A new naval base in Africa is the gateway Russia has sought for decades
Updated: Apr 19, 2021
Following Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin's approval last month of a new naval base to be built on Sudan's Red Sea coast, official Kremlin statements have billed the facility as a logistics center that will be defensive in nature — for principal use as a resupply station for Russian warships.
In spite of these assurances, Russian media outlets have touted the base as Moscow's gateway to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, widening the reach of its naval forces. The basing agreement's terms, which were released on December 8, appear to support this latter view: In exchange for military aid, Sudan will allow Russia to maintain its facility in Port Sudan for at least 25 years, allowing it to bolster its influence in key maritime theaters.
The new naval base is the culmination of decades of close relations between Moscow and Khartoum. The former dictator Omar al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan for almost three decades after ousting Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in a 1989 coup, gradually cultivated deeper ties with Russia.
Even though Russia supported the 2005 United Nations embargo on arms exports to the parties in the brutal civil war in Darfur, Moscow shipped T-72 battle tanks, grenade launchers and small arms to Sudan in 2008. At a November 2017 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bashir accused the United States of supporting rebel forces in Darfur and urged Russia to protect Sudan from supposed American aggression, claiming Sudan could be Russia's "key to Africa." This meeting resulted in preliminary negotiations on the construction of a Russian naval base in Sudan.
Moscow's basing aspirations and the broader Russia-Sudan partnership were jeopardized by Sudan's popular uprising in 2019, which culminated in Bashir's ouster by the military that April.
Russia had already deployed mercenaries to Sudan from the Wagner Group, a private security contractor with ties to the Kremlin, in 2018. These operatives were initially tasked with supporting the gold exploration efforts of M-Invest, a company owned by the Wagner Group's leading figure, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Following Bashir's overthrow, they supported the Sudanese military's efforts to maintain control of the country.
Russia's soft power in Sudan took a hit, though, when it opposed a UN resolution condemning the transitional military government's massacre of 128 demonstrators in Khartoum in June 2019, and it was further damaged by media reports that Russian military contractors had encouraged Sudanese forces to suppress the protests, even if it resulted in a "minimal but acceptable loss of life." To reset relations with Russia, the head of Sudan's transitional government, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, met with Putin in October 2019 at the historic Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, which laid the foundations for a revival of negotiations on a Russian naval base in Sudan.
As political changes in Khartoum can cause the relationship to fluctuate, the Kremlin views its Red Sea base as a means of preserving its security partnership with Sudan. In particular, Russia wants to ensure that Sudan continues to be a loyal customer for its military equipment. Sudan is Russia's third-largest arms market in Africa, after Algeria and Egypt. Sudan also provides diplomatic support within the Arab League for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a key Russian ally. In December 2018, Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit Syria since the civil war began there in 2011.
Moreover, Russia will use its Red Sea naval base to strengthen its relationship with Burhan and his allies within the Sudanese military. Sudanese Foreign Minister Omar Qamar al-Din told Bloomberg News this month that he hadn't seen a copy of the basing agreement, meaning Russia had effectively bypassed the country's civilian leadership in setting up the agreement. In line with its broader approach to the Middle East, Russia views the military as the guardian of Sudan's stability. In June 2019, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov urged the transitional government to repress "extremists," an oblique reference to the Forces of Freedom and Change, the umbrella group that represents the country's pro-democracy protesters.
Russian state media outlets also regularly cite Sudan's failed democratic transition of 1985 to 1989, which was marred by factionalism and disagreements over the implementation of Sharia law, as proof of the intrinsic instability of civilian rule.
However, Russia's firm support for the Sudanese military has deepened divisions in Sudan, fueling anti-Russian sentiment among supporters of the pro-democracy revolution, including many of the rebel leaders who fought against Bashir in Darfur.
Opposition figures believe the Sudanese military accepted the Russian assistance as a counterweight to the US, given the possibility that President-elect Joe Biden would support Sudan's transition to civilian rule and lobby for trials of Bashir's allies at the International Criminal Court. If the new base is accompanied by an expansion of Russia's presence in Sudan, it could also provide the Sudanese military with lucrative commercial contracts and weapons that enhance its ability to repress future demonstrations. Kamal Bolad, a prominent opposition activist, has warned that Sudan's decision to allow a Russian base on its coast could disrupt the balancing strategy that undergirds its foreign policy. Given the anti-Russian sentiments on the civilian side of the transitional government in Khartoum, Moscow sees the Sudanese military's political primacy as beneficial for its interests.
In addition to preserving its long-term influence in Sudan, Russia views its naval facility as a mechanism to expand its power projection on the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Before it collapsed, the Soviet Union possessed naval bases at the Yemeni port of Aden and Eritrea's Dahlak Archipelago, so the new installation in Sudan serves to revive Moscow's memory of superpower status.
In fact, modern-day Russia's quest for a Red Sea base first began with an exploratory visit to Yemen in October 2008 by Sergei Mironov, then the head of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia's parliament. The planned facility in Sudan thus caps 12 years of effort, and will allow Russia to play an increased security role in nearby waterways. These include the critical Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and acts as a trans-shipment point for 4.7 million barrels of oil per day.
Russia's Port Sudan facility will also enable Moscow to expand its involvement in anti-piracy operations in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, a rare area of persistent security cooperation between Russia and the West. Russia's navy has a history of cooperation with British forces against Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and next February, Russia is scheduled to hold its first joint military exercises with NATO forces since 2011, off Pakistan's coast. Over time, Russia's expanded involvement in anti-piracy campaigns could displace the EU Naval Force's Atalanta mission off the Somali coast, which is scheduled to expire at the end of this month, and challenge US influence in the Indian Ocean.
Russia might also use its Port Sudan facility to expand its influence on the Mediterranean Sea. The Moscow-based defense expert Yuri Lyamin recently argued that the base in Sudan could alleviate the resupply burdens of Russia's Syrian base, in Tartus.
This could allow the Tartus facility to take on the offensive and defensive capabilities of a traditional naval base, once planned renovations are complete, by providing logistical and material support for Russian military drills in the Mediterranean and facilitating the transfer of personnel and equipment from Syria to Libya.
Ultimately, the base in Sudan will boost Russia's efforts to ensure that its partnership with Khartoum survives the country's tumultuous transition to democracy. More broadly, it signifies Russia's resurgence as a great power in Africa and builds on the momentum generated by last October's summit with African leaders in Sochi. Other established naval powers, both from the region and beyond, are undoubtedly taking note of the move, as it means they will soon face increased competition from Russia on the Red Sea.
Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford's Department of Politics and International Relations, specializing in Russia's policy toward the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @samramani2.
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