The EU deployment is significant not just for CAR, which has been mired in political chaos that evolved into a bloodletting against Muslims, many of whom are now fleeing the country.
But the new mission is also a test of the efficacy of European defense integration. Russia’s actions in Crimea have raised new questions about Europe’s ability to secure itself and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) suddenly finds itself with a new mandate. The alliance suspended all cooperation with Russia yesterday.
"The launch of this operation demonstrates the EU's determination to take full part in international efforts to restore stability and security in Bangui and right across the Central African Republic," said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in a statement.
The conflict in CAR ignited a year ago after a coup in Bangui masterminded by a collection of mostly Muslim fighters called Seleka under their leader, Michel Djotodia. Seleka proved to be poor rulers and tensions between it and other groups and militias, many of them Christian, threatened by the fall to disintegrate into a full-scale bloodbath.
The French in particular warned of a genocide, which so far has not taken place – despite vicious fighting, especially in Bangui last December when Seleka was finally driven out by a collection of fighters that call themselves anti-balaka.
The situation in CAR will take center stage at the EU-Africa summit on trade and investment, which gathers 80 leaders across both regions.
France, which deployed troops to CAR in December, has pushed for more support from European allies in Africa, where it has long played a central role in military affairs.
The EU officially agreed to a mission in January, to bolster the 2,000 French and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers already on the ground. But it was delayed because of a shortage of soldiers and equipment. The official launch came after unspecified EU governments agreed to provide additional support.
Their participation, though tiny in number, will be under more scrutiny than usual because of the rumblings that are coming east from Russia. Europe is warily watching Moscow and its massing of troops along its border with Ukraine, prompting NATO to cut off its ties with Russia Tuesday.
After it annexed Crimea from Ukraine, Russia has raised concerns in the West that it could invade eastern Ukraine or other nearby countries that have significant numbers of ethnic Russian minorities.
Before the crisis over Ukraine and Crimea, European nations had been cutting defense spending, with little coordination among each other. Few have met NATO’s target spending of 2 percent of GDP on defense.
But suddenly their ability to defend themselves and their neighbors, through cooperation in NATO or as part of an integrated European defense system, has become a renewed priority.