Russia in Africa Part IV: Russia’s Cyber Activities in the Central African Republic
June 25, 2020
June 25, 2020
Russia’s relationship with CAR began in 2017 when prominent Russian investors and Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, met with CAR’s President, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Russia’s help to lift arms embargo was the focus. In exchange, CAR gave Russian mining companies access to mine CAR’s resources such as diamond.
Russia’s priority its African relations is economic gain and dominance. Thus, all operations and activities with African governments and peoples are tools. Russia seeks to expand the sphere and depth of its influence in Africa. Hence, it sought to improve its economic relations in Africa. Central African Republic (CAR) is one of its target countries.
Facebook discovered that some accounts with a CAR audience were used to advance Russian-friendly content. They traced their location to Madagascar and a few other third world countries. They look like regular accounts. However, they follow the same pattern of Russia’s tactic to penetrate target communities in other African and European countries. These accounts share contents that frame Russia in a positive light to its audience.
In CAR, Facebook is the field of Russia’s cyber activities because it has the widest and most active reach. Other social media outlets include Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. However, Facebook is most effective because it reaches more people, and it is more effective. The chart shows the participation level in all available social media outlets in CAR.
This Facebook tactic is part of a wider strategy toward Russia’s economic dominance. Facebook’s role is to make sure public opinion is on their side. Russian private businesses, intelligence services, military, private security companies, and Russia’s diplomatic service/foreign missions are key stakeholders in the wider strategy. Coordination of these activities come directly from the Kremlin.
Other activities used as substitutes or complements in this scenario include cyber-attacks, hybrid warfare, cyber-crimes (through the Russian Business Network), and spying/espionage. However, as far as CAR is concerned, Russia is yet to engage any of these substitutes and complements. If it will, Facebook operations in CAR will be the target and victim, not CAR as a country. This is because of attempts by CAR’s western allies to shut down the accounts Russia uses by influencing Facebook. These western allies are threatened by Russia’s success in CAR.
Shutting down those Facebook accounts is necessary according to Facebook’s Cybersecurity Chief, Nathaniel Gleicher. He stated, “We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people.” He added that Facebook had closed such accounts in the past because ‘the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action’.
However, if Russia shares how it helps CAR on Facebook, it cannot be considered a misrepresentation because there is physical evidence backing it up. For instance, a post of an animation shown to CAR’s children and teenagers is that Russia goes around the world helping other countries. Children and teenagers would not have been able to relate with that animation if there were no existing physical evidence to support such a message. Some of them enjoyed the sporting events funded by Russia, and they know that the Russians are responsible.
If Facebook disrupts Russia’s Facebook tactic, an option for Russia is to influence CAR’s government to ban Facebook in CAR or use restrictions and conditionalities. These are extreme measures. Possibility of introducing a new social media outlet is unlikely. For example, China has attempted such (within its territory) as an alternative to western social media outlets. However, the success rate against Facebook’s is low. Hence the likelihood of influencing CAR government policy on social media as a more likely option.
Instead of a new social media outlet with a Russian origin, Russia will invest money in tech start-ups owned by CAR youths: their training and education. Until after 5 years, this is unlikely. Russia is yet to focus on education and technological development in CAR. Its priority is to strengthen CAR’s security capability and establish a peaceful environment conducive for mining. A local source in CAR suggests that both governments want to stabilise the relationship before expanding Russia’s support.
Russia targets CAR’s young population – age under 35. They will be around for a longer time and it would guarantee the longevity of Russian acceptance and reduce resistance to Russian activities. Also, it serves as a non-military approach to solving the violence by reducing the number of combatants (young population). This reduces the threat to their mining activities in the long run. Estimated the level of acceptance by local sources supports that Russia has drawn CAR’s young population’s attention, who are the majority. The graph below it shows that this young population are the majority.
This approach is stronger than CAR’s western allies who focus on government-to-government relations and are more concerned with controlling CAR’s government. CAR citizens do not see France as helpful to CAR’s development. Also, CAR’s western allies are very passive about information management within CAR. Instead of countering Russia’s information tactics, they influence Facebook to close the accounts. For western allies such as France to efficiently compete it needs to do recognizable actions that will build physical content for information operations. If not, Russia’s influence in CAR will be stronger than the west within the next 5 years. Within this time frame, Russia will make a significant move on CAR’s technological development, educational sector, and infrastructure. This will make it more difficult for western allies to catch up with Russia’s strategy for economic dominance.
Russia designed its Facebook activities to create closeness with the audience. They make Facebook accounts to appear organic and show Russian friendly contents. An instance of the content is a cartoon for children. It has a ‘Russian bear racing through a wintry forest, charging across the globe and coming to the rescue of its embattled friends in the African nation.’
Russia’s activities outside information space to create positive content for dissemination are:
Everything feeds the framing of Russia as help and partner. Russia is targeting the hearts and minds of CAR citizens. Unlike other countries who focus on government, Russia focusses on being an ally of both the government and the people. A local source confirmed that the majority of youth will likely give positive remarks about Russia even though a few others are sceptical.
Implications of image-making on Russia’s quest for economic dominance include the following:
Economic interest is Russia’s priority, and image-making through social media is a tactic: one out of a many. It serves multiple objectives. First, the influence of CAR’s western allies over CAR will reduce drastically by 2025, and France will be the major victim. This has implications on politics at the level of the United Nations, especially if it is replicated with other African countries. Russia’s voting power at the United Nations General Assembly will increase.
Furthermore, Russia’s approach provides strong economic and political gain for CAR’s government. This is in terms of solving the conflict, public support, and foreign investment. For CAR, therefore, anti-government resistance will begin to decrease. This is an advantage for Russia economic plan in CAR. In addition, CAR’s economy may become less favourable to its western allies. Pro-western regimes in other African states will likely begin to improve its diplomatic relations with Russia. Overall, it is highly likely that Russia’s economic dominance in Africa will become more obvious after 2025.
Second, this operation helps Russia to widen the scope of its income. Close ties with a country rich in diamond is a worthy financial investment. Global diamond market size is increasing because the demands are. The diamond market size was valued at an estimate of $87.31 billion in 2018. It is predicted to grow at a CAGR of 3.0% from 2019 to 2030. Russia’s inclusion in the market guarantee a reasonable place in the diamond economy by 2030.
As digital penetration in CAR increases, Russia will use more sophisticated information tactics in addition to cyber tactics. However, it is unlikely that it will use a tactic that will cripple or negatively affect CAR’s economy. Russia attacked the Ukrainian government’s systems and military network with ‘Ouroboros’ and malware. Another example of Russia’s aggressive cyber activity was seen in the case of Estonia and France.
Russia has a different objective with CAR and would therefore not use aggressive tactics like that of Europe. Also, they will likely avoid a confrontation that will be made public to put them in a negative light. So, mass phishing and disinformation through Facebook and other social media is the most likely option for Russia in CAR. This is similar to Poland’s case where they used disinformation to promote pro-Russian politicians. It will be aimed at keeping control over CAR’s political leaders to influence CAR’s economic policies.
Russia’s activity will hold CAR’s policymakers close. This will enable Russia to influence economic policies relating to all sectors of CARs economy. With public support, it will also face little or no resistance. Diplomatically, Russia will influence CAR’s foreign policy direction at the global and continental level.
Also, Russia may use CAR as a support or entry point to other states in the Central Africa region. Most countries in Central Africa need support in different areas. On one hand, Russia will likely get involved in Central Africa’s regional politics. This will be exploited to build a multilateral platform for Russia’s business in Central Africa. On the other, Russia will likely use CAR as a diplomatic channel to improve its relationship with other Central African countries, bilaterally. Although, the later will likely lead to the former, and vice versa.
Russia is successfully winning the attention of CAR citizens. Local sources affirmed that ‘The youth and the majority of the population see Russia as a hope for the recovery of CAR at all levels. Although they emphasize that it is a long journey. Local sources close to CARs government also highlight that Russia and CAR are putting more effort to strengthen diplomatic relations. All these provide a conducive environment for Russian businesses. Russia is popularly accepted in CAR despite a few critiques. These sources also confirm that it is likely that Russian goods and services will be accepted in CAR.
Image: ITS (link)
Jesutimilehin Akamo is Grey Dynamics’ analyst focussing on Central Africa and a Pre-doctoral fellow at STRATFOR. Jesutimilehin is a trained Human Rights Field Officer and was awarded the Tana 2018 continental essay award.