Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, the nominee to head U.S. Africa Command, said Tuesday that the presence of Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic is part of the effort by President Vladimir Putin to regain influence for Moscow in the Sub-Sahara.
"They concern me greatly," Townsend said of the mercenaries from the shadowy organization known as the "Wagner Group," now operating in CAR, one of the world's poorest countries, which has been mired in Christian-Muslim sectarian violence since 2012.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Townsend said that the Russians are using the mercenaries "to guard the head of state there [President Faustin-Archange Touadera]. They're using them to train some of the local armed forces."
"Some of that could be benign; some of that is probably less than benign," he said in response to questions from Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan.
Townsend noted that Russian paramilitaries believed to be from the Wagner Group, dubbed "little green men" in the so-called "hybrid warfare" directed by Moscow, were used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine to provide Putin with a semblance of deniability that the Russian military was involved.
"They're quasi-military and, as we saw play out in Crimea and Ukraine, little green men running around not necessarily following the rules of behavior we would expect from a proper army," he said.
Peters said that Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the current commander of AFRICOM, cited the presence of the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic in testimony before the committee last month.
What risk, Peters asked, do the mercenary groups pose to the U.S. and its interests in Africa?
"Senator, I have some experience with these [Russian mercenaries] ... from my time in Syria," Townsend said, referring to his former post as commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria.
In February 2018, Russian mercenaries combined with the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an attack on an outpost in Syria's eastern Deir al-Zour province, which was held by U.S. troops and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
The attack was repelled by troops on the ground from U.S. Special Operations Command, Marine artillery and U.S airstrikes.
In testimony in March 2018 to the House Armed Services Committee, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said U.S. intelligence saw enemy forces massing for the attack with tanks and artillery.
"The Russian high command in Syria assured us it was not their people," he said.
He directed Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs chairman, "for the force, then, to be annihilated. And it was," Mattis said. Documents later obtained by The New York Times indicated that as many as 300 of the enemy were killed.
In his opening statement at Tuesday's hearing, Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the committee's ranking member, said that Russia is "building upon historic alliances in places like Libya to ensure access to the southern Mediterranean and forging new partnerships in places like the Central African Republic in order to extract resources and gain new allies."
"Russians have moved into Central African Republic, advising them, which seems to be an attempt by Putin to return to the great power influence that they enjoyed under the Soviet Union," Reed said.
For its part, Moscow has made no secret of its designs on Africa. Since 2014, Russia has signed 19 military cooperation agreements in sub-Saharan Africa, including with Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, according to its foreign and defense ministries and state media, Reuters reported last month.
The Central African Republic has not ruled out letting Russia set up a military base in the country. Last month, Defense Minister Marie-Noëlle Koyara of CAR told Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency that "we haven't yet talked about developing the base specifically, but this possibility is not excluded" in the framework agreement signed with Moscow last August.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.