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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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Saudi King offered condolences in wake of Pensacola shooting

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President Donald Trump takes part in a round table discussion on business and red tape reduction in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC on December 6, 2019.

Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that he had spoken by phone to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Al-Saud, following a deadly shooting on a Pensacola, Florida naval base. Authorities have said that the shooter, who killed at least three people and wounded at least eight, was a visiting Saudi national.

“King Salman of Saudi Arabia just called to express his sincere condolences and give his sympathies to the families and friends of the warriors who were killed and wounded in the attack that took place in Pensacola, Florida,” Trump tweeted shortly after 2:00pm on Friday.

“The King said that the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter, and that this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people,” Trump added.

Shortly afterwards Trump said the attack “was a horrible thing that took place, and we’re getting to the bottom of it,” during a White House event on deregulation.

Law enforcement officials told NBC News that the suspect was member of the Saudi Air Force who was visiting the U.S. for training. They also identified the gunman, who was killed by officers responding to the incident, as Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani.

At a press conference Friday afternoon near the naval base, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “The government of Saudi Arabia needs to make things better for these victims,” adding that the oil-rich Middle Eastern kingdom was “going to owe a debt here given that it was one of their individuals.”

At the White House, Trump declined to say whether or not the shooting was an act of terrorism, telling reporters, “that’s all being studied now.”

The results of this investigation, Trump said, “will be a report and the report will come out very soon.”

The base commander, Capt. Timothy F. Kinsella Jr., likewise declined to comment on whether the shooting was being investigated as an act of terrorism, saying only that the suspect was “training in aviation” at the base.

But Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., whose congressional district includes the Pensacola naval base, told a local TV station Friday afternoon, “we can safely call this an act of terrorism, not an act of workplace violence.”

The top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., also said the shooting “bears the hallmark signs of a terror attack,” but noted that the “FBI is conducting a full investigation into the shooter’s motives.”

“I urge Saudi Arabia to cooperate completely with the investigation. It is vital that we fully understand the specifics of how the attacker was approved to enter the United States and attend flight training,” Rogers said.

Late Friday afternoon, the Saudi government issued a readout of the call between Trump and King Salman in English. It said that Salman “stressed the Kingdom’s full support to the United States,” and “directed Saudi security services to cooperate with the relevant American agencies to uncover information that will help determine the cause of this horrific attack.”

A complicated ally

The Trump administration has a notoriously complex relationship with Saudi Arabia, with the president highly reluctant to criticize the Saudi government’s repressive and at times violent practices, for fear of upsetting the financial and security ties the U.S. shares with the Saudi monarchy. 

Following the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, Trump took pains not to directly assign blame for the murder to Riyadh, putting him at odds with his own CIA and the United Nations, both of which concluded that Khashoggi was assassinated at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. 

Speaking to reporters in November of that year, Trump said he had been told that bin Salman “did not play a role,” adding, “We’re going to have to find out what” the Saudis “had to say” about the murder. 

In the same breath, however, Trump called Saudi Arabia “a truly spectacular ally in terms of jobs and economic development.”

Nine months later, when asked again about Khashoggi’s murder, this time following a UN report concluding that bin Salman was responsible, Trump said, “I’m extremely angry and unhappy about a thing like that taking place.” But he conspicuously refused to blame the Saudi government. 

“They spend $400 to $450 billion over a period of time, all money, all jobs, buying equipment,” the president said on NBC’s Meet the Press that same week. “I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them.’ And by the way, if they don’t do business with us, you know what they do? They’ll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese.”

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Saudi student opens fire at Florida Naval base, killing 3

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An aviation student from Saudi Arabia opened fire in a classroom at the Naval Air Station Pensacola on Friday morning, killing three people in an attack the Saudi government quickly condemned and that U.S. officials were investigating for possible links to terrorism.

The assault, which ended when a sheriff’s deputy killed the attacker, was the second fatal shooting at a U.S. Navy base this week and prompted a massive law enforcement response and base lockdown.

Twelve people were hurt in the attack, including the two sheriff’s deputies who were the first to respond, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said. One of the deputies was shot in the arm and the other in the knee, and both were expected to recover, he said.

The shooter was a member of the Saudi military who was in aviation training at the base, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference. DeSantis spokesman Helen Ferre later said the governor learned about the shooter’s identity from briefings with FBI and military officials.

A U.S. official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity identified the shooter as Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The official also said the FBI is examining social media posts and investigating whether he acted alone or was connected to any broader group.

During a news conference Friday night, the FBI declined to release the shooter’s identity and wouldn’t comment on his possible motivations.

“There are many reports circulating, but the FBI deals only in facts,” said Rachel L. Rojas, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the Jacksonville Field Office. “This is still very much an active and ongoing investigation.”

Earlier Friday, two U.S. officials identified the student as a second lieutenant in the Saudi Air Force, and said authorities were investigating whether the attack was terrorism-related. They spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose information that had not yet been made public.

President Donald Trump declined to say whether the shooting was terrorism-related. Trump tweeted his condolences to the families of the victims and noted that he had received a phone call from Saudi King Salman.

He said the king told him that “the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter, and that this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people.”

The Saudi government offered condolences to the victims and their families and said it would provide “full support” to U.S. authorities investigating the shooting.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs affirms that the perpetrator of this horrific attack does not represent the Saudi people whatsoever,” the government said in a statement. “The American people are held in the highest regard by the Saudi people.”

Vice Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman noted on Twitter that he and many Saudi military personnel have trained on U.S. military bases and gone on to fight `’against terrorism and other threats” alongside American forces. “Today’s tragic event is strongly condemned by everyone in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

DeSantis said Saudi Arabia needed to be held to account for the attack.

“Obviously, the government … needs to make things better for these victims,” he said. “I think they’re going to owe a debt here, given that this was one of their individuals.”

A national security expert from the Heritage Foundation warned against making an immediate link to terrorism.

“If there is some connection to terrorism, well, then, that’s that,” Charles “Cully” Stimson said. “But let’s not assume that because he was a Saudi national in their air force and he murdered our people, that he is a terrorist.”

Stimson said it was also possible that the shooter was “a disgruntled evil individual who was mad because he wasn’t going to get his pilot wings, or he wasn’t getting the qualification ratings that he wanted, or he had a beef with somebody, or there was a girlfriend involved who slighted him.”

Florida U.S. Sen. Rick Scott issued a scathing statement calling the shooting an act of terrorism “whether this individual was motivated by radical Islam or was simply mentally unstable.”

Scott added that it was “clear that we need to take steps to ensure that any and all foreign nationals are scrutinized and vetted extensively before being embedded with our American men and women in uniform.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement Friday that he was “considering several steps to ensure the security of our military installations and the safety of our service members and their families.” He did not elaborate.

The U.S. has long had a robust training program for Saudis, providing assistance in the U.S. and in the kingdom. The shooting, however, shined a spotlight on the two countries’ sometimes rocky relationship.

The kingdom is still trying to recover from the killing last year of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi intelligence officials and a forensic doctor killed and dismembered Khashoggi on Oct. 2, 2018, just as his fiancee waited outside the diplomatic mission.

One of the Navy’s most historic and storied bases, Naval Air Station Pensacola sprawls along the waterfront southwest of the city’s downtown and dominates the economy of the surrounding area.

Part of the base resembles a college campus, with buildings where 60,000 members of the Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard train each year in multiple fields of aviation. A couple hundred students from countries outside the U.S. are also enrolled in training, said Base commander Capt. Tim Kinsella.

The base is also home to the Blue Angels flight demonstration team, and includes the National Naval Aviation Museum, a popular regional tourist attraction.

Lucy Samford, 31, said her husband, a Navy reservist and civilian worker on the base, was about 500 yards (0.46 kilometers) from where the shooting happened. She said she got a call from him a little after 7 a.m. and “one of the first things out of his mouth was, ‘I love you. Tell the kids I love them. I just want you to know there’s an active shooter on base.'”

Her husband, whom she declined to identify, later told her he was OK.

All of the shooting took place in one classroom and the shooter used a handgun, authorities said. Weapons are not allowed on the base, which Kinsella said would remain closed until further notice.

The shooting is the second at a U.S. naval base this week. A sailor whose submarine was docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, opened fire on three civilian employees Wednesday, killing two before taking his own life.

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Reddit says leak of classified papers ahead of UK election tied to Russian operation

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The leak and distribution of classified UK-U.S. trade documents online is tied to a previous Russian disinformation campaign, social media site Reddit said on Friday, fueling fears that Moscow is seeking to interfere in Britain’s upcoming election.

Britain’s opposition Labour Party seized on the leaked documents on Nov. 27, saying they showed the ruling Conservatives were plotting to offer the state-run National Health Service (NHS) for sale in trade talks with Washington.

The NHS is much loved by Britons and has become an important issue in the country’s election campaign, in which Labour trails the Conservatives despite cutting its lead in some polls.

But researchers told Reuters on Monday that the way the documents were first shared on Reddit and then promoted online closely resembled a disinformation campaign uncovered earlier this year.

That operation — known as Secondary Infektion — attempted to spread false narratives across at least 30 online platforms, and stemmed from a network of social media accounts which Facebook said “originated in Russia.”

“We were recently made aware of a post on Reddit that included leaked documents from the UK,” Reddit said in a statement. “We investigated this account and the accounts connected to it, and today we believe this was part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia.”

The company said it had identified and suspended 61 accounts which attempted to further promote the leaked papers.

“All of these accounts have the same shared pattern as the original Secondary Infektion group detected, causing us to believe that this was indeed tied to the original group,” it said.

A Labour spokesman declined to comment on how the party obtained the leaked documents or ties to the Russian campaign.

“These documents reveal the plot against our NHS. And of course neither the UK nor the U.S. government have denied their authenticity,” he said. “Our releasing them to journalists was clearly in the public interest.”

The British government said in a statement it was “already looking into the matter” with support from the National Cyber Security Centre, part of the GCHQ signals intelligence agency.

“Online platforms should take responsibility for content posted on them, and we welcome the action Reddit have taken today,” it said.

Britain goes to the polls next week in an election called by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to try to break the Brexit deadlock in parliament more than three years since the country voted to leave the European Union.

The country’s security agencies have warned that Russia and other countries may attempt to disrupt the vote with cyberattacks or divisive political messages on social media.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied allegations of election meddling. Officials in Moscow were not immediately available for comment after hours on Friday.

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