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Rebels, rivals, and proxies in the Central African Republic

Supporters of CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera celebrate after the high court confirms his reelection in the capital, Bangui. REUTERS/Antoine Rolland

A bitter war is raging again inside a country that is simultaneously one of the world's richest and poorest — and outside players are part of it.

Last December, the Central African Republic, a landlocked nation of 5 million people that holds vast resources of minerals and precious metals, held a contentious presidential election. It was won by the sitting president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who has held power since 2016.

But before the vote, former CAR strongman François Bozizé returned from exile to run. After a court disqualified him because he faces war crimes charges at home and UN sanctions, an alliance of militias took up arms against the government, with Bozizé's support.

In the weeks since the election, battles have raged between government forces and the coalition of pro-Bozizé militias, which controls vast swathes of the country. In recent days, the rebels have begun cutting off food supply routes to the capital, Bangui.

The back story. Bozizé himself came to power in a coup in 2003 but was toppled a decade later by an alliance of mostly Muslim militias. (Muslims account for about 15 percent of the population, and Christians about half.) After several years of vicious fighting between the remnants of those groups and predominantly Christian warlords loyal to Bozizé, Touadéra was elected president in 2016. In 2019, a peace agreement was signed, but it lasted barely a year until the election drama began late last year.

Outside players are involved. The standoff between the government and the rebels is shot through with high geopolitics, as outside players scramble to fortify their influence over a country rich in diamonds, gold, and other precious minerals.

On the side of the government forces are 13,000 UN peacekeepers as well as soldiers from Rwanda, which has struck natural resource deals with Bangui in recent years, and Russia. The Russian contingent includes several hundred military trainers, but also mercenaries who have provided strong backing to the Touadéra government as part of Moscow's broader push to establish lucrative business and security relationships in Africa.

Meanwhile, the pro-Bozizé rebels appear to enjoy at least tacit backing from Chad, whose well-trained militias have made it something of a regional power broker in recent years as it actively seeks to play a greater role in the continent's security challenges.

Lastly, there is France, the former colonial power, which had troops in CAR as recently as 2016. Paris notionally supports the central government — earlier this month President Emmanuel Macron sent French warplanes roaring over contested villages as a show of force meant to intimidate rebel groups. But Paris is now in the awkward position of supporting a government that won elections marred by bloodshed and which controls only a handful of areas in a country wracked by increasing violence.

This is a humanitarian crisis, and not just for CAR. Despite — or in part because of — its natural resource riches, CAR is one of the poorest countries in Africa, with a per capita GDP of just $510. Years of conflict have left its people perpetually in humanitarian crisis, with as many as 1 million pushed from their homes over the past decade alone, and nearly half the population dependent on foreign assistance.

Now, post-election violence has already forced as many as 100,000 to flee. Many of them are seeking refuge in neighboring countries like Sudan, Chad, Cameroon, and Democratic Republic of Congo, some of which are struggling with refugee crises and internal displacements of their own. That's why unrest in the CAR matters for millions of people in one of Africa's most unstable regions.

The longer the conflict drags on — and there are no signs either side is backing down — the worse it will be, not only for the CAR, but for its neighbors too.

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Earlier this week the European Union agreed to slap sanctions on a handful of senior Russian officials over the jailing of top Putin critic Alexei Navalny. Using a new set of sanctions designed specifically to target human rights abuses, Brussels will freeze bank accounts and deny visas to four of Russia's top justice and security officials involved in Navalny's case.

As punishments go, that's not particularly drastic: surely it stings a bit to lose access to European banks and beaches, but no one suspects that these measures are going to convince the Kremlin to free Navalny. The dissident's own people have called on Brussels to do more.

So why does the EU, the world's largest economic bloc, seem to have so little leverage over a country whose economy is barely larger than Spain's? A few things to bear in mind.

Russia keeps the heat running in Europe. The European Union depends on Moscow for some 40 percent of its gas imports and 30 percent of oil imports. For some EU countries, the numbers are even higher: Germany gets half its gas from Russian companies and is moving ahead with a new Russian gas pipeline as we speak. In Eastern Europe the dependency ranges from two-thirds in some countries to one hundred percent in the case of the Baltic states.

The EU needs Russian cooperation outside of Europe too. Over the past decade, Moscow has shrewdly positioned itself as a kingmaker in several crises beyond Europe's borders that reverberate within the union. In Syria, Libya, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, Russian military or mercenaries exert an outsized role in conflicts that have generated large numbers of refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

There isn't really an "EU". The European Union is actually 27 member states, each with their own interests and views on Russia. Germany, for example, has to balance its ambitions of staking out a firmer pro-democracy European foreign policy against the energy needs of its powerful industries. France has long sought closer cooperation with Moscow on geopolitical issues across the Middle East and Africa. Many former Eastern Bloc states, meanwhile, have begun to see Moscow as a useful counterweight to an overbearing or incompetent Brussels. And of course, the UK, which historically took a harder line against Russia, is now no longer part of the EU at all.

Doing more would require a tough stomach. To be clear, it's not that the EU doesn't have ways to seriously hurt the Kremlin. Sanctioning Russia's oil and gas exports or its foreign debt would deal a big blow to Putin's regime. But the blowback for Europe would be tremendous — European consumers and factories would likely suffer massive energy shocks, while financial markets and banks that trade Russian debt would see turmoil.

After all, there's a reason that even in 2014 — when Russia invaded an EU partner state and started a civil war there — both Europe (and the US, with far less vulnerability to Russian retaliation than its European friends) stopped short of making big moves like this.

The bottom line: Europe is keen to be a more active global player on security and human rights. But when it comes to Russia, reality bites hard.

78: Linda Thomas-Greenfield was sworn in on Wednesday as US ambassador to the United Nations, after being confirmed by the US Senate with 78 votes in favor and 20 against. During her confirmation hearing, Thomas-Greenfield — a veteran diplomat and the first Black woman to represent the United States at the UN — was grilled by some Republicans, who questioned a 2019 in speech in which she praised China's activities in Africa.

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