airport on the evening of March 3, with the destruction of all Russian paratroopers in the area. Russia had lost the element of surprise on the first day; the extensive damage the airport received in days of heavy fighting and the deliberate damage inflicted on the airstrip by Ukrainian forces to prevent its use rendered the airport non-operational and incapable of receiving Russian transports.

Russian airborne troops were also deployed in an attack on the Vasylkiv airbase (central Ukraine) on February 25. Success was again elusive in what appeared to be an over-ambitious operation. Ukrainian airmen of the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade drove off the attackers and fighting spread to neighboring villages. A troop-carrying Ilyushin Il-76 transport carrying as many as 100 men was reported to have been shot down by Ukrainian aircraft during the fighting for Vasylkiv (Unian.ua, February 25, 2022). A second transport was reported to have been downed the next day near Bila Tserkva (AP, February 26, 2022).

Outlook

The assault on Hostomel was burdened by an intelligence failure on the part of the Russians, who failed to account for the presence of significant first-line Ukrainian forces within easy reach of the airport. A failure to secure the skies over the drop zone and a consequent inability to delay the arrival of Ukrainian reinforcements combined to doom the paratroopers’ mission from the start. The entire operation seems to have foundered on the fatal belief that only token Ukrainian resistance would stand in the way of the airport’s occupation and the sudden airlift of thousands of Russian troops, artillery and vehicles to a point just outside the suburbs of Kiev. The airborne force that landed at Hostomel was far too small to take and hold the airport, especially when resupply by air became impossible. The three-hour aerial attack intended to drive defenders away prior to the paratroopers’ arrival instead attracted the attention of all Ukrainian units in the area, which began to move on the airport.

The failure to seize the airfields at Hostomel and Vasylkiv presented a devastating setback to Russian intentions, and with no apparent “Plan B” to end the campaign quickly, the Russian offensive remains bogged down north of the Ukrainian capital (though progress is being made in the south). Russia’s inability to establish air superiority over Ukraine has hurt their campaign; this problem will only be exacerbated if Russian-designed jet fighters are transferred to Ukraine from East European NATO members.

Warlords and Mercenaries in Central Africa: The Struggle for Power in Chad and the Central African Republic – Part One

Part One – Why is Chad’s New Intelligence Director a Fulani Warlord Convicted of War Crimes?

The answer involves Russian mercenaries, the battle-death of an African strongman and a struggle between Paris and Moscow for influence in Africa.

Dr. Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, February 6, 2022

Introduction

Chad and its southern neighbor, the Central African Republic (CAR), have been closely connected since the 18th and 19th centuries, when the old Muslim sultanates now incorporated into Chad treated the savannas and forests as a source of slaves and ivory. In the CAR, exploitation by the sultanates was followed by French colonial occupation and decades of post-independence misrule enabled by French neocolonialism, including the bizarre and bloody rule of “Emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa. The legacy of these destructive activities is that the CAR is one of the least developed countries in the world.

Despite this, the instability in the CAR attracts mercenaries, bandits and rebels, including many who straddle the line between these occupations. Chadians have long been prominent in these “trades” in the CAR but their influence has been challenged by the arrival of Russian mercenaries operating with the approval of the CAR government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. While the trade in slaves and ivory has passed, there are new possibilities in the land-locked nation for riches in diamonds, gold and other minerals, though development of the mining sector remains constrained by insecurity, high start-up costs, lack of transportation infrastructure and a local labor force familiar only with subsistence farming, herding and artisanal mining.

FACA Patrol at the CAR-Chad Border (Accueil)

Both Chad and the CAR exist as a legacy of French colonialism, both incorporating a variety of ethnic groups inside borders drawn by the French and their colonial counterparts in Africa.  One prominent group common to the borderlands between the two nations is the Fulani, an almost exclusively Muslim ethnic group that has spread across the Sahel. Comprised of an estimated 25 million people, many of the Fulani continue to follow a semi-nomadic lifestyle centered on herding cattle. [1] At a time when pressure on water resources and pastureland is increasing, the herders have come into conflict with agriculturalists dependent on the same resources. What was once a low-scale conflict has been greatly exacerbated by the influx of modern arms into the Sahel, with individual murders now replaced by massacres and cycles of brutal retaliation.

General Abdalkadar Baba Laddé

One individual who has tried to profit from the insecurity along the Chad/CAR border is “General” Mahamat Abdalkadar Oumar, better known by his nickname Baba Laddé (“father of the bush,” a Fula language term for a male lion). A warlord and highwayman (locally coupeur de route) with political pretensions, Baba Laddé now finds himself in the center of the border conflict and a larger struggle between traditional French influence and that of upstart Russian forces operating to the north of Chad in Libya, and south of Chad in the CAR. Baba Laddé belongs to the Mbororo (a.k.a. Wodaabe) branch of the Fulani, a nomadic sub-group of the Fulani best known for their adherence to Fulani customs and a traditional way of life focused on cattle-herding.

Having been sprung from a stretch of incarceration in some of Chad’s grimmest prisons, the 52-year-old Fulani warlord was appointed Chad’s new director of intelligence (officially Directeur général des renseignements généraux) on October 14, 2021. The general’s appointment indicates N’Djamena’s desire to focus on threats from its southern border, a region where troops of the Force Armée Centrafricaine (FACA – Armed Forces of Central Africa) carry out operations against Muslim rebel movements with support from Rwandan special forces and some 2,000 Russian mercenaries. When a variety of rebel movements joined forces in late 2020, they nearly succeeded in taking Bangui, the CAR capital. However, FACA’s foreign allies and troops of the UN peacekeeping mission in the CAR stopped the rebel offensive on the outskirts of Bangui on January 13, 2021. A government counter-offensive succeeded in driving most of the rebels back into the bush or across the border into Chad in the following months. Baba Laddé has support in his new role from the Fulani president of Nigeria, Muhammad Buhari.

The International Response to the Crisis in the CAR

In response to the communal violence sparked by the 2013 takeover of the CAR by Séléka (a coalition of Muslim rebel movements), France deployed troops in the CAR through Operation Sangaris from 2013 to 2016. The force was withdrawn amidst controversy over a UN report claiming sexual abuse of children by French troops (as well as African troops) and was replaced by a 15,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission, the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique (MINUSCA). At present, the UN mission consists solely of African and Asian peacekeeping contingents. These operate under a mandate to support the deployment of CAR security forces or to engage in joint operations with FACA designed to restore security. Complicating the relationship is the fact that FACA rarely moves out of its bases unless it is accompanied by Russian mercenaries or Rwandan Special Forces operating outside of any UN framework.

The French ended their military cooperation with the Touadéra regime in June 2021, but continue to run a logistics mission in Bangui and contribute military trainers to the European Union Training Mission (EUTM). Created in 2016, the EUTM’s mandate to provide military and ethical training to CAR troops has been renewed until November 12, 2022. MINUSCA does not conduct any military training.

The total number of personnel in MINUSCA, including soldiers, police, prison guards and civilians, is just over 19,000 in a mission that now costs over $1 billion per year (Le Quotidien [Dakar], January 19, 2022). Like its predecessors, the peacekeeping mission has been plagued by continuing allegations of sexual abuse of civilians. In mid-September, 2021, the entire Gabonese deployment was sent home after charges of sexual exploitation (UN News, December 11, 2021).

“Father of the Bush” – A Rebel Turns Regime Supporter

After 14 years of open rebellion to the regime of President Idriss Déby Itno of Chad, Baba Laddé surrendered in September 2012, but efforts at reintegration failed and he fled Chad for other parts of Africa before being persuaded to return in 2014. An archetypal African strongman, Idriss Déby (Bidayat/Zaghawa), chief-of-staff of the Chadian army, became president in 1990 after mounting a coup against his former patron, President Hissène Habré (Akanaza Tubu). Habré died of Covid-19 in August 2021 while serving a life sentence in Senegal for sadistic behavior and crimes against humanity that left as many as 40,000 dead during his presidency.

In July 2014, Baba Laddé was made prefect of Grande Sido, a department of Moyen-Chari province bordering the Central African Republic. The region was home to thousands of Muslim refugees from the CAR. Baba Laddé was dismissed in November 2014 when President Déby swept many governors out of office. Popular in Grande Sido, Baba Laddé used the confusion of local protests against his removal to escape a military convoy sent to arrest him on December 1, though his wife and bodyguard were severely beaten by enraged troops (RFI, December 3, 2014).

MINUSCA arrested the fugitive warlord a week later. Following the detention, his supporters demanded his release as a political refugee who feared for his life in Chad and should be given the opportunity of seeking political asylum elsewhere. In an open letter to MINUSCA, Shaykh Aboulanwar Djarma, opposition figure and former mayor of N’Djamena, expressed the opinion held by Baba Laddé’s friends:

If we cannot deny that some of Baba Laddé’s men have committed criminal acts, these were never ordered by Baba Laddé; on the contrary, he has always repressed those of his fighters who were perpetrators of such acts. The Chadian opposition has evidence of this, and several states also have in their possession evidence that exonerates Baba Laddé of criminal acts (Centrafrique-presse, December 12, 2014).

Nonetheless, MINUSCA sent Baba Laddé to Chad in January 2015, where he was confined in the notorious Koro Toro desert prison. The extradition marked a temporary end to Baba Laddé’s efforts to overthrow the governments of Chad and the CAR.  Many of his fighters joined the recently formed Unité pour la paix en Centrafrique (UPC) rebel group, led by Baba Laddé’s former lieutenant, Ali Darassa Mahamat, a Fulani specialist in guerrilla tactics.

In early 2018, the still untried Baba Laddé became seriously ill in prison, but was not included in a general amnesty for former rebels in May 2018. In the same year, the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries expressed concerns regarding human rights violations and long-term detentions without due process at the Koro Toro prison. [2] Finally convicted and found guilty of rape, arson, armed robbery, criminal conspiracy and illegal possession of weapons after nearly four years in detention without trial, Baba Laddé was sentenced to eight years in December 2018 (Tchadinfos, December 6, 2018).

Surprisingly, the warlord’s reconciliation with the Déby regime began before Idriss died on the battlefield. Baba Laddé’s sentence was commuted by the president on August 10, 2020 and he was freed the following September 7. It was a major shift in the late president’s interaction with Baba Laddé, whom he had previously described as nothing more than a highwayman. With rising tensions along the southern border with the CAR, Déby likely began to see the value in an asset with intimate knowledge of the border region and all those operating in it.

Still wary of the regime that had suddenly released him, Baba Laddé quickly left Chad. While living in Dakar after his release, Baba Laddé attempted to file papers for a run as candidate for the Front Populaire pour le Redressement (FPR) in the April 2021 presidential election, but was rejected by the Supreme Court of Chad on the grounds his party was not recognized. Laddé complained at the time that authorities sought to “criminalize” him by “wanting to create a rupture between the Popular Front for Recovery [FPR] and Chadian national opinion” (Jeune Afrique, March 11, 2021).

During the 2021 elections, Idriss announced his intention in March of doing something that still seemed unthinkable – bringing Baba Laddé back to Chad and into the fold of the regime. Shortly after this, Baba Laddé announced that he was abandoning the armed struggle against the Déby regime and would support the president’s re-election campaign: “I made the choice of peace. That’s what made me come back. Not just for Chad but for the sub-region… So, I came home, just to support [Déby] because he keeps the peace” (RFI, April 4, 2021).

In late January 2022, the members of Baba Laddé’s FPR gathered in Mandoul region (on Chad’s southern border with the CAR), sparking fears in some quarters that they intended to form a militia acting in parallel to the national army. The movement in turn announced that the FPR fighters were only assembling prior to demobilization or integration into the national army according to the terms of Baba Laddé’s agreement with former president Idriss Déby (Alwihda Info [N’Djamena], January 27, 2022).

Baba Laddé and the Fulani

Through convenience or in an effort to provide some political/ideological legitimacy to his armed movement, Baba Laddé has often posed as a defender of the Fulani people, though he has rarely expressed any type of ideology surrounding this standpoint.

In December 2011, Baba Laddé issued an open letter “to the People of Azawad” (northern Mali) that helped define his approach to the issues of the Fulani and their place in the ethno-political structure of the Sahel. Baba Laddé urged an alliance between the Fulani, the Tuareg, al-Qaeda, Ogaden separatists and the Saharan Polisario. He also expressed his support of Mali’s Songhay and Fulani-dominated Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso militias “because these people are afraid, afraid of being dominated, of being second-class citizens in an independent Azawad.” (Jeune Afrique, December 23, 2011). [3]

Baba Laddé, asserting that not all of Africa’s problems are due to European-imposed borders drawn without reference to local ethnic groups, suggested that federalism may provide a means of restoring the great multi-ethnic states of the past: “Let us remember the empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kanem-Bornu, the Almoravids. All of these pre-colonial states were multi-ethnic. There have always been states in Africa and they have always been multiethnic and that’s an abundance of wealth!”

Turning to the issue of violent clashes between Fulani herdsmen and agricultural communities across the Sahel, Baba Laddé offered a slogan rather than a solution: “Farmers and breeders must be united. In the Central African Republic, in Chad and in Azawad.” Though admitting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are ideologically in error, the Fulani warlord spoke sympathetically of their struggle: “Seeing the disastrous world where capitalism, perverse sexuality and corruption reign, they chose to destroy this world. Seventy years ago, they would have been communists, 110 years ago they would have been anarchists, in 2011 they are Salafi-Jihadists” (Centrafrique-presse, December 8, 2011).

In September 2021, Baba Laddé claimed to have been informed by a number of rebel movements in Mali that they would take up arms again if Russian mercenaries arrived in Mali, a decision based partly on what they had seen of the Russians in the CAR. The warlord called for a broad Fulani resistance to Russian expansion in the Sahel:

All the Central African communities are victims of the barbaric exactions of the Wagner mercenaries, but particularly the Muslims and even more particularly the Fulani civilians… We call on all Fulani, friends of the Fulani or more simply those attached to human rights to mobilize against Wagner… The fight is total against the Wagner mercenaries and the local allies of these barbarians (Corbeaunews, September 24, 2021).

There are many, however, who consider Baba Laddé’s ventures into ethnic politics a convenient cover for his illegal activities. The late Idriss Déby questioned Baba Laddé’s political credibility, insisting he was nothing more than “a former Chadian gendarme who became a coupeur de route [highwayman] and trafficker in ivory. He is not a rebel, as some media claim, but a great bandit. This kind of character does not constitute a threat to Chad. For the Central African Republic, maybe” (Vanguard [Lagos], December 6, 2021).

Death of a President

Even as president, Idriss Déby kept a tight rein on the military by remaining both a general and Chad’s defense minister. In these capacities he continued to take to the field to lead important operations in person, such as the March 2021 offensive against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region. Déby’s presence there was required to bolster Chadian forces after a disastrous March 23 defeat of a garrison of largely inexperienced troops at the hands of Boko Haram on Lake Chad’s Bohoma Peninsula. One hundred Chadian troops were killed and 24 armored vehicles destroyed by the Bakura faction of Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah li al-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad (the original faction of Boko Haram, led by Abubakar Shekau until his death in May 2021). The Bakura faction is led by a Nigerian, Ibrahim Bakura “Doron.”

Only a few weeks later, President Déby’s rule was challenged from the north in the form of an offensive by the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT – Front for Change and Concord in Chad), a Libyan-based movement of anti-Déby rebels from northern Chad. FACT was created by Mahamat Mahdi Ali in March 2016 and is dedicated to the overthrow of the Déby regime. Only one week after securing his election to another 5-year term, President Déby arrived at the frontline, but was mortally wounded by FACT rebels in the Kanem region of Chad on April 18, 2021. There was wide speculation that the FACT fighters were trained by Russian mercenaries in Libya (The Times [London], April 23, 2021; NYT, April 22, 2021; Foreign Policy, November 30, 2020). While confirmation was elusive, the claims were well-noted in N’Djamena.

During their long stay in Libya, Chadian FACT fighters were employed as mercenaries by Russian-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called “Libyan National Army” (LNA). Backed by Egypt, the UAE and Russia, Hafter, a self-appointed “field marshal,” armed the Chadians and housed them at al-Jufra Airbase, the main base of the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries operating in Libya (Al-Araby, May 6, 2021). FACT’s association with the Russians was criticized by Baba Laddé: “FACT claims to want democracy. But Wagner will only ally with a rebellion if they are sure a dictator will take over and let them plunder the resources” (Corbeaunews, September 24, 2021).

In a bizarre incident, ten Russians were detained in June 2021 by Chadian police in a military operational zone in Kanem, close to where President Déby was killed in April. Though fighting in the region between Government troops and Libyan-based rebels had ceased only a month before, the Russians insisted they had organized a trip to a remote part of Chad because it “was very interesting” and “very rich in natural sites.” The wayward tourists, the apparent vanguard of a previously unknown Russian interest in touring “natural sites” in Chadian war-zones, were escorted to N’Djamena “for their own safety” and flown back to Moscow (Reuters, June 25, 2021).

A Family Dynasty in Chad?

With the quiet support of Paris, the late president’s son and commander of the presidential guard, Mahamat Idriss Déby “Kaka” (Zaghawa/Gura’an Tubu) seized power in N’Djamena with a group of loyal officers, citing “extraordinary circumstances” that necessitated defiance of the CAR Constitution, according to which the President of the National Assembly would become temporary head-of-state until early democratic elections could be organized. [3] According to Mahamat Idriss, the president of the national assembly “refused to take office and no one could force him to become the head of state against his will. You are free to ask him about this” (Africa Report, June 30, 2021).

CMT President Mahamat Idriss Deby (Vincent Fournier for Jeune Afrique).

Mahamat dissolved the legislature, replacing it with a Conseil Militaire de Transition (CMT -Transitional Military Council) with himself as president that would oversee the nation until elections in 18-months’ time. Since then, the CMT has begun pressing for a five-year transition period.

Chad’s leaders often have connections through marriage to leading figures in neighboring Darfur and the CAR; Mahamat is married to the daughter of Abakar Sabone, a spokesman for the CPC rebel coalition and former advisor to Séléka leader and former CAR president Michel Am-Nondokro Djotodia.

Abdelkerim Idriss Déby, half-brother to Mahamat, graduated from West Point in 2014. He became hugely influential in the administration and was the man to talk to for investments and project approvals under his father’s rule. He continues to play this role in the CMT and works closely with Mahamat.

General Taher Erda

Mahamat Idriss also has the support of powerful figures such as General Daoud Yaya Brahim, the CMT’s defense minister, and General Bichara Issa Djadallah, a Rizayqi Arab, chief-of-staff under Idriss Déby and cousin of Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti” (the number two man in the Sudanese military junta). Another Déby family loyalist in the CMT is General Taher Erda, a Zaghawa and the new commander of the presidential guard. Loyal to Idriss since 1989, he is related to veteran Zaghawa rebels and twin brothers Tom and Timan Erdimi. In the often-small world of Chadian politics, the Erdimis are cousins of Mahamat Idriss. Timan is the leader in Qatari exile of the Chadian rebel Union des Forces de Résistance (UFR). Tom disappeared in late 2020 while staying in Egypt, but was discovered alive this month in Egypt’s notorious Tura prison (south of Cairo) by a relative accompanying a visit by Mahamat Idriss to the Egyptian capital (RFI, January 18, 2022). [5] Steps are being taken to obtain his release.

Chad is unaccustomed to worrying about a threat from the southeast, where the region that now forms the CAR was an established source of slaves, ivory and other resources for Chad’s Muslims and the Arab and African tribes of Darfur. Now facing an assertive military alliance of CAR regulars, Rwandan Special Forces and Russian mercenaries, Chad’s CMT would like to avoid threats from the southeast while it keeps forces available for regional counter-terrorism commitments and to protect Chad’s northern border from further incursions by rebel forces, especially those suspected of having some degree of training or support from Russian contractors. [6] Regarding the presence of Russian “Wagner Group” mercenaries in the CAR, Chad’s foreign minister, Cherif Mahamat Zene, stated: “external interference, wherever it comes from, poses a very serious problem for the stability and security of my country… There are Russian mercenaries present in Libya, who are also present in the Central African Republic” (UN/AFP, September 24, 2021).

The Wagner Group is a firm of private military contractors (PMCs) established in 2014 by Dimitri Utkin, a Special Forces and GRU veteran of the First and Second Chechen Wars (where his call sign was “Wagner”), though the outfit is believed to be owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a leading Russian businessman and Kremlin insider with close connections to President Putin. The company, together with several other Russian PMCs, provides openings for Russian political and economic influence in various conflict zones while providing deniability for the Kremlin, which routinely disavows any knowledge of their activities. Besides the CAR, the Wagner Group operates in Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Mozambique, Madagascar and Sudan; it has recently been engaged by Mali’s new military government. Burkina Faso might be next; the new ruling military junta there is headed by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who was previously unsuccessful in persuading the nation’s former civilian government to allow the entry of Russian mercenaries to combat Islamist extremists.

Chad’s foreign minister added that the May 30 attack border on a Chadian village near the CAR border was “backed” by Russian mercenaries and also claimed that the FACT rebels who killed President Idriss in April were trained by the Wagner Group (AFP, September 24, 2021). Though not referring to Russia by name, defense minister General Daoud Yaya Brahim alleged that the “death of our Marshal, weapon in hand” occurred when Chad was “attacked by some powers, we think, by big countries” (Al-Wihda [N’Djamena], September 25, 2021).

Chad’s military rulers are in the midst of a diplomatic campaign to convince its neighbors, military partners and aid sources that their intentions are benign and dedicated to the restoration of democracy in Chad (if Idriss Déby’s regime could be called democratic). To this end, the CMT has made a number of moves intended to generate acceptance of the military junta.

Goukouni Waday

Concerned with the growing Russian influence in both Libya and the CAR, the military council in Chad declared a general amnesty for members of the armed opposition on November 29, 2021. The intent was to promote a resolution to the seemingly endless rebellion so greater strategic threats may be addressed. Responsibility for Qatar-sponsored peace talks was given in late November to Goukouni Waday (or Ouddei), former president of Chad and leader (derde) of the Teda Tubu. Goukouni is well-suited to lead the talks, respected for being part of the royal Tumaghera clan of the Teda Tubu and for having fought in many of Chad’s civil conflicts alongside or against (sometimes both) many of the imprisoned or exiled rebel leaders. Many political prisoners of the Idriss Déby regime were behind bars for “crimes of opinion.” The recommendations of Goukouni’s committee for nearly 300 pardons and amnesties were largely approved, with pardons issued to major rebel leaders, including Mahamat Nouri Allatchi (Anakaza branch of the Daza Tubu), leader of the Union des forces pour la démocratie et le développement (UFDD) rebel coalition, Abakar Tollimi (Bidayat/Zaghawa), president of the Conseil National de la Resistance pour la Democratie (CNRD) and Adouma Hassaballah Djadalrab, former head of the Union des forces pour le changement et la démocratie (UFCD), who has been held in the cells of the secret police in N’Djamena since his extradition from Ethiopia in 2011 (Jeune Afrique, November 24, 2021).

Besides the armed groups, there is also a civil political opposition that rejects the takeover by Mahamat Idriss and the CMT. One of its leaders is economist and politician Succès Masra, who was prevented from running against Idriss Déby in the April 11 election.  Masra has pointed out that Mahamat’s succession contravenes the constitution; he and his movement, Les Transformateurs, seek a ban on military officers like Mahamat from running for the presidency, though it may be some time before there is another election. Mahamat Idriss has insisted that “the members of the CMT will not stand for election once their mission has been accomplished” (Africa Report, June 30, 2021). Since the CMT coup, most of the opposition parties have been legalized, including Les Transformateurs.

The Chadian Army

In September 2021 Chad’s defense ministry announced its intention of nearly doubling the size of the Armée Nationale Tchadienne (ANT) to a force of 60,000 troops by the end of 2022. According to General Daoud Yaya Brahim, “the objective is to build elites capable of adapting to the asymmetric warfare our Sahel countries are facing” (Reuters, September 25, 2021).

The army’s reliance on the culturally similar Zaghawa and Tubu minorities of northern Chad for military leadership and recruits for its better-trained and better-paid elite units can create dissension in the ranks and risks to field operations; in 2019, there were two incidents in which northern troops refused to engage relatives in the armed opposition, which is also composed mainly of Zaghawa and Tubu tribesmen. The Chadian minority of African Christian and animist ethnic-groups in southern Chad has played only a minor role in Chad’s military, political or armed opposition leadership since the overthrow of President François Tombalbaye (ethnic Sara) in 1975.

Chad is an important member of both the G5-Sahel, a counter-terrorist and development alliance that also includes Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a counter-terrorist military alliance battling Islamist extremists in the Lake Chad region. The MNJTF includes Chad, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger.

Chad is also a major contributor of troops to peacekeeping missions in the CAR (MINUSCA) and Mali (the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali – MINUSMA).

Ali Darassa Mahamat – Baba Laddé’s Successor

Many African states have limited ability to deliver security to their citizens, especially those where militaries are weak, resources scarce, borders porous, officials corrupt or incompetent and the landscape favorable to banditry or prolonged insurgencies. Rebels have their own challenges, notably in securing steady sources of food, arms, munitions and recruits, so that conflicts tend to drag on for years without conclusion. Eventually both sides adjust to the semi-permanent state of conflict and learn to profit from the instability at the expense of the people both sides pretend to be rescuing. At this point the only apparent chance of restoring peace is to reward rebels and bush warlords with integration into the state security services or administrative structure, often with an understanding they will still be able to carry on their most profitable sidelines.

General Ali Darassa (REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun)

Such was the case with the Khartoum peace accord signed in February 2019 (the Accord politique pour la paix et la réconciliation – APPR) by the CAR government and some 14 rebel movements, including the leaders of the main Muslim armed groups in the country. Baba Laddé‘s successor, ‘Ali Darassa Mahamat, leader of the UPC, Mahamat al-Khatim (a.k.a. Mamahat al-Hissène), leader of the Mouvement patriotique pour la Centrafrique (MPC), and Sidiki Abass (a.k.a. Bi Sidi Souleymane), leader of the Retour, Récupération, Réhabilitation (3R) movement, were all made “special military advisors to the office of the prime minister [Firmin Ngrebada at the time]” despite allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. As called for in the Khartoum Accord, their men were supposed to be integrated into “special mixed units” with FACA regulars. Each rebel leader was given responsibility in the zone they used to control as insurgents, a frightening prospect for residents who hoped the peace deal would remove the warlords from their regions rather than entrench them with official sanction. The mixed units of rebels and FACA regulars were resisted by Touadéra and never implemented, leaving thousands of gunmen to their own devices while their leaders enjoyed the perks of being a cabinet minister in Bangui.

Darassa’s mainly Mbororo Fulani UPC movement has had repeated clashes with CAR security forces and MINUSCA peacekeepers in the Ouaka prefecture of south-central CAR, especially around the city of Bambari, capital of Ouaka. A raid by Portuguese paratroopers attached to MINUSCA destroyed the UPC headquarters at nearby Bokolobo in January 2019.

Darassa abandoned the Khartoum Accord in August 2020. Shortly afterwards, CAR National Assembly deputy Martin Ziguele accused Darassa of keeping the population of over a dozen towns and villages in slavery, as well as being responsible for the assassination of four Catholic priests (Humanglemedia, August 5, 2020).

The UPC and five other rebel groups formed the Coalition des Patriotes pour le Changement (CPC) on December 15, 2020, with the declared aim of overthrowing President Touadera. However, Ali Darassa announced the UPC’s withdrawal from the CPC in 2021, citing the continuing suffering of the civilian population from political violence. In November 2021, Ali Darassa accused the Wagner Group of committing a series of murders and massacres of CAR civilians, many of them targeting ethnic Fulanis (Corbeaunews-Centrafrique [Bangui],  November 30, 2021). However, Ali Darassa’s complaints failed to shift attention from himself and US sanctions were imposed on him on December 16, 2021 in consequence of the UPC’s own “brutal atrocities against civilians” (Reuters, December 17, 2021).

The UPC appears to have been the target of a disinformation campaign when a recent press release bearing the UPC logo announced the dissolution of the UPC. Ali Darassa responded with his own “disclaimer letter” denouncing the “gross lie” perpetrated by President Touadera, the Wagner “killing machine” and livestock minister Hassan Bouba Ali, the “traitor and bastard” of the Fulani community.  Darassa promised the UPC was ready to liberate the Central African people from Touadéra and his “blood-drinking allies” (Corbeaunews [Bangui], January 4, 2022). Bouba was earlier condemned by Baba Laddé in September 2021 as “an accomplice in the massacre of his own people” (Corbeaunews, September 24, 2021).

Darassa’s attack on Hassan Bouba was not surprising; Bouba was formerly the number two man in the UPC. A Fulani livestock-trader and former member of Chad’s secret police, Bouba was once close to Baba Laddé. Bouba’s appointment to the government as the UPC’s representative (the Khartoum Accord having called for rebel representation in the government) angered Darassa, who had lost trust in Bouba and opposed his appointment. As Livestock Minister, Bouba acted as the government’s main mediator with the rebels and was its main source of intelligence on rebel activities. Nonetheless, Bouba was arrested in November 2021 in connection to his alleged role in ordering a massacre of 112 civilians at a refugee camp in 2018 (Justiceinfo.net, November 23 2021). Bouba, considered close to the Russian mission, was the only individual actually arrested out of 25 arrest warrants issued for individuals accused of crimes against humanity in the CAR. Instead of facing charges at the Cour pénale spéciale (CPS – Special Criminal Court, a hybrid chamber of local and international magistrates intended to deal with war crimes in the CAR), Bouba was freed by the gendarmes a week later and awarded the National Order of Merit by President Touadéra on November 29, 2021 (Le Monde/AFP, December 8, 2021). The sequence of events confirmed the impunity enjoyed by pro-government warlords and militias.

In recent weeks, UPC operations in Basse-Kotto prefecture (east of Darassa’s stronghold in Ouaka prefecture) have been hampered by a wave of defections and the surrender of “Colonel” Sallé Ali, who claimed Darassa suspected him of being in league with FACA (Radio Nedeke Luka [Bangui], January 7, 2022).

A leading UPC official, Mahamat Abdoulaye Garba, was arrested at the beginning of February. Under interrogation, he confessed to working as an agent of the French Embassy and a conduit for messages from the French to Ali Darassa. Mahamat Abdoulaye was reported to have implicated Baba Laddé in a pro-French conspiracy and to have asked Darassa on behalf of the French what it would take for Darassa to appeal to all Fulani to join a battle against FACA and its Russian allies (Nouvellesplus, February 3, 2022). Seeing a Russian hand in the arrest and interrogation, Darassa responded to the allegations with a press release condemning the Wagner Group’s attempts to “tarnish the image” of France, the Chadian state and its director of intelligence and investigations, General Baba Laddé (Corbeaunews, February 5, 2022).

For Part Two, see:  https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4756

Notes

  1. The Fulani speak a common language (known as Fula, Fulfulde or Pulaar) but are known by several other names in their broad geographical range from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, including Fulbe, Fula, Peul, Peulh, and Fellata. It should be noted that in the 21st century, not all Fulani are cattle herders following traditional means of existence; many are urbanized city dwellers speaking a variety of languages and are well represented in the business communities of the Sahel and the coastal regions of West Africa. For background on the Fulani crisis, see: “The Fulani Crisis: Communal Violence and Radicalization in the Sahel,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, CTC Sentinel 10(2), February 22, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3881.
  2. Debriefing statement on its mission to Chad, 16 – 23 April 2018 by the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the right of peoples to self-determination, n.d. (2018), https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22986&LangID=E
  3. For Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso, see: “’The Sons of the Land’: Tribal Challenges to the Tuareg Conquest of Northern Mali,” Terrorism Monitor, April 19, 2012, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=447; “Mali’s Ganda Iso Militia Splits over Support for Tuareg Rebel Group,” Terrorism Monitor, February 21, 2014, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=808.
  4. Kaka is Chadic Arabic for “Grandmother”; Mahamat was given the nickname after being raised by his grandmother.
  5. For the Erdimi twins, see https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2263.

Warlords and Mercenaries in Central Africa: The Struggle for Power in Chad and the Central African Republic – Part Two

Part Two – Can Russian Military Contractors Overcome Tribal Politics and French Influence in the CAR?

Moscow’s Privatized Point-Men in Central Africa Have Had It Their Way So Far. Can It Last?

Dr. Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, February 5, 2022

Moscow’s addition of Russian “contract soldiers” to its fighting force in Chechnya has evolved into the regular use of contract fighters to spread Russian political and economic interests in conflict zones, especially those experiencing seemingly intractable conflicts. Unlike those who served in Chechnya, the new generation of contract fighters operate outside Russia’s formal military structure. Like earlier European mercenary groups in Africa, it is understood by the leaders of these “contractors” that their reward for saving governments under threat will be guaranteed access to the wealth generated from resource extraction.

Central African Republic (Worldometer)

The use of mercenaries as bodyguards for the president has a long history in the CAR, with Chadian gunmen usually filling this role, so the introduction of Russian mercenaries as presidential security was hardly unprecedented. What is surprising is the eagerness with which African nations such as the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, Mozambique, Mali and others have welcomed the return of White European mercenaries after decades spent trying to drive them out of Africa. The surprise is even greater when it is plain the mercenaries from the east are still using the playbook used by the White mercenaries of the 1960s and later:

  • Separate the ruler from the ruled by forming a bodyguard of mercenaries who control access to the leader;
  • Insert economic “advisors” who direct national finances;
  • Ensure rights to mining and other extractive industries are given to firms favored or owned by the mercenaries;
  • Establish discreet and deniable connections to European states or corporate interests seeking to establish or expand their influence and holdings in Africa.

The leaders of Wagner Group appear to be familiar with the work of earlier European mercenaries in Africa, including Frenchman Bob Denard, a mercenary who worked for Belgian mineral interests in Katanga in the 1960s. Denard later became the power behind the throne in the Comoros Islands by controlling its 500-man presidential bodyguard through the 1980s, maintaining connections to Jacques Foccart, France’s point-man in Africa before deciding to take over the country himself in 1995.

Bob Denard in Katanga

The Russians are also sure to have studied the disastrous South African deployment in Bangui in 2013 and the book Composite Warfare: The Conduct of Successful Ground Force Operations in Africa, an influential 2016 tactical work by South African mercenary Colonel Eeben Barlow, based partly on operations carried out against Boko Haram in Nigeria by his mixed-race “Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection” unit (STTEP). [1]

Civil War in the CAR

Both Ali Darassa and Mahamat al-Khatim were officially dismissed as special military advisors on December 31, 2020 (RFI, January 2, 2021). Al-Khatim’s Mouvement patriotique pour la Centrafrique (MPC) suffered serious losses in arms and personnel during the late 2021 government counter-offensive. A recent communiqué from the MPC chief-of staff, “General” Abdraman Mahamat Abfiessa, accused the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, a Christian, of “using a Hitlerian strategy to erase the Muslim identity of the Central African Republic” (Corbeau News [Bangui], January 7, 2022).

Sidiki Abass (DW.com)

Sidiki Abass, whose Retour, Récupération, Réhabilitation (3R) militia was notorious for torture, rape and murder, quickly returned to the bush after the 2019 Khartoum Accord that was meant to end the fighting. He died in March 2021 from wounds either received in an attack on a village on November 16, 2020 or in an ambush of his convoy in December 2020. Sidiki was succeeded by the self-described “General Bobbo.” The 3R’s hold on diamond-rich areas and control of the cross-border cattle trade with Cameroon have enabled it to buy arms and recruit mercenaries of their own (Vanguard [Lagos], December 6, 2021). Many of these mercenaries come from Chad, some with combat experience on Libyan battlefields. There is no difficulty for them in crossing the permeable border between Chad and the CAR.

Mahamat al-Khatim

3R is mostly Fulani, as is the UPC, and began its run in 2015 as a Fulani self-defense militia. Al-Khatim’s MPC is a mix of Arab and Fulani fighters. The conflict in the northern CAR reflects the growing militancy of the Fulani people across Africa’s Sahel belt, though their struggles remain uncoordinated, lack central direction and are generally fuelled by local issues and ethnic rivalries rather than ideology. Baba Laddé is one of the few to have tried to situate the violence between Fulani groups and their neighbors within a larger ethnic framework, with some attempt to define larger goals for a multinational Fulani alliance.

Fulani herders in the CAR are actually targeted by both certain rebel groups and government forces (and their allies), whether through taxation in the form of cattle or retaliatory attacks in response to operations by self-identified Fulani “self-defense” groups. In dealing with the Fulani, the Russians are reported to make little distinction between civilian herders and armed fighters (Le Monde/AFP, January 14, 2022).

The ongoing violence in the CAR began when its president, François Bozizé Yangouvonda (Gbaya ethnicity), was deposed in March 2013. Bozizé had seized power in a 2003 coup but was expelled by the Muslim Séléka alliance of Arab and Fulani rebel groups in 2013. Bozizé fled Bangui for Cameroon in March 2013 as Russian-educated Séléka leader Michel Djotodia took power as the CAR’s first Muslim president. Bangui and other parts of the CAR were plunged into violence as hastily-formed “anti-Balaka” Christian militias began retaliatory attacks on Séléka fighters and Muslim civilians for attacks on CAR Christians.

Djotodia, a member of the Gula ethnic group from Vakanga prefecture, was forced to resign in January 2014 and an interim government was formed as UN, African Union and French troops attempted to restore stability and security. In March 2016, academic and former prime-minister Faustin-Archange Touadéra was elected CAR president. Following the election, French troops withdrew, creating immediate security challenges for the new president.

Bozizé attempted a return to the CAR in late 2019 with the intention of running in the December 2020 presidential elections, but the CAR’s constitutional court announced his disqualification on moral grounds due to outstanding international warrants and UN sanctions for torture and war crimes. Instead, Bozizé was alleged to have mounted a failed coup attempt in December 2020, a week before elections were to begin. The action prompted Russian and Rwandan reinforcements.

Six of the strongest rebel groups mounted a joint offensive against the Touadera government in December 2020, calling themselves the Coalition des Patriotes pour le Changement (CPC). Their plan to cut off the capital was foiled by the response of CAR troops, Rwandan special forces and Russian mercenaries. By January 13, the rebels began to retreat. Ten days later, the government reported the death of 44 rebels at Boyali (54 miles from Bangui), “including several mercenaries from Chad, Sudan and the Fulani.” (Al-Jazeera, January 25, 2021).

In late February 2021, the Bozizé stronghold of Bossangoa 175 miles north of Bangui was captured by CAR troops supported by Russians and Rwandans. Bozizé, who was being investigated for “rebellion” at the time, took charge of the CPC in March 2021. He is now believed to reside in N’Djamena; in his absence, Ali Darassa has taken control of the rebel coalition.

The CAR government declared a unilateral ceasefire in October, 2021 to encourage a dialogue with rebel factions. The move, however, had little impact on the ongoing violence; the rebels had little interest and the government offensive continued. 3R forces attacked the town of Mann in the northwest, killing five civilians and one soldier in December 2021, while a particularly gruesome machete attack by pro-Touadéra militias in the CAR’s center-east left 15 civilians dead including women and children; many others suffered mutilations and amputation of limbs (AFP, December 20, 2021; ).

Increasing the instability in Bangui is the revival of the Requin (“sharks”), a pro-ruling party militia known for its violence. Created in 2019 by Touadéra’s Mouvement cœurs unis (MCU – United Hearts Movement), the Requin were dissolved in July 2020 under international pressure. Resurrected in 2021, the group mounts heavily-armed patrols through Bangui at night (Jeune Afrique, January 12, 2021). They have been accused of mounting an assassination campaign against members of the Gbaya (François Bozizé’s ethnic group) and circulating lists of opposition figures to be eliminated (Corbeaunews [Bangui], January 18, 2021). Russian mercenaries are also reported to have targeted the Gbaya with summary executions (ICG, December 3, 2021).

Clashes on the Chad/CAR Border

Unsurprisingly, tensions between a pro-French government in Chad and a pro-Russian government in Chad’s traditional Central African hinterland have created a state of instability along the border between the two nations. At times, these clashes have threatened to spark a wider conflict.

An attack by Russian fighters and CAR regulars on a Chadian border post on May 30, 2021 resulted in the death of six Chadians and three Russians. Chad’s defense ministry claimed that five of their soldiers had been captured and executed. Bangui insisted the clash was “a mistake” resulting from CAR forces and their allies pursuing rebels near the border (Reuters, June 2, 2021). A diplomatic crisis followed and more Chadian troops and weapons were sent to the border. The incident came only weeks after the Russian ambassador to the CAR criticized Chad for failing to prevent the passage of arms and fighters across the border into the CAR (Africa Report, June 4, 2021). Asked why Chad did not respond militarily to the execution of its troops, Mahamat Idriss would only respond: “Let’s just say that we exercised a lot of restraint after these murders were committed” (Africa Report, June 30, 2021).

Sani Yalo (DR)

Following the incident, the CAR’s top “fixer,” Sani Yalo, was sent to N’Djamena to assure Chad’s leadership that President Touadéra had no interest in creating insecurity on the border. Yalo is a political operator and one of President Touadéra’s closest advisors, despite having no official position. Believed to be pro-Russian, Yalo has demonstrated his survival skills and importance by acting as a presidential advisor during the presidencies of Ange-Félix Patassé, François Bozizé and Michel Djotodia. Touadéra refuses to extradite Yalo to Equatorial Guinea, where he is wanted for his alleged involvement in a 2017 attempt to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema (Jeune Afrique, October 16, 2019).

A further confrontation followed on December 10, 2021, when Russian mercenaries pursuing CPC rebels crossed the border into Chad. After a firefight with Chadian troops in which one Chadian was killed, the Russians withdrew, taking one captured soldier with them (Corbeau News, December 12, 2021).

Instability on the CAR’s South-Western Border with Cameroon

The regions adjacent to the 560-mile-long border between Cameroon and the CAR are beset by cattle-rustling, banditry, kidnappings and arms trafficking. When pressed, rebel groups from either nation take refuge on the other side of the border and have become heavily involved in resource exploitation, including the hunt for gold. Life in the border region has become precarious; 3R rebels launched attacks on CAR civilians and security forces near the Cameroon border on November 28, 2021, killing 30 civilians and two soldiers.

It is not only Fulani herders who are now in conflict with agricultural communities. In northern Cameroon, there have been repeated and bloody clashes between Arab Shuwa herders and Musgum (a.k.a. Mulwi) and Masa (a.k.a. Masana, Yagoua) farmers and fishermen over access to diminishing water resources. With the influx of arms to the Sahel region in recent decades, massacres have replaced traditional modes of dispute resolution; as one traditional chief in north Cameroon noted: “Today, when there is a problem between two people from different communities, all the communities get involved with weapons” (Reuters, December 9, 2021). Many Cameroonians have fled the violence into the CAR, while some 300,000 CAR residents have fled the other way into Cameroon.

The Russian Third Phase in Africa

Tsarist efforts to establish a colonial foothold in the Horn of Africa after the collapse of the Egyptian Empire in the late 19th century came to naught. This was despite the notable efforts of a handful of adventurous Russian officers and Cossacks who became influential in the court of the Abyssinian emperor and even managed to plant a Russian flag at Fashoda on the White Nile before the arrival of the French or British. However, there was little interest in Africa at St. Petersburg, as Russia focused on consolidating its rule in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Soviet efforts in the post-colonial era were more determined and resource-targeted, but decades of military and diplomatic work had unsatisfactory results – the Russians were expelled from Egypt due to Cold War political manoeuvring and the application of Marxist economics by inexperienced Soviet-trained leaders to non-industrial societies in sub-Saharan Africa resulted in famine, economic collapse and intractable civil wars. These latter, naturally, were fuelled by Western states desiring to make the communist presence in Africa as costly as possible. These strategies transformed Africa into a proxy battleground until the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Soviet project in Africa.

Ten Russian BDRM-2 armored scout cars were delivered to FACA in 2020; two broke down almost immediately.

The third phase of Russian interest in Africa may be inspired by Soviet-era efforts (especially its search for African military bases), but has abandoned the ideological element of the Soviets. This eases the entry of Russian business interests and resource extractors that are often closely tied to the provision of some combination of military contractors, arms supplies, personal security, political advisors and information manipulators. These, in turn, have direct connections to Kremlin insiders like Yevgeny Prigozhin (owner of the Wagner Group) who can get things done even without having official status in the Russian government. For unstable regimes with no other means of re-asserting government control in profitable but rebellious regions, it is an attractive model.

The Wagner Group and Russian arms arrived in January 2018, not long after a visit by President Touadéra to Sochi, where he met with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Four years later, Russians have become a highly influential, if not dominant, force in the national army, the gendarmerie, the mineral sector, the presidency and the National Assembly. The Wagner force is mainly Russian, but is reported to include a number of Syrians and Libyans whose knowledge of Arabic is useful in dealing with the CAR’s Muslim communities.

A report leaked from the EU’s foreign service in November 2021 described Russia’s use of a “complex hybrid strategy” in the CAR, including “support through proxies in the National Assembly.” The report also noted the Wagner Group’s “alleged reliance” on official Russian military infrastructure, transport and health services (EU Observer, November 29, 2021). Two weeks later, the EU imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group and eight specific individuals associated with it, citing “serious human rights abuses, including torture, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings [and] destabilising activities in some of the countries they operate in,” including Libya, Syria, Ukraine and the CAR.

In March 2021, the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries cited various abuses by Russian mercenaries in the CAR, including mass summary executions, torture, arbitrary detentions, indiscriminate targeting of civilians and attacks on humanitarian workers. The UN investigators were also alarmed by the “proximity and interoperability” between the mercenaries and the peacekeepers of the UN’s Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique (MINUSCA) forces (Al-Jazeera, March 31, 2021). In response to the UN’s claim Russian fighters had looted and murdered in the CAR, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov insisted such reports were “yet another lie” (AP, June 28, 2021). Anti-MINUSCA protests in Bangui organized by Touadéra’s Russian advisors quickly followed the release of the UN report. Since the protests, Russian diplomatic efforts have prevented UN experts from pursuing further investigations.

However, the relationship between MINUSCA and the Russians inevitably deteriorated as the year progressed due to the conflict between their mandates and the difference in their methods.  Whatever cooperation existed between the two groups was finally put to rest on November 1, 2021, when ten unarmed Egyptian policemen joining the MINUSCA force were wounded at Bangui’s M’Poko Airport in an attack by the Russian-controlled Presidential Guard. MINUSCA described the attack as “deliberate and unjustifiable,” though a presidential spokesman claimed the reports had “nothing to do with reality” (Reuters, November 3, 2021; UN News, November 2, 2021). [2]

In recent weeks, Russian mercenaries in Bria, capital of the Haute Kotto prefecture, have been in the habit of rounding up young men on a daily basis for use as forced labor in the construction of a nearby base. When no young men were to be found for several days, the Russians carried out a military operation in the early morning, surrounding Bria and opening fire on fleeing youth. Four were killed, prompting the rest of the town to flee to the bush or to the safety of a nearby displaced persons’ camp. The Russians returned late in the day to carry away the bodies of the deceased from a mosque where they were awaiting burial (Journal de Bangui, January 5, 2020; HumAngle [Abuja], January 5, 2022).

Claims of abuses by Russians in the CAR have been dismissed by a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman: “If the insinuations about their atrocities had any real foundation, and the local population was actively protesting, the CAR’s leadership would hardly have insisted on the further presence of specialists from Russia” (Financial Times, October 25, 2021).

The Russian fighters are steady consumers of imported vodka and land for a local vodka distillery in the CAR has already been expropriated. When vodka runs short, the mercenaries are known to add isopropyl alcohol, Mecurochrome and various chemical-based wound disinfectants to beer to give it the necessary kick. Three Russians died from drinking these concoctions in mid-2021; four more died and six others were hospitalized in the last week of January 2022. Troops of the Force Armée Centrafricaine (FACA – Armed Forces of Central Africa) are said to avoid drinking with their Russian comrades (Corbeaunews [Bangui], January 31, 2022).

Valery Zakharov is the CAR’s national security advisor, assuming both military and diplomatic roles, including negotiations with Mahamat Darassa and other rebel leaders. The former intelligence agent, variously described as a veteran of the FSB or the GRU, also has a business role through mining firm Lobaye Invest Sarlu and Séwa Sécurité (or Sewa Security Services – SSS), a Russian private military contractor (PMC) engaged to guard President Touadera and other CAR officials. [3] According to Zakharov, Russia is not presently seeking a military base in the CAR, but did not rule it out in the future: “There is already a Russian military representation in the CAR, which is still sufficient for operational coordination between the Central African and Russian Ministries of Defense, the issue of opening the base is not yet on the agenda” (Descifrando la Guerra, March 7, 2021). While a military base may become a reality in the future, for now instability in the CAR has created an entry point for Russian interests in the CAR’s valuable mining sector.

Russian Members of Sewa Security Services in the CAR (Jeune Afrique)

In a September 2021 interview, a defensive President Touadéra pretended to have little knowledge of Wagner, Sewa Security or Lobaye Invest, adding that an appeal for security assistance from EU states had failed to obtain a favorable response. However, Russia, “with whom we have a long-standing relationship,” responded positively with arms and military trainers: “I have nothing to hide about the Russians” (Africa Report, September 24, 2021).

Prigozhin is reported to control both M-Finans, specializing in precious metals and the provision of private security services, and Lobaye Invest Sarlu, specializing in the mining of non-ferrous metal ores. Mining permits are regularly issued without consultation of the CAR’s National Assembly, a violation of the national constitution (Jeune Afrique, August 20, 2019). According to the US Treasury Department, Prigozhin’s CAR operations are “reported to be coordinated with the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense.” [4]

Yevgeny Khodotov is the managing director of Lobaye Invest Sarlu, with contracts to explore for gold and diamonds, sometimes through another company called M-Finance. The US Treasury Department has identified Khodotov as an associate of Prigozhin. He is reported to be in contact with Noureddine Adam, leader of a faction of the Runga-dominated Front Populaire pour la renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC), as well as former president Michel Djotodia (Jeune Afrique, August 20, 2019). [5] The FPRC, under its military commander Abdoulaye Hissène, is known for targeting Fulanis; in 2016 the group massacred 85 people in Bria during a brutal raid on the town that displaced 11,000 people (Reuters, November 26, 2016). The FPRC was targeted by government-controlled militias in 2019-20. Noureddine Adam is now believed to be living in Sudan after the CAR government’s counter-offensive.

UPC Rebels, 2018 (Radio Ndeke Luka)

Reports of a massacre of civilians carried out in January near Bria (Haute-Kotto prefecture) by FACA and Russian mercenaries have ignited a UN investigation by MINUSCA officials. The incident occurred during a January 16-17 operation against Darassa’s UPC. Dozens of civilians were reported killed; a military source described “summary executions” and “more than 50 deaths” (AFP, January 21, 2022, al-Jazeera, January 22, 2022).

Nonetheless, Touadéra’s Russian advisors have tried to popularize the unfamiliar Russian presence in the CAR, providing medical services and sports equipment, funding a “Miss Centrafrique” contest and producing a film lionizing the Russian fighters. “The Tourist,” a Prigozhin-financed movie about young Russian military advisors in the CAR battling bloodthirsty rebels, was shown at a Bangui sports stadium to as many as 70,000 people, some of whom were helpfully supplied with Russian flags to show their enthusiasm. Dubbed into the local Sangho language (a lingua franca in the CAR), the movie featured Wagner Group mercenaries as extras. A “quickie” by film standards, the movie was shot in March-April 2021 and premiered in May (Moscow Times, May 21, 2021).

FACA Troops Wearing “Russie – Je Suis Wagner” T-shirts (Corbeaunews)

Displaying little regard for the political sensitivities of the CAR rulers who were trying to disavow any knowledge of Wagner Group mercenaries in the country, the Russian mercenaries created a “Je Suis Wagner” (I am Wagner) t-shirt they issued to the gendarmerie and FACA members (some of these bear a large “Russie” logo over the shirt’s image). Soon, the shirts were being worn by fashionable youth and members of the ruling party alike (Corbeaunews [Bangui], October 31, 2021).

Young Girl Styles “Je suis Wagner” T-shirt (Corbeau News)

The services of private Russian security firms don’t come cheap, and questions have been asked regarding the possibility that donations from the World Bank and the EU, which provide half of the CAR’s $400 million budget, might be used to pay the Russian mercenaries on top of access to gold and diamond deposits (Financial Times, October 25, 2021).

The French Reaction

Unhappy with the Russian challenge to France’s traditional zone of influence, French president Emmanuel Macron has used strong language to condemn the growing criticisms of France in the CAR: “This anti-French rhetoric legitimises the presence of predatory Russian mercenaries at the highest levels of the state, with President Touadéra who is today a hostage of the Wagner group. This group is taking over the mines and, in the same way, the political system” (Journal du Dimanche, May 29, 2021; RFI, May 31, 2021).

France is still far from out of the picture in the CAR, and some indication of its lingering influence might be seen in the June 10, 2021 resignation of Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada and his cabinet. Ngrebada was an architect of the 2019 Khartoum Accord and believed to be close to the Russians, at whose embassy he sought refuge when the Séléka movement occupied Bangui in 2013. Five days after his resignation, he was replaced by former finance minister Henri Marie Dondra, believed to be closer to the French who lobbied hard for Ngrebada’s removal. Dondra, whose family lives in France, declined the protection of Russian bodyguards (Jeune Afrique, June 18, 2021). Despite Dondra’s acceptability to the IMF/World Bank, there has been internal pressure to replace him. Dondra is reported to have already submitted his resignation earlier this month; the president is expected to respond in the coming days. The prime minister has struggled with demands from the Wagner Group, a staff picked by a president to whom he has never been close, increased reluctance to provide continuing financial support to the CAR by France and the EU, and finally ethnic insults made by the spokesman of the leader of the National Assembly (African Intelligence, February 4, 2022). Though the World Bank is unhappy about the Russian mission’s influence on certain government institutions, Dondra’s successor is likely to be more accommodating to the Russian presence in the CAR.

The Investigation

To the surprise of many, on October 1, 2021 CAR Minister of Justice Arnaud Djoubaye Abazène (a relative of Michel Djotodia) released the results of an investigation by a Special Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in the CAR that implicated the CPC rebels, MINUSCA troops and “Russian instructors who operate in support of FACA” in repeated and egregious violations (Le Monde/AFP, October 1, 2021). Aware of the repercussions the report would have, Djoubaye did not provide advance notice to the Russian military mission or the Russian embassy. After presenting the report, the Minister of Justice was roundly assailed as “pro-French” by deputies in the Touadera camp.

Only two weeks after Djoubaye made the accusations of war crimes and human rights violations public, the CAR’s National Assembly issued a public letter of thanks for the “interventions of the Russian contingent alongside our forces” in retaking the regions occupied by “terrorists,” along with “our sincere congratulations for your bravery” (Afrik.com, October 16, 2021). The letter, completely undermining the Minister of Justice, was yet another example of the growing Russian influence in the Assembly.

Djoubaye was forced to defend his report in a parliamentary interpellation several days later, though he opened by criticizing the “almost generalized impunity” enjoyed by military, political and criminal human rights violators in the CAR. Repeating that the majority of such violations were committed by rebel movements, Djoubaye noted the “privilege of jurisdiction” enjoyed by FACA’s foreign allies, an acknowledgement that crimes committed by these entities were unlikely to be prosecuted in the CAR. Attempting to still the waters, the Justice Minister finished by stating that the report of the Special Commission of Inquiry “was not intended to affect the morale of FACA or that of the allies who are applauded by our people” (Centrafrique-presse, October 24, 2021).

Djoubaye and the Tribal War in the North

Djoubaye has himself been accused of helping orchestrate attacks amounting to war crimes in his hometown of Birao (capital of Vakaga prefecture) in 2019. The attacks were carried out by pro-government militias on members of the Runga community, especially those close to the FPRC (Monde Afrique, July 3, 2021). Dozens were killed and tens of thousands displaced in the violence between neighboring ethnic groups.

The three militias involved in the attacks on the Runga included:

  • The Mouvement des libérateurs centrafricains pour la justice (MLCJ), composed largely of Kara and Gula from the region of Birao. The MLCJ was founded by Abakar Sabone and is now led by Gilbert Toumou Deya, currently a cabinet minister under the integration terms of the Khartoum Accord. The political/military movement is reported to have been reinforced by Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries (Mondafrique, March 28, 2020).
  • The Rassemblement patriotique pour le renouveau de la Centrafrique (RPRC). The movement’s founder and political leader, Herbert Gontran Djono Ahaba, is now a cabinet minister. The RPRC, operating in the northeast CAR, is now led in the field by Gula “General” Zakaria Damane (a.k.a. Moustapha Maloum). Damane cooperates with Lobaye Invest in the Ouadda region of Haute-Kotto prefecture.
  • The Parti pour le rassemblement de la nation centrafricaine (PRNC) is led by Nour Gregaza (a.k.a. Mahamat Nour Nizan) and Issa Issaka Aubin, former army chief-of-staff under the presidency of Michel Djotodia (Mondafrique, March 28, 2020; RFI, June 6, 2019). The movement was created by a June 2019 split with the RPRC.

The clashes in Birao led to a vicious split in the ranks of the FPRC in neighboring Haute-Kotto prefecture. Diamonds appeared to be at the core of a further clash in Bria in January 2020, between the Kara and Gula peoples who own the mines and their former Runga allies in the FPRC who control the sale and trade of diamonds from the region (AFP, January 20, 2020). The fighting was joined by fighters of the Kara and Gula-dominated MLCJ. The FPRC’s internal ethnic struggle spread to its main base in Ndélé in the Bamingui-Bangoran prefecture (southwest of Vakaga prefecture) in April 2020, with dozens slaughtered. “General” Azor Kalité, a Bria-based Gula warlord and former senior member of the FPRC, and eight companions were arrested by MINUCA on suspicion of war crimes as the fighting continued in May (AFP, May 20, 2020; Monde Afrique, May 27, 2020). A pact of non-aggression between the Runga and Gula factions of the FPRC helped reduce the violence in August 2020. Ndélé was eventually recaptured by government forces in June 2021.

The Haute-Kotto and Vakaga prefectures are located on the historically turbulent fault line between Muslim north Africa and traditionally animist sub-Saharan Africa (which now includes many Christians). Many of the ethnic-groups of these regions converted to Islam in the 19th century as a way of attempting to evade enslavement by the Fulani, Arabs and Maba from Chad and Fur and Arabs from the Darfur sultanate (Muslims are forbidden to enslave other Muslims, though this restriction was not always observed in practice in Chad’s southern hinterland). Vakaga is the CAR’s northernmost prefecture and the only one to share borders with both Chad and Sudan. Though oil reserves are present in the region, it remains sparsely populated due to its depopulation by 19th century slave raids. Vakaga has been brought under some semblance of government control since the FACA/Russian/Rwandan offensive and many Hausa and Sara who fled to Sudan and Chad are considering a return (Corbeaunews [Bangui], January 31, 2022).

The Army of the Central African Republic

Senior FACA officers complain the Russians are recruiting their own battalions and deploying them to act as support units in their operations without respect to the FACA hierarchy (Corbeaunews [Bangui], December 21, 2021). To the chagrin of members of the European Union Training Mission (EUTM), many of their graduates, so carefully instructed in human rights issues, are heading straight into FACA battalions controlled by Russian mercenaries. The EUTM now focuses on strategic advice having suspended its training program two months ago over concerns it could not cooperate with Russian mercenaries that did not share the values of contributing European nations. An offer was made to resume training if Russian control of FACA ended and the army began to respect human rights, but these conditions seem unlikely to be met (Defense-gouv.fr, February 5, 2022).

A FACA soldier wearing the Wagner Group Death’s-Head patch (Corbeau News).

Of even greater concern is last year’s wave of arrests of former and active FACA senior officers by Russian contractors with the apparent acquiescence of the government:

  • Former FACA chief-of-staff General Ludovic Ngaïfei Lamademon was arrested at his home on January 16, 2021 and detained at the Camp Roux military prison, where he was questioned regarding his relationship with rebel CPC leaders. The arrest occurred when a column of FACA armored vehicles and Russian APCs smashed through the gates of his house, with FACA troops firing wildly despite the absence of any resistance. Ngaïfei was accused of organizing a coup against the government after speaking critically of the president in the local press. The retired general had been dismissed by President Touadéra following a dispute in 2018 (Corbeaunews [Bangui], February 1, 2021);
  • Colonel Rodongo, commander of FACA’s signals battalion, was arrested by the Russians in Kaga-Bandaro;
  • The Russians came for the captain-chief of the FACA detachment in Bria in July 2021. The officer fled to a local MINUSCA detachment, but was turned over to the interrogators of the research and investigation section of the CAR gendarmerie (Corbeaunews [Bangui], October 24, 2021).
  • Colonel Moussa Kitoko, commander of the north-east military zone, was arrested at Ndélé by Russian mercenaries, who accused the colonel of selling ammunition to the FPRC rebel movement (Corbeaunews [Bangui], October 24, 2021).
  • Chief Warrant Officer Guetel, head of the Berberati remand center, was also arrested by the Russians in mid-October, 2021.

Beside the arrests of their colleagues, FACA officers are, like their Chadian counterparts, unhappy with the system of promotion, which seems to elevate favorites of Touadéra or his Russian advisors. Despite the apparent success of the FACA/Russian/Rwandan offensive in early 2021, morale remains low in the army and defections to rebel groups are common. In August 2021, a group of soldiers of all ranks sent a 20-page letter to President Touadéra criticizing the handling of the army. The letter cited tribalism and favoritism in promotions, an unclear purpose for the army, the arrests of senior officers and the “humiliation and dishonor” in the ranks due to their subordination to the Wagner Company and Rwandan special forces: “Is it an army at the service of the people or an army to defend the interests of certain individuals who are in power?” (Journal de Bangui, August 23, 2021).

Female soldiers of FACA are no longer allowed on active operations due to the strong risk of sexual assault by their Russian allies under the influence of drugs and alcohol, something allegedly experienced by two out of three female recruits (Corbeaunews [Bangui], December 27, 2021; Letsunami.net [Bangui], January 15, 2022).

Major General and Chief of Staff of the Central African Armed Forces Zéphirin Mamadou is reported to work closely with General Oleg Polguyev, former intelligence chief of Russia’s airborne forces and a member of the official Russian mission (rather than Wagner).

Rwanda in the CAR

Rwanda is not a neighbor of the CAR, but, as with its earlier intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the government of President Paul Kagame is interested in gaining access to mineral resources of the type found in the CAR.

The Rwandan component of MINUSCA consists of two infantry battalions, a mechanized battle group and a field hospital. Rwandans began providing protection for President Touadéra and other authorities in 2016 (East African (Nairobi), August 4, 2021). Rwanda is the largest single contributor to MINUSCA, with roughly 1700 troops and 500 policemen under UN command. [6]

In 2020, Rwanda deployed “force protection troops” from the Forces de Défense du Rwanda (FDR) to the CAR under a bilateral defense agreement. The agreement allowing Rwanda to deploy troops in the CAR outside the MINUSCA framework was signed in October 2019. Accompanying economic agreements gave Rwanda access to the CAR’s mining sector and permitted Rwandan officials to be inserted into CAR mining operations. The deployment came “in response to the targeting of the Rwanda Defense Force under the UN peacekeeping force by rebels supported by François Bozize” (Govt. of Rwanda, December 20, 2020). In early August 2021, another battalion of 750 troops from the FDR arrived in the CAR; one of their main tasks was to secure the vital highway connecting Bangui and Cameroon (New Times [Kigali], August 9, 2021).

According to Valery Zakharov, the Rwandans “act very efficiently and professionally. Of course, without the support of Rwanda, it would be difficult to repel the aggression of the militants and immediately go on the offensive. We are in constant contact with the Rwandan forces, as well as with all other partners” (Descifrando la Guerra, March 7, 2021).

Soldiers of Fortune in the CAR

Some European mercenaries have taken advantage of the CAR’s state of insecurity for their own profit. Horațiu Potra, a Romanian mercenary and former French Legionnaire, became involved in Baba Laddé’s plan to overthrow both François Bozizé and Idriss Déby. Potra, allegedly a dealer in war-zone diamonds, is closely associated with a number of rebels and mercenaries active in Chad and the CAR and was an instructor of the presidential guard of Ange-Félix Patassé.

Another shadowy adventurer is the Italian Elio Ciolini (a.k.a. Bruno Lugon, a.k.a. Bruno Raul Rivera Sanchez, a.k.a. Gino Bottoni Di Ferrara, a.k.a. Colonel Eliot). Nicknamed il faccendiere (“the henchman”), Ciolini has spent time in the prisons of several states on drug and weapons charges. Now working in the CAR as an “adviser to the presidency for national security,” Ciolini manufactured a fake coup attempt in Bangui while posing as “Colonel Eliot” of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s combined foreign and defence ministry. As “organizer” of the coup, Ciolini contacted a number of political and military leaders in the CAR in what seems to have been an attempt to flush out opponents of President Touadéra and his Russian backers. Ciolini was seen many times in Bangui in the company of Dmitri Alexandrov, a top Russian advisor to the president, before he disappeared in May 2020 (Jeune Afrique, July 1, 2020). Alexandrov (real name Dmitri Sergeevich Sytii) is a director of Lobaye Invest, a Russian mining firm tied to Prigozhin operating in the CAR. Sytii, who speaks four languages, works as an interpreter in high level talks and leads propaganda operations in Bangui that denounce MINUSCA and local politicians who resist the Russian expansion or favor a partnership with France. 

Two days after France suspended a military training and operational support mission to the CAR in June 2021 to protest the failure of Ngrebada’s government to combat an anti-French disinformation campaign on social media, French national Juan Rémy Quignolot was charged with weapons, espionage and threats to state security (i.e., aiding and training rebel groups). The charges came a month after the former French paratrooper, known to work as a bodyguard for aid organizations, was arrested in Bangui with a small cache of weapons, a few camouflage uniforms and cash in several currencies. Though the arms seized from Quignolot were described in many places as “a very large arsenal” endangering the state, photos of the seized weapons and gear revealed only two hunting rifles (one with a scope), a handgun and an M-16 automatic rifle, nothing especially unusual for a security practitioner in an insecure region and certainly not enough to mount a coup, as CAR security has suggested was his intent. [7]  Paris quickly characterized the arrest as a “manipulation” and part of an anti-French disinformation campaign after reports of the seized “arsenal” and arrest were prominently featured on Valery Zakharov’s Twitter account (al-Jazeera, June 9, 2021). The 55-year-old’s arrest came at a time when accusations were being made of human rights abuses by the Wagner Group in the CAR. According to his sister, Quignolot is being held in solitary confinement with a daily plate of rice to keep him alive as he faces a possible sentence of life at hard labor (Corbeaunews [Bangui], January 9, 2022).

Conclusion

In the CAR, it has become clear a cabinet of government ministers cannot be formed from rebel leaders and bandit chiefs, especially those who serve only themselves and have committed war-crimes and murders of CAR civilians. The impunity enjoyed by those rebel leaders now absorbed into the highest levels of the government only encourages others to view violence as the quickest path to wealth and influence. Such a structure cannot hold, hence the need for no-questions-asked assistance from mercenaries.

Alexander Bikantov, a proponent of a Russian presence in the CAR, is taking over as Russian ambassador this month from Vladimir Titorenko, who was perceived locally as inserting himself into CAR politics and was also occasionally at odds with Wagner Group officials. In October/November 2021, Bangui was visited by both Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner Group founder Dmitri Utkin in an attempt to calm growing differences between the Russians and CAR authorities.

Weak states compelled to hire mercenary forces to enable their survival are always at risk of the mercenaries taking over state institutions for their own profit, especially if expected wealth does not materialize. From the mutiny of mercenaries over pay in 3rd Century BCE Carthage to the mercenary mutinies in 1960s Congo, it is a familiar pattern. If continued insecurity in mineral-rich areas and pushback from CAR politicians delays the get-rich-quick schemes of the Russian mercenaries and their backers, the result could be an internal conflict that would both test and reveal Moscow’s control over the military contractors.

The Russians are strong enough to take rebel-held towns and territory, but lack sufficient numbers to occupy them, a task that is turned over to the unreliable forces of FACA. Rebel movements are, in classic guerrilla fashion, able to melt into the bush to await the departure of the Russians and Rwandans before moving back into their usual areas of operation. The incompetence of the national security forces prevents the delivery of state services and humanitarian relief to areas in desperate need of same, encouraging further rounds of rebellion. The victories obtained by the Russians are thus illusory; as elation over the initial success of the 2021 anti-rebel offensive dissipates and the mission becomes overwhelmed by the very real (but unprofitable) needs of the population, the Russian contractors will be more likely to focus on protecting the mining facilities operated by Russian interests.

The mandate for the EUTM to provide ethical and military training to FACA will expire in September 2022 and cannot be renewed without the approval of President Touadéra and his government. At the moment, training has been suspended, and if the mandate is not renewed (and it is questionable whether the EU at this point even has any interest itself in renewing it), it is likely that military training will fall to the Russians, completing their takeover of FACA.

Mercenaries are ultimately a poor means for states to project power and influence; without the discipline of formal military structures, they begin to act with an assumed license that is ultimately counterproductive to the interests of state sponsors. Such was the experience of the Americans with the Blackwater PMC in Iraq; even Bob Denard, with all his contacts in the French secret services, was eventually reined in and arrested by French troops in the Comoros Islands in 1995 after mounting his fourth coup attempt.

Managing the ever-shifting ethnic rivalries and alliances in rebellious and difficult-to-reach parts of the CAR will tax the patience of the small Russian force of advisors and mercenaries, intensifying a greater focus on profits rather than security. The Russian role in driving the rebel formations back into the bush has helped build Russian popularity in some sectors of society, but this may quickly evaporate if the contractors come to be seen as economic predators.

Notes

  1. For the SADF experience in Bangui, see: “South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part One – The Rebel Offensive,” April 4, 2013, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=238, and “South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part Two – The Political and Strategic Fallout,” April 4, 2013, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=236. For Eeben Barlow and mercenary tactics used against Boko Haram in Nigeria, see: “Last Hurrah or Sign of the Future? The Performance of South African Mercenaries against Boko Haram,” AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report, June 30, 2015, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3371.
  2. Egypt contributes over 1,000 troops to MINUSCA, making it the fourth largest contributor.
  3. Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti (FSB – Federal Security Service) is Russia’s domestic intelligence agency. The Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije (GRU – Main Intelligence Directorate) is the main military intelligence agency.
  4. “Treasury Increases Pressure on Russian Financier,” US Department of the Treasury Press Release, September 23, 2020, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm1133
  5. In 2015, Noureddine Adam tried unsuccessfully to resurrect an expanded version of the old Dar al-Kuti sultanate called “the Republic of Logone.” In its early days (1830-1890) the sultanate was under the control of the Chadian sultanate of Wadai, providing the Wadaians with a steady source of slaves and ivory; in its latter years (1890-1911), the sultanate was invaded by the Nubian slaver Rabih al-Zubayr (1842-1900), who used it as a base for even more intensive slave raids in the region. The Islamic sultanate and its slave-labor plantations survived Rabih’s death at the hands of the French for some years under Rabih’s successor, Muhammad al-Sanusi.
  6. The top ten military contributors to MINUSCA include seven African nations and three Asian nations. MINUSCA Fact Sheet, January 5, 2022, https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/mission/minusca
  7. Private ownership of a semi-automatic rifle is illegal in the CAR.

Why Mozambique Is Outsourcing Counter-Insurgency to Russia: Part Two – Hidden Loans and Naval Bases

Andrew McGregor

November 4, 2019 (Part One of this article was published on October 29, 2019)

At the heart of Mozambique’s reinvigorated relationship with Moscow (see EDM, October 29) is a financial scandal that almost ruined the country. Specifically, corrupt elements in the southeast African state’s Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) government and the Serviço de Informaçao e Segurança do Estado (SISE, Mozambique’s intelligence agency) secretly arranged for $2 billion in loans from foreign commercial banks for three state-owned firms without parliamentary approval in 2013–2014. Guaranteed by the government, loans from Russia’s VTB Bank and Credit Suisse were made to EMATUM, Proindicus and Mozambique Asset Management (MAM). The scandal severely undermined Mozambique’s currency and GDP growth as well as resulted in the imposition of strict new conditions on further International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank assistance. It also discouraged further foreign investment even as Maputo struggled to find up to $2 billion to finance its share of development of LNG reserves off Cabo Delgado (Macauhub.com.mo, October 18). Moscow’s VTB Bank is demanding repayment of its loan (over $500 million) by the end of the year (Clubofmozambique.com, September 9).

Mozambican Troops Inspect Terrorist Damage in Cabo Delgado (PetroleumEconomist)

As Mozambique’s state security forces—the Forças de Defesa e Segurança (FDS)—proved incapable of dealing with the lightly-armed terrorists in the north, Maputo began a search for military alternatives. Initially, Erik Prince’s Dubai-based Lancaster Six Group (L6G) private security firm was in competition with Russia’s Wagner private military company (PMC) and Eeben Barlow’s South African Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection International (STTEP) for security contracts in Cabo Delgado, with Prince promising to eliminate the terrorists in three months in return for a share of oil and natural gas revenues (Issafrica.org, November 20, 2018; Macauhub.com.mo, October 18, 2019). Prince also indicated he was interested in forming partnerships or making investments in the three state-owned firms involved in the hidden loan scandal in deals expected to lead to maritime security operations in the gas-rich Rovuma Basin (Deutsche Welle—Português Para África, June 4, 2019).

On August 20, Russia forgave 95 percent of Mozambique’s debt to the Russian Federation during a Russian-Mozambican business forum. Though the forum encouraged continuing growth in bilateral trade, some Mozambican businessmen expressed concern over the consequences of dealing with Russia while it remains under Western sanctions for its annexation of Crimea (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, August 22). Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi also encouraged Russia’s Gazprombank (specializing in financing oil and gas projects) to help invest in liquid natural gas (LNG) projects in the Rovuma Basin (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, August 22). Rosneft, a publicly-owned Russian energy firm, has three licensed exploration blocks in Mozambique and is seeking more.

Russian Cargo Plane Unloads Military Supplies at Nacala International Airport, September 26, 2019 (ClubofMozambique)

Prince and Barlow lost out in the security competition; in late September 2019, reports emerged of armed Russians, possibly from Wagner PMC, arriving in the northern cities of Nacala and Nampula (both in Nampula province, immediately south of Cabo Delgado), allegedly accompanied by drones and helicopters (see EDM, October 15). The reports followed an admission by Mozambique’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation that Russia was providing military equipment for use in Cabo Delgado (Noticias ao Minuto, October 5). Another report suggested the men were Russian regulars, 160 in number, who intended to create a mobile military intelligence (GRU) base and a permanent Russian naval base (Observador, September 28). The Russian embassy in Maputo has denied the presence of Russian military personnel in Mozambique (Sapo 24, October 3).

Russia’s ambassador to South Africa, Ilya Rogachev, recently defended the use of Russian PMCs in Africa, claiming critics see Russia “through colonial eyes,” overlooking Moscow’s perception of African states as “equal and not junior partners.” Rogachev added that “private military companies are not necessarily bad… I think it depends on the goals that are assigned to these companies” (Daily Maverick, October 17).

LNG Fields in Mozambique’s Rovuma Basin (BankTrack)

Though Cabo Delgado is deeply impoverished, organized crime runs lucrative operations there, trafficking in heroin, timber, wildlife and rubies (Globalinitiative.net, October 2018; Enact Africa, July 2, 2018). For now it remains unclear whether the terrorist attacks in the region are more closely connected to radical Islamists from the north or organized crime using Islamism as a cover. The intention could be to create enough insecurity to delay the development of a legitimate industry that could threaten their operations. It has been suggested elsewhere that the insurgency is designed to facilitate the entry of private military firms into the region and enable their exploitation of local energy resources (Deutsche Welle—Português Para África, June 13, 2018). Local journalists attempting to investigate the violence have faced intimidation, detention and even torture from government security forces (Mg.co.za, April 25).

Moscow and Maputo signed an agreement simplifying the entry of Russian naval ships into Mozambican ports and a memorandum on naval military cooperation, on April 4, 2019. Mozambique’s defense minister, Athanasio Salvador Mtumuke, noted that “our national flag depicts the Kalashnikov rifle, which symbolizes the deep relations between our countries in the military area…” (Sputnik Brasil, April 5, 2018).

Alexander Surikov, Moscow’s ambassador to Mozambique, has emphasized the readiness of Russian energy firms to develop natural gas reserves in Mozambique’s north, adding, “We provide [military] assistance to them without threatening their neighbors and rattling the saber, we only do what our partners in Mozambique ask for” (TASS, October 25).

Port of Nacala (MacauHub)

Moscow undoubtedly has eyes on the port of Nacala, southern Africa’s deepest harbor, which lies roughly 200 miles south of the Rovuma Basin. The Mozambican town of Palma, close to the border with Tanzania, is slated for development as the main port for the Rovuma LNG industry, but it is unlikely to serve a dual purpose as a Russian naval base. Palma has suffered from attacks by the insurgents. Additionally, local demonstrations calling for a halt to LNG-related development until security is established have been dispersed by police gunfire (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, January 14). Mozambique’s most powerful neighbor, South Africa, will hold joint naval exercises for the first time with the navies of Russia and China in November.

Besides military support, the FRELIMO government is seeking strong allies as it battles internal dissatisfaction with electoral fraud, growing crime, emerging terrorism, internal political challenges and rampant corruption. While Russia may offer itself as a solution to some of these problems, the question is whether Maputo can overcome its traditional reticence to engage wholeheartedly with Moscow’s regional ambitions. Financial pressure and the lure of energy riches may be just enough to permit Russia to establish its long sought naval base in Mozambique.

This article was first published in the November 4, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Why Mozambique Is Outsourcing Counter-Insurgency to Russia: Part One – The Historical Relationship

Andrew McGregor

October 29, 2019

A new government offensive in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province is the latest attempt to eliminate shadowy Islamist insurgents in a region whose untapped energy reserves could reverse the country’s economic misfortunes and the damage inflicted by decades of civil war and on-again, off-again insurgencies (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, October 21). Unsuccessful in such efforts over the last two years, there are now reports Mozambique has turned to Russia for military aid (see EDM, October 15). But why Russia, and what would Moscow expect in return? The arrival of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gamo in 1498 began a centuries-long colonization of a vast tract of southeastern Africa that came to be known as Mozambique. Modern resistance to the Portuguese began with the formation of the nationalist Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) in 1962. FRELIMO’s first attack on a Portuguese post occurred in Cabo Delgado in 1964. Pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist factions consolidated their control of FRELIMO in the late 1960s as a wave of mysterious deaths and assassinations eliminated nationalist leaders. This allowed the emergence of Marxist-Leninist hardliner Samora Machel as FRELIMO military commander.

Portuguese Patrol in Mozambique

By 1972, FRELIMO was being supplied with weapons from Moscow and Beijing. This allowed Lisbon to justify its campaign against the guerrillas by insisting they were controlled by the Soviet Union. Marxism was in many ways unsuited to Mozambique; the education of native populations was never a strong-point of Portuguese colonialism, and with most skilled labor done by Portuguese settlers, there was simply no working class to mobilize. Thus, the new socialist state that emerged with independence in 1975 was left open to the anti-Marxist armed opposition of the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO), supported by the fiercely anti-Communist states of Rhodesia and South Africa. FRELIMO’s poor performance against RENAMO later led to a major military intervention by Marxist Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia) to save the FRELIMO regime.

The wholesale departure of the Portuguese following independence left FRELIMO desperate for external assistance. Independence also brought about an important change in FRELIMO’s military approach. No longer fighting a guerrilla war, FRELIMO needed heavy weapons, air-defense systems and training in conventional tactics to fend off incursions by the Rhodesian and South African militaries. Unable to obtain such support from the People’s Republic of China, the party turned to Soviet, Cuban and East German sources, with thousands of military advisors arriving to train the Mozambican army and provide security for the president. Soviet arms, including 24 Korean War–vintage MiG 17 jet fighters flown by Cuban pilots, tended to be outdated Soviet surplus, much to the disappointment of FRELIMO leaders. This encouraged a lingering skepticism in the FRELIMO leadership regarding the depth of the Soviet commitment to a socialist Mozambique.

Samora Machel

In March 1977, Machel signed a 20-year Treaty of Friendship with the Soviet Union. As part of its Cold War struggle with the West, the Soviets clearly eyed Mozambique as an important strategic asset with warm-water ports and easy access to coastal east Africa and the Indian Ocean. However, FRELIMO worked hard to avoid cutting all ties to the West. As one leading FRELIMO member (hardline Marxist Marcelino dos Santos) explained, “We did not fight for fifteen years to free ourselves to become the pawn of yet another foreign power” (Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900–1982, Hampshire, England, 1983, p. 171).

In 1980, Mozambique opened an embassy in Moscow, only the second Mozambican embassy in a non-African country (Lisbon being the first). In the same year, Machel decreed that all FRELIMO officers must be Communists. Following a daring South African raid on an African National Congress base just outside of Maputo in January 1981, Soviet warships arrived in the Mozambican ports of Maputo and Beira with a warning of reprisals for further attacks (CSM, February 24, 1981). Nonetheless, Mozambique remained wary of committing itself to full support of Soviet foreign policy objectives. Soviet pressure to establish a new naval base in Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago was firmly rebuffed.

By the mid-1980s, relations with Cuba were in decline and Soviet intentions were regarded with greater suspicion, partly due to Soviet intrigues in Angola (another former Portuguese colony) and Machel’s death in a Soviet-piloted Tupolov aircraft in October 1986 (CSIS Africa Notes, December 28, 1987). Facing financial pressures elsewhere, the Soviets began to back away from their expensive commitment to FRELIMO even as the United Kingdom and the United States stepped in with military and economic support in the war against RENAMO.

Currently led by Ossufo Momade, RENAMO ended its long insurgency by signing a Peace and National Reconciliation Agreement in Maputo in August 2019 (Clubofmozambique.com, August 21), though the movement has yet to relinquish all its arms as called for in the agreement. While this brought a welcome respite to Mozambique’s seemingly endless internal warfare, a new and more mysterious insurgency was emerging in the nation’s north simultaneously with the discovery of massive natural gas deposits in the little-known region.

Cabo Delgado (top) – (ISS Africa)

Most of Mozambique’s Muslim minority lives in Cabo Delgado, especially amongst the Makua people and the Swahili culture of the coast. Moderate Sufism, rather than radical Salafism, is the dominant strain of Islamic worship. The Portuguese made Roman Catholicism the official religion of the colony, but, during the war of independence (1964–1974), Portugal grew more accommodating of Islam to prevent Muslims aligning themselves with the secular rebels. The post-independence Marxist state was less accommodating—Machel always wore his shoes when entering a mosque and once informed a gathering of Muslims that “God is a pig” (Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900–1982, Hampshire, England, 1983, p. 50). Muslims were increasingly treated as second-class citizens, and the anti-FRELIMO Cabo Delgado Front launched a short-lived, low-level insurgency shortly after independence.

Cabo Delgado’s quiet poverty was interrupted by the offshore discovery of vast natural gas fields by US energy firm Anadarko in 2010. Further exploration revealed what could be the third-largest reserves of natural gas in the world (Eia.gov, May 2018). Newfound wealth attracted new insurgents, and a previously unknown group claiming to be Islamists launched its first attack on civilians in the region in October 2017, killing 40 people (Daily Maverick, October 27, 2017).

This new terrorist group called themselves Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a (ASJ, a.k.a. Ansar al-Sunna), though they are popularly known as “al-Shabaab,” despite having no apparent ties to the Somali Islamist movement of the same name. Since then, the group has carried out multiple atrocities against the civilian population. In one recent case, responsibility was taken by the Islamic State organization (Sábado, September 29, 2019).

This article was first published in the October 29, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor