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Russian leader Vladimir Putin recently bought himself into an African country for a relative pittance, working through Yevgeny Prigozhin, his favorite contractor for such special projects, which have ranged from attempting to tip U.S. elections to saving Syria’s dictator.

With that partner, Putin won an insider’s influence over the strategically placed Central African Republic, or CAR, and priority access to its oil, diamonds, gold and uranium resources. At least that’s how one U.S. government official, with years of experience tracking such matters, explains this bargain basement price of geopolitical cunning.

The story goes that President Faustin-Archange Touadera, though elected fairly in 2016, was struggling to exert control over much of the nation’s territory. Soldiers from a United Nations peacekeeping mission were working to stabilize the country amid clashes between rival militias, but inadequately.

That’s when Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for his catering business, stepped forward with money, training, paramilitary support and other survival help. (That’s the same Prigozhin indicted by Robert Mueller for funding a social media troll factory to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.) Russia also provided CAR’s president his national security advisor, Russian intelligence agent Valery Zakahrov, who serves him to this day.

Welcome to our new era of major power competition, which is playing out globally, sometimes quietly and sometimes this colorfully. What the CAR story provides is yet further evidence that America’s autocratic rivals, both Russia and China, are acting with greater operational creativity and strategic purpose than their counterparts – in this case France and the United States.

In the Central African Republic, Washington had discarded this resource-rich country, poised strategically between Africa’s Muslim north and Christian south, as a place of marginal importance. US officials are now scrambling to frame a response.

Ensuring his escalating African efforts aren’t missed, Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will convene 50 African leaders at the first-ever Russian-African Summit in Sochi this October. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a frequent traveler to Africa, says its purpose will be to cement “Russia’s active presence in the region. “

When Moscow sees a vacuum in Africa left by Europe or the United States, it increasingly steps in with trade and business agreements, military sales and cooperation, and political and paramilitary support. What it lacks in China’s means it makes up for with muscle. Putin’s efforts sometimes fail: Russia bet on the wrong horse in Sudan and paid handsomely for a nuclear energy contract in South Africa that looks less likely now that Jacob Zuma has left power.

Russia’s successes, however, are more frequent. And both Russia and China see themselves involved in a long game for position and influence on an African continent that by 2050 will have 25% of the world’s working age population and the greatest store of rare earth materials outside of China. What’s more, its 54 countries make up the most important voting bloc in the United Nations, providing both China and Russia the wherewithal to block Western initiatives.

Though the story of China’s increased influence in Africa is well-known, the competing Russian version has only recently gained more attention.

The Guardian this week, reporting from documents leaked to the Mikhail Khodorkovsky funded Dossier Center, reports that Russia is seeking to bolster its presence in at least 13 African countries – having already signed military deals in 20 states – “by building relations with existing rulers, striking military deals, and grooming a new generation of ‘leaders’ and undercover ‘agents.'”

The documents include a map that assesses the level of cooperation between Prigozhin’s “company” and individual African countries, scoring them at between one to five points on matters of cooperation that include military, political, economic, police training, media and humanitarian projects.

This Russian activity hasn’t gone without notice in Washington. Last December, national security advisor John Bolton, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, laid out what he called “the Trump administration’s new Africa strategy.”

“In short,” said Bolton, “the predatory practices pursued by China and Russia stunt economic growth in Africa; threaten the financial independence of African nations; inhibit opportunities for U.S. investment; interfere with U.S. military operations and pose a significant threat to U.S. national security interests.”

He outlined a three-part response, which included advancing trade and commercial ties, countering radical Islamist terrorism and violent conflict, and ensuring U.S. aid dollars are more effectively deployed.

The United States, however, is playing catch-up and lacks not only the bandwidth but also the focus. It also hasn’t yet fully absorbed the requirements of this new, global struggle for influence, one where the costs of losing may not be apparent until it’s become a fait accompli.

One of the earliest experts to spot this Russian shift of attention to Africa was J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Pham isn’t ready to predict a return to the Cold War’s zero-sum competition in Africa, but he does believe the United States and Europe “no longer can ignore Moscow’s resurgent interest” and its reconstituting of a strategic web of access.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War tracks several lines of Russian effort: military basing, security cooperation, capturing the emerging nuclear energy market, gaining access to natural resources, leveraging private military contractors and growing agricultural export markets for its wheat.

One of the most telling recent efforts, reported in a BBC documentary earlier this year, involved a Russian campaign to influence presidential elections in Madagascar. According to the BBC, the Russians worked with six of the 35 presidential candidates. Candidates who received Russian money told the BBC they were instructed to back off and support the front-runner, who Russia was also backing, when it became apparent he would win.

Yet tracking these sorts of Russian activities in Africa can be a perilous game. Last July, three Russian journalists investigating Prigozhin’s paramilitary involvement in CAR were shot dead outside the capital city.

Russia’s price for acquiring influence in the Central African Republic might have been a small one. The price for the United States and Africans alike of neglecting this Russian shift may be far higher.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.



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‘We have it totally under control’

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President Donald Trump told CNBC on Wednesday that he trusts the information coming out of China on the coronavirus as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms the first case of it in the United States.

“We have it totally under control,” Trump told “Squawk Box” co-host Joe Kernen in an interview from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

The CDC on Tuesday said a Snohomish County, Washington state, resident who was returning from China on Jan. 15 was diagnosed with the Wuhan coronavirus, which has killed nine people in China and sickened hundreds more.

Trump told CNBC he believes that Chinese President Xi Jinping and health officials there are going to continue to tell authorities around the world everything they need to know about the virus.

“I do. I do. I have a great relationship with President Xi,” said Trump, addressing a question about whether he’s concerned about transparency in China. “The relationship is very good.”

This weekend, the CDC and Homeland Security began screening people traveling to major airports in California and New York from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak is believed to have started. Health officials have also confirmed cases in Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

The coronavirus evoked memories of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in China. SARS, which killed nearly 800 people worldwide, hit Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei and Beijing the hardest and triggered a severe economic downturn in the region.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that usually infect animals but can sometimes evolve and spread to humans. Symptoms in humans include fever, coughing and shortness of breath, which can progress to pneumonia.

— CNBC’s Berkeley Lovelace contributed to this report.

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Trump says GDP, Dow would be higher if it weren’t for the Fed

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President Donald Trump on Wednesday said that the U.S. economy’s GDP growth would have been closer to 4% if it weren’t for the lingering effect of Federal Reserve rate hikes.

“That was a big blip that should not have taken place. It should not have happened. But it’s one of those things. But we had Boeing. We had the big strike with General Motors. We had things happen that are very unusual to happen,” Trump told CNBC’s Joe Kernen in an interview from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The president also suggested that the stock market would be even higher than its already record-setting highs if the Fed hadn’t raised rates so quickly before cutting them three times during 2019.

“Now, with all of that, had we not done the big raise on interest, I think we would have been close to 4%,” Trump said. “And I – I could see 5,000 to 10,000 points more on the Dow. But that was a killer when they raised the rate. It was just a big mistake.”

The president has repeatedly taken the Fed and its chair, Jerome Powell, to task for raising rates too quickly, in his view. Trump nominated Powell to the role in November 2017, and the Fed raised rates four times in 2018.

The president’s remarks Wednesday echoed those his top economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, made to CNBC on Tuesday, when he predicted 3% growth in U.S. gross domestic product in 2020.

“This is a long cycle, and what you’ve got here in the Trump years is essentially a mini upcycle,” Kudlow said Tuesday. “You’ve gone from 1.5% to 2% growth. We had it going at almost 4%, then the Fed tightened.”

Manufacturing and trade data released this month suggested the American economy ended 2019 on a strong note. The economy is expected to grow more than 2% in the fourth quarter. That would represent a slowdown from the 2.9% increase in 2018, and 2% growth would still suggest the decade-old expansion is set to continue into this pivotal election year.

The Trump interview came hours after the first full day of impeachment proceedings wrapped up in the U.S. Senate and a day after Trump gave a speech to the World Economic Forum in which he boasted about U.S. economic gains under his watch.

Several observers said the address sounded like a campaign speech as the president seeks reelection in November’s election.

From a policy standpoint, Trump stood firm on his use of tariffs in trade negotiations, particularly as his administration looks to follow its so-called phase one trade deal with China with a second-phase pact. This stance has made business leaders in Davos skeptical that the two nations would reach an agreement before Trump’s term is up in a year.

—CNBC’s Thomas Franck contributed to this article.

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Mnuchin says there’s no deadlines for ‘phase two’ trade deal

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Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Treasury secretary, speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, July 15, 2019.

Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

There is no deadline for the “phase two” China deal, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said while speaking at a CNBC panel during the World Economic in Davos, Switzerland on Wednesday.

“As it relates to phase 2, I would say there’s no deadlines,” Mnuchin told CNBC’s Geoff Cutmore. “So the first issue we’re very focused on the next 30 days is implementing phase 1.”

The secretary added that the deal can be concluded before or after the U.S. election in November, suggesting there was no rush to get it done before the vote.

“There’s also, as part of this, a real implementation office as part of enforcement, and we’ll start on phase 2,” the secretary added. “If we get that done before the election, great — if it takes longer, that’s fine.”

The comment comes just a day after Mnuchin told press that the long-anticipated trade deal may not remove all of the American tariffs imposed on China.

The U.S. and China officially signed the first phase of the trade deal last week in Washington, D.C. after 22 months of tit-for-tat tariffs and negotiations.

This is a breaking news story, please check back later for more.

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