an initiative using human and artificial intelligence to track development, security, and diplomatic activities around the world

Introducing the TRACAR Project

Matthew Crittenden, Kate Munkacsy, Celia Metzger, Garrison Goetsch, Olivia Hettinger, Erin Horrigan, Greyson Pettus, Monica Sandu, and Cole Spiller


The project on Tracking Russian Activities in the Central African Region (TRACAR) is a data-driven effort to boost transparency and awareness of ambiguous and potentially illegal activities coordinated by the Russian government across Central Africa. This first release of TRACAR employs a mostly human-driven three-step methodology of triangulating open-source information, systematically cataloguing valuable data, and geocoding activity locations to provide a textual and spatial perspective of Russian engagement. Explore the data in our dashboard or download it for your own use; the only requirement for use is acknowledgement. Continue reading below for a breakdown of the main takeaways from the project so far.

Russia is coordinating both official and grey zone tactics, including use of media influence campaigns and ambiguous private military companies (PMCs), across Africa. Russia aims to project power, control arms deals, and secure access to resources and minerals. These actions have dangerous implications for prolonging conflicts, undermining democracy, creating terrorist havens, and rehearsing Russian foreign policy tactics in relatively low-cost environments.

Media Influencing, Disinformation, & Political Meddling

Russian internet trolling, election meddling, murdering of reporters, and support of strongman politics all undermine democracy. In October 2019, Facebook suspended multiple networks trying to interfere in the politics and elections of eight African countries. While unsuccessful so far, election influencing could become more damaging as Russia tweaks its methods and internet becomes more ubiquitous across Africa. Expanding Russian media training and availability of state-run networks RT, TASS, and Sputnik in Africa after the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit in October 2019 also spell trouble for the free and factual press.

In addition to launching cyber attacks on democracy, Russia has also provided security support to favored politicians. Sewa Services mercenaries have been seen protecting the CAR president, whose new security advisor is Valery Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence agent. In other African countries, Wagner mercenaries have been deployed to protect favored political agents in Libya and Madagascar. In most countries, Russia supports multiple candidates to maximize its influence in any scenario.

Control of Arms Deals & Prolonging Violent Conflict

Russia seeks to use African states’ need for military assistance to increase its own strategic opportunities. Since 2017, Russia has signed military agreements with twenty countries – a sharp increase from only seven agreements before. At the Sochi Summit in October 2019, Putin announced that annual arms exports from Russia to Africa value $15 billion. In war-torn countries, such as Sudan, DRC, and CAR, Russia is highly suspect of supplying arms and training to both governments and rebels. Sudan and the CAR have also discussed developing Russian military bases; a base in Sudan is noteworthy as it would provide Russia vital access to the Red Sea.

One reason Russian military support is attractive to African leaders is it does not come with human rights or other conditions. As such, Russian arms and training have exacerbated conflicts and insulated corrupt leaders. In central Africa, especially, supplying arms to both the state and rebel groups has prolonged and intensified conflict. Russian arms have also repeatedly fallen into the hands of terrorists. In fragile societies with poor governance or high risk of conflict, the otherwise modest Russian toolkit can have disproportionate and long-term impacts.

Natural Resource Extraction Wherever and However Necessary

Russian involvement in the natural resource sector is driven by Putin’s effort to boost the Russian economy and avoid genuine domestic reform. Russia currently has at least twenty energy, mineral, and geological exploration deals in Africa. Targeted resources include oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, and uranium. Mining was a key focus of the Sochi Summit. In some countries, including the CAR, mining activities by private Russian companies have coincided with the presence of the Wagner Group and other PMCs in the area. Three Russian journalists were murdered in 2018 when they attempted to investigate the involvement of Wagner in the CAR.

Recreational Diplomacy: Sports, Films, & Cultural Exchange

Russia is also pursuing a soft power approach to projecting its influence across the continent. Activities have included hosting soccer tournaments, holding viewings of Russian films, coordinating pen pal exchanges between Russian and African youths, and even judging in a beauty pageant. Across these activities, Russia emphasizes its history of anti-colonialism in Africa to establish rapport and undermine the status of Western powers and international organizations.

Conclusion and Next Steps

TRACAR aims to promote transparency and awareness of Russian activities in Central Africa. As we continue to explore this region, we will likely expand to other countries in Africa, where Russia is exercising similar policies. So far, our methods have relied mostly on human intelligence through the pilot phase of TRACAR. Moving forward, we are experimenting with natural language processing and other forms of artificial intelligence to boost our data production capacity and to redirect more human resources to the analysis of said data. Expect a more robust version 2.0 of the TRACAR dataset sometime in 2021 and look out for future pieces published here by SCOPE.