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The Russian Military Provides an Air Bridge for the ANC’s offensive Against M23 in the DRC

While the west has been focussed on the crisis in the Middle East and the war in Ukraine, Russia is becoming increasingly involved in the seemingly endless conflict between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and various rebel militias such as the March 23 Movement, known as the M23 group.

The DRC should be a successful functioning state with a thriving economy. The country is rich in natural resources like oil, diamonds, gold and other precious metals, yet half of its population live in extreme hardship.

The M23 rebel group waging an insurgency against the DRC government. (Source BBC)

Fighting between rebel militias and government forces, systemic corruption, years of mismanagement of the country’s resources and recurring health crises like COVID-19, cholera, measles and Ebola, have left DRC in a severe humanitarian crisis.

It is estimated that 27 million people are experiencing poverty and food insecurity – the highest number in any African country.

In recent months, however, renewed fighting between rebel groups and the DRC’s army has further exacerbated decade-old tensions throughout the country’s insecure East.

Now it has emerged that Russia is becoming increasingly involved in the conflict and the western powers should be concerned. – the highly respected South African news website – reported on April 24 that the South African Air Force (SAAF) contracted an Iluhsyn-76 aircraft from the Russian military company Aviacon Zitotrans.

The huge transport aircraft has been acquired to create an air bridge so that South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops and equipment can be deployed to the east of the DRC for its offensive against Rwanda’s ally, the M23 rebel group.

Rwanda, which sits on the DRC’s eastern border, and the DRC have been involved in a simmering conflict whose roots date back to the Rwandan genocide.

Ordinarily, the decision by the South African government to hire aircraft to transport troops might not raise any eyebrows.

But Aviacon Zitotrans is no ordinary freight organisation and is actually a known logistics front company of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation- Russian Military Intelligence also known as the GRU.  

Russian Ilyushin-76 similar to the one used by the GRU front company Aviacon Zitotrans to transport personnel and equipment to the DRC. (Source: Wikipedia)

The company was sanctioned by the US and UK along with the GRU sponsored Wagner Group for its support for Russian military aggression worldwide.

Aviacon Zitorans has a damning record. It performs the airlifting of Russian troops and military equipment for the unlawful Russian invasion of Ukraine. Aviacon Zitotrans flights carrying weapons for the Kremlin have also been tracked to Venezuela, Iran, Syria and of course South Africa.

The company frequently transports Russian weaponry illicitly sold by Rosoboronexport, the sole state-owned intermediary for the sale of Russian arms worldwide. The company is so important to the Kremlin that the Russian government announced subsidy payments to Aviacon Zitotrans in July 2022 to shelter its operations from Western sanctions.

South Korean military analysts have also reported that covert Aviacon Zitotrans flights were recently tracked between Russia, North Korea and China. The US reported that North Korea is providing artillery shells, rockets and ballistic missiles to Russia in exchange for technical assistance.

The Russian media- TASS, Sputnik and Pravda – reports a defiant Vincent Mgwenya, President Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, saying that the ANC Government does not recognise US and UK sanctions. Mgwenya is reported by TASS to claim that the SANDF can therefore contract and pay Aviacon Zitotrans regardless of US and UK sanctions through South African banks that hold dollar denominated accounts.

President Zuma initiated close cooperation between the SANDF and the Russian Armed Forces during his two terms in office including joint projects to establish interoperability. In May 2023 General Oleg Salyukov, the commander of Russia’s ground forces, hosted the Chief of the SANDF, Lt. General Lawrence Mbatha at Russia’s general command headquarters in Moscow. At the time, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that “the two sides discussed issues of military cooperation and the implementation of projects geared to enhance the combat readiness of the two countries’ armies.”

Aviacon Zitotrans also regularly transport troops and weapons for the GRU sponsored Wagner Group and for its Russian military successor, the Africa Corps, across Africa. Aviacon Zitotrans recently delivered Russian troops and weapons to Niger as the country terminated its military cooperation with the US.

Unlike Rwanda, who consulted South Africa before deploying in Mozambique to prevent ISIS’s terror campaign, the ANC did not consult Rwanda before rushing to deploy the SANDF as only one of two SADC members to the East of the DRC, against Rwanda’s ally M23. Early on it became apparent that the SANDF lacked the necessary air power for a successful deployment. The question now arises what is the exact role of the Russian Military in the SANDF’s deployment against M23 and its ally Rwanda in the DRC? Is the Russian Military’s involvement limited to air support? Is the Russian Military through its air support for the SANDF deliberately targeting Rwanda as the only African country that has the capabilities to provide lawful security assistance to other members of the Africa Union (AU), like Mozambique, in counter insurgency operations? As the ANC and the SANDF contract Russian air power they have many questions to answer.