Gems, Warlords and Mercenaries: Russia’s Playbook in Central African Republic

In December 2017, Russia then lobbied for — and received — an exemption to the United Nations arms embargo. The next month, the Russian government sent five military and 170 civilian trainers to Bangui.

Sewa employees joined the presidential guard, and after a round of violence by rebel groups in 2018, Valeriy Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence official, was installed as the top security adviser to the nation’s president, Mr. Touadéra.

The president soon asked for dozens more Russian mercenaries, who spread into training centers across the country.

Central African officials began distributing a free newspaper with articles advancing Russian interests. Russian officials also visited local media, offering training, cash and equipment — something French and American officials also do. But some journalists who refused the Russian help were threatened, according to Saber Jendoubi, a former radio journalist in Bangui who now lives in France. Mr. Jendoubi said he was tailed and photographed by Russian operatives when he began asking questions about Russian involvement in the media.

Russian support among lawmakers grew as well. Members of Parliament were gathered outside the capital and bribed to vote out the Parliament president, who had been viewed as unfriendly to Russian interests, according to a member of Parliament and to a record of the payments signed by lawmakers.

Lobaye, the mining company tied to Mr. Prigozhin, began work in diamond mines in the small swath of the country from which the gems can be legally exported, government officials said. But diplomats said the Russian ambassador complained that the activities there were not producing much.

Around the same time, the company paid to shuttle warlords to peace talks in Sudan between Central African armed groups. Mr. Prigozhin showed up at the meetings, too, according to the warlord present. Afterward, the nation’s president offered a letter of thanks to Mr. Putin, addressed to “Mr. President and dear friend,” for helping organize the discussions, according to a copy released by the United Nations.

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