In Europe, Russia invasion of Ukraine has been a humiliating and costly disaster for the Russian state. The weaknesses of its army have been exposed and tens of thousands of its troops have been killed. Sanctions have cut Russia’s economy off from many international markets and technologies.

But in Africa, Russia has been making dramatic inroads. Even in the year since Russian troops poured into Ukraine, Moscow has notched up further successes on the continent.

Russia’s presence in the country includes some 1,500 masked paramilitaries from the now infamous Wagner Group, gold and diamond operations. This relationship is the most striking example of how effective Moscow has been in parts of Africa with a cut-price strategy that mixes propaganda, arms sales, mining activity and mercenaries.

The Russian influences at the cathedral are more than just an exercise in cultural outreach: they are part of the growing influence that Moscow now wields over the political and economic life of CAR, one of the world’s poorest and weakest states.

In South Africa, Russia still has close ties to the ruling African National Congress, which has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia is also shaping the political landscape. Diplomats report a heavy Wagner presence, in fatigues and civilian clothes, at government ministries. “The Russians are everywhere, in institutions, ministries, civil society, media — everywhere,” one intelligence officer in Bangui says.