Sudan: Russia’s New Pawn On The Chessboard

Source: Flipboard

On November 16, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an agreement to set up a naval base on the Red Sea coast in Sudan. Given the strategic geographical position of Sudan, Russia has more to gain than to lose. With this deal, the base will be used as a ‘supply and maintenance base for Russian warships’, where it can ‘accommodate up to four warships simultaneously, including nuclear-powered vessels, and a garrison of up to 300 military and civilian personnel’.

The naval base is set to be used for 25 years and Russia will be allowed to import weapons and military supplies through the airports and ports in Sudan without any control by the local authorities. On the other side, Russia will install in Sudan ‘defense systems’ that the country will be able to use and will assist with the ‘Sudanese navy for search and rescue or ‘anti-sabotage’ missions’.

THE ASSET

Given the nature of the agreement and geographical area, the new deal is a new way for Russia to establish itself as a major player in the Red Sea.

Before its collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union had during the Cold War multiple bases in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen. As such, it seems that President Putin has been attempting (and succeeding) in restoring its power and presence outside of Russia. In order to gain more access and power in the Mediterranean region, Russia played a prominent role in Syria in 2015, when it began to help President Assad in stopping an insurgency. As such, the Syrian regime granted Russia’s demand to establish a base at the port of Tartus (Syria) and at the air base of Khmeimim in 2017. Russia could use the naval base for ‘warships with greater capacity or sustained and more distant operations in the Mediterranean Sea’ and the air base for ‘dozens of combat aircraft’, as well as ‘the long-range S-400 air defense system’.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and President of Sudan Omar Al-Bashir shake hands as they pose for a photo during their meeting in Sochi, Russia on 23 November 2017. [Kremlin Press Office/Handout ]
Putin and former President Omar al-Bashir in 2017. Source: Middle East Monitor.

In the same year, Russia signed an agreement with Egypt to use air bases for its own combat aircrafts. In 2019, Russia and Egypt participated in a joint military training exercise of 13 days called ‘Arrow of Friendship 1’.

While playing an important role in the Mediterranean Sea, Russia has always kept an eye on the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea as well. The country’s talks with Yemen in 2008, although they stopped due to the instability after the fall of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, are an example. In 2014, Russia held talks with the Republic of Djibouti, although the Djibouti government disagreed with the negotiations following the US’ constant pressure. Lastly, Russian officials began negotiating with Eritrea in 2018, but the consultation failed. Consequently, Russia turned to Sudan and former President Omar al-Bashir, and engaged in negotiations, resulting in the establishment of the naval base in the city Port Sudan.

WHY SUDAN?

Russia seems to gain more than to lose with these negotiations due to several reasons, even when one considers the low quality of the infrastructure of the port in Sudan.

Firstly, due to its geographical proximity, Russia can use the port in Sudan ‘as a launchpad for expanded power projection on the Mediterranean Sea‘. It improves its access to trade through the Suez Canal, as well as ‘alleviat[ing] the resupply commitments assumed by Tartus’, thus changing from a resupply establishment to a multi-function naval base. Secondly, the geographical position to the Red Sea plays a strategic and influential role in Russia’s plans. In fact, the base in Sudan would be easily used as ‘a bulwark against maritime security threats in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean‘. According to the Russian naval doctrine, there are a lot of piracy acts taking place in the Indian Ocean and in the Red Sea. The latter represents potential disruptions against Russia’s interests, its welfare, and its nationals. In 2008, the Russian warship Neustrashimy collaborated with the British HMS Cumberland in the Gulf of Aden to resist against Somali pirates; while in 2010, the pirates hijacked the Russian tanker MV Moscow University in the Gulf of Aden. In addition to that, piracy is a big threat and plays an important role in the field of oil, as Russia works with Saudi Arabia in order to secure and steady the oil prices through OPEC+ and the disruption of the transit of 4.7 million oil barrels via the Bab El-Mandeb Strait would destabilise the prices.

As such, even though the US and China have in the past actively fought piracy and secured the areas, Russia can from now on play a more active role in the fight. Thirdly, the naval base in Sudan can be used logistically to secure its investments in the country and reinforce its collaboration with Khartoum. In fact, Russia has been providing more than 80% of Sudan’s armament for more than 17 years and the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group has been on Sudan’s grounds for already 2 years with the objective to protect and secure gold mines in Sudan, although it is illegal under Russian law. Nevertheless, establishing a Russian presence in the Sudanese port’s facility will legally authorize the presence of military groups. As such, this would ‘help Russia augment the security of its gold mining assets and transit from a transactional relationship with Sudan based on arms sales to a more comprehensive security partnership’.

THE OTHER PLAYERS

Foreign Military Facilities. Source: TNT.

Russia is not the only one that has an influence and a base in the Red Sea and its presence threatens the other rival political countries and has consequences in the current geopolitical status quo. Turkey is one of the players in this geopolitical arena. Before 2019, when President Omar al-Bashir was deposed in a coup d’état, Ankara and Khartoum had good relations. The agreement that led to Turkey’s reconstruction of the Suakin Island, viewed by many as historically crucial, is an example. Furthermore, the deal itself threatened other neighboring countries, as there were ‘allegations that Turkey was seeking to expand its military foothold in Africa, in the Gulf and the Red Sea’.

Nevertheless, following the overthrow of President al-Bashir, President Erdogan has not yet succeeded in setting up its own naval base. In the meantime, the establishment of a Russian military naval base in Sudan poses a threat to Turkey, given that there is a history of anti-Turkish attitude from Russia. It can firstly be seen in the case of Libya, where Russia sided with General Khalifa Haftar, who is closely linked to countries like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as well, all political rivals of Turkey. The Russia naval base in the city of Port Sudan has been declared an ‘anti-Turkish step‘.

President Erdogan and former Presiden Omar al-Bashir in 2017. Source: TNT.

The second geopolitical player is China. China has been focusing for a long time on Africa through the project One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR) especially in Sudan, where the Sudanese government contributed to China’s 5% oil that they imported, while Chinese companies invested in the improvement of Sudan’s infrastructure. Although Beijing has established a military base in the Republic of Djibouti, the news of Russia’s new naval base in Port Sudan has been well received by the Chinese government as it is regarded as a ‘sign of Khartoum’s willingness to combat ‘foreign interference’ from the US and France’.

Another prominent player is the United States. The US has been, in fact, very influential and powerful in the Horn of Africa and has a military base in the Republic of Djibouti. Since 1993, the US inserted Sudan on the list of state who are sponsoring terrorism, as former President al-Bashir gave shelter to militants of al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah. After 27 years, on December 14, 2020, US President Donald Trump announced the removal of Sudan from the list, permitting the country to make new economic reforms and receive international investments. Following the announcement, Russia agreed with the Sudanese government to establish the base. Even though the US removed the country from the terrorist list, the establishment of the Russian base poses a threat, as ‘easy access to supplies, ammunition, and facilities for repair and maintenance may embolden Russian ships to harass US warships and merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden’. In addition to this, the Russian naval presence poses also a threat to NATO and the other Western countries, which possess navies in the Red Sea.

  • In what ways will the US, NATO and other Western countries react with the presence of Russian warships in the Red Sea?
  • How will Turkey react knowing that Russian established an anti-Turkey naval base?
  • In what other ways may Sudan improve its economic and political situation?

Further Readings

Deutsche Welle. With Sudan naval base, Russia may have a ‘key to Africa’.

Foreign Policy. With Base in Sudan, Russia Expands Its Military Reach in Africa.

The Arab Weekly. Sudan’s silence about Russian base reflects divergences in Khartoum.

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