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CAR: Who are President Touadéra’s Russian guardian angels?

By Mathieu Olivier
Posted on Wednesday, 17 March 2021 17:25

In his fight against armed groups in the Central African Republic, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra relies heavily on his alliance with Moscow, which sent an elite squad to Bangui to support him.

Here are the Russians who makeup Touadéra’s bodyguard.

In Bangui on 15 October, car hoods were adorned with two noticeable flags: one Russian, one the Central African Republic. The government of Faustin-Archange Touadéra (FAT) and that of Vladimir Putin were coming together to celebrate their alliance by showing off the ten armoured vehicles delivered that very day to M’Poko airport.

For several years, President Touadéra has turned to Russia for backup, offending France, the former historical protector of the Central African Republic. In the presidential palace, Russian advisors have appeared, while mercenaries recruited by the private security firm Wagner have taken over the security apparatus.

On the eve of the first round of the presidential elections at the end of December 2020, these same fighters confronted the troops of the Coalition of Patriots for the Central African Republic (CPC, an alliance of the main armed groups), alongside the Central African Army, Rwandan soldiers and UNMISCA peacekeepers. In mid-February, “Russian instructors” fought again in Bambari, while FAT’s Moscow adviser, Valery Zakharov, affirmed on 11 February that the government would control “all the territory” of the “Central African Republic in the near future”.

But who are these Russians backing Touadéra?

Valery Zakharov is the real boss of the Russian apparatus in Bangui. He is FAT’s advisor “for national security” and has an office in the presidency. A former member of the Russian internal security service (FSB that Vladimir Putin headed under Boris Yeltsin), he is the boss of the Russian military assigned to Touadéra’s presidential guard and also interferes in the diplomatic field. In 2018 and 2019, it was he who, in parallel with the AU initiatives, negotiated with the leaders of the armed groups, notably Noureddine Adam and Ali Darassa, prior to the Khartoum agreements.

According to our investigation, Zakharov met several times with the current rebels, notably in Sudan. During these discussions, the principle of sharing mining revenues in areas outside government control was discussed. The presidential adviser also organised and took part in round tables with local authorities to plead the cause of the Central African Armed Forces and that of the head of state.

Zakharov, who readily appears in media favourable to the Central African government, is also said to be behind the creation of at least two companies under Central African law: Lobaye Invest, active in mining and based in Boda and Bakala (but officially run by another Russian, Evgenii Khodotov), and Séwa Sécurité, considered to be a local subsidiary of Wagner, which denies any activity in the Central African Republic.

In Bangui, no one seems to know what Evgenii Khodotov looks like. Yet this invisible man appears on official Central African documents as the managing director of the mining company Lobaye Invest, notably in an order signed by Léopold Mboli Fatran, the Minister of Mines, on 25 July 2008. This company, registered in Bangui, subsequently obtained a mining reconnaissance permit in the Pama region for a renewable period of one year, with the aim of identifying possible gold and diamond deposits.

This same company, where Khodotov was working in relation with another Russian, Dmitry Sergeevich Sytii, had already obtained a gold exploration permit in Yawa in June 2018, for three renewable years. According to our information, it was then connected to another company registered under the name Khodotov: M-Finance.

Created in 2015, this company, based in Saint Petersburg, was involved in the extraction of precious stones, quartz and stones, quartz and mica. Officially, Khodotov, an ex-police officer in St Petersburg, the cradle of Putin’s power, was replaced in mid-2018 by Elena Kochina at the head of M-Finance.

According to a document from the US Treasury Department, Evgenii Khodotov, born on March 21 1954 in Leningrad (which has since become St Petersburg), is linked to Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, a businessman close to Vladimir Putin and considered to be the unofficial manager and financier of the Wagner company. According to the American authorities, Dmitry Sergeevich Sytii is also linked to the same Prigozhin.

In Bangui, some know him as Dimitri Alexandrov, others simply call him Dimitri since he arrived in Bangui in 2017 alongside Valery Zakharov, to whom he officially acted as translator. Born on 23 March 1989 near St Petersburg, the man’s real name is Dmitry Sergeevich Sytii. A French-speaking polyglot, he received a university education in St. Petersburg  (he graduated from the Faculty of Trade and Customs in 2011), Barcelona (master’s degree in international trade) and Paris (marketing).

According to financial documents obtained by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, he is one of the directors of Lobaye Invest, alongside Evgenii Khodotov. In Bangui, he was also in contact with Alexander Zalichev.

The latter, a former Russian shooting champion, has since reconverted to private security, in Ukraine and also across Africa. He is considered an elite trainer for the Wagner company and its subsidiaries. According to our information, the young man, who is in charge of the Russian media strategy in Bangui, has been in regular contact with a certain Bruno Lugon, who presented himself as an adviser to Faustin-Archange Touadéra in the presidency.

Lugon (a pseudonym for the Italian Elio CIolini), was the subject of an investigation by the United Nations that suspected him of being part of a network seeking to influence the Central African presidential election.

He is now the face of the (official) Russian military presence in the CAR. Advisor to the Central African Ministry of Defence, headed by Marie-Noëlle Koyara and where he manages the Russian cooperation office, this former paratrooper is seen in the field, alongside Central African troops, particularly in the display of arms seizures from rebel armed groups.

This senior air force officer also participates in the frequent coordination meetings chaired by Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada, alongside Valery Zakharov and Dmitry Sergeevich Sytii. These defence councils also bring together Minusca executives and the main chiefs of the Central African army and are now intended to organise the joint offensive against the armed groups allied within the Coalition of Patriots for the Central African Republic.

General Oleg Polguev (or Polguyev) was the head of the intelligence services of the Russian airborne forces. He also specialised in the training of special forces of the Russian Air Force.

In close contact with Valery Zakharov, this career soldier works in Bangui (since his arrival at the end of August 2020) liaising, in particular, with Major General and Chief of Staff of the Central African Armed Forces Zéphirin Mamadou.

Highly experienced, this Russian diplomat was previously posted in Iraq, partly during the second Gulf War. According to the CIA, Titorenko had at the time in 2003, helped cover up the recovery by the Russian intelligence services of the FSB of Saddam Hussein’s secret archives that the Americans also wanted to recover.

The information was never confirmed. A specialist in the Near and Middle East, he was then appointed to Algeria, where he remained until 2007, before being appointed to Qatar. In Doha, this diplomat trained at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations had a run-in with the local authorities, who tried to force him to open his diplomatic bag. After this altercation, and against the backdrop of a dispute with the Qataris over the Syrian crisis, Moscow recalled Titorenko in early 2012. The 62-year-old Arabic, French and English speaker was appointed to Bangui at the beginning of 2019, replacing Sergei Lobanov, who had been in post since 2011.

Close to Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada, Titorenko has a particularly active communications team at the Russian embassy in Bangui with the Central African media. In liaison with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his deputy minister for Africa Mikhaïl Bogdanov, he is also involved, in a more official way than Valery Zakharov, in the business domain. In particular, he liaises with the Russian Energy Minister, Alexander Novak.

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