The Russian deputy ambassador to the United Nations has described hundreds of Russian soldiers due to be sent to the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) this month as "unarmed instructors."
Dmitry Polyansky told reporters at UN headquarters in New York on May 28 that the soldiers "are not armed because they are not supposed to be armed. They are instructors."
Polyansky said he did not know if the soldiers had already arrived in the C.A.R. He added that they "might deal with some armaments when they instruct people but they are not supposed to fight."
Moscow has maintained a contingent of soldiers since 2018 in the C.A.R. to train the country's army.
Prior to the latest contingent, Moscow acknowledged the presence of 535 Russian instructors under contract with the Central African Defense Ministry.
The C.A.R. notified the UN Security Council on May 4 that it intended to welcome 600 additional instructors. It is obliged to give 20 days' notice under the latest arms embargo on the country.
Numerous witnesses and NGOs say the instructors are in fact paramilitaries from the Vagner Group, a Russian military contractor with indirect ties to the country's political elite, who are actively participating alongside Rwandan special forces and UN peacekeepers in the fight against rebels trying to seize power.
Russia has denied Vagner mercenaries are in the African country, saying only that military instructors had been sent to train government soldiers.
The country of 4.7 million has been gripped by civil war since a coalition of armed groups overthrew the government in 2013. About a quarter of its 5 million people are displaced.
Jean-Pierre Lacroix, UN undersecretary for peace operations, said UN peacekeepers had encountered difficulties with the C.A.R.'s military and its partners but gave no further information.
"It is essential to have a certain consultation, a coordination," he said, adding that he would visit the C.A.R. next week.
Russia has significantly increased its presence and influence in the C.A.R., where Russian national Valery Zakharov serves as national security adviser to President Faustin Archange Touadera, who was sworn in for a second five-year term on March 30 after winning an election in December.
Bangui has also granted Central African gold and diamond mining permits to Russian companies suspected of having links to Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the man believed to be the head of the Vagner Group.