With a Sudanese naval base, Russia may have a ‘key to Africa’

2020-12-03 11:56:37 Written by  Martin Plaut Published in English Articles Read 193 times

Source: Deutsche Welle


The Kremlin plans to set up a naval base on the Red Sea in Sudan. The
prestige project would expand Russia’s presence in Africa. That could
have global geopolitical implications.

02.12.2020
Roman Goncharenko, Deutsche Welle

Vladimir Putin wants to see Russia establish a naval base abroad for
the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In
mid-November, the president ordered the Defense Ministry to sign an
accord with Sudan. Along with the still-active Cold War-era Tartus
facility in Syria, this would not only be the second Russian naval
base in the Middle East and North Africa — a region that has become
increasingly important for Moscow — but worldwide, apart from a fleet
on the annexed Crimean Peninsula, which Kremlin officials do not
currently consider extraterritorial.

A draft agreement published by Russia only provides for a logistics
and repair base on the Red Sea for the time being; however, the navy
would be allowed to station up to 300 military staff there — enough to
supply four warships, regular- and nuclear-powered. Presumably the
focus is on nuclear-powered submarines rather than ships as Russia’s
fleet only has one operational nuclear-powered battle cruiser, the
Pyotr Veliki (Russian for Peter the Great). A second battle cruiser is
currently being modernized.

Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, the former chief of staff for the navy,
told the Interfax news agency that the fight against pirates around
the Horn of Africa justified Russia’s establishing a base for
logistics and repair. “It is a tense region,” Kravchenko said. “A
Russian naval presence there is necessary,” he added, hinting that the
facility could one day be developed into a fully fledged base.

Cultivating the image of a world power also plays a role, observers
say. “Russia defines itself as a player right on the spot in this
important region of the world,” Rolf Welberts, a former German
ambassador to Sudan who has also served as head of the NATO
Information Office in Moscow, told DW.

The United States, France and China have naval bases in Djibouti on
the Red Sea. According to the media, Russia has also showed an
interest.

Apart from prestige, Russia could conceivably also be after the
extraction of raw materials in Sudan and the power to “cut off trade
routes in case of conflict with the West,” Alexander Golz, a Russian
military journalist, told DW.

The Soviet Union had outposts in Ethiopia and Somalia to counter the
fact that the United States had a naval base on the Indian Ocean.
Today, it seems the Red Sea is important as a region and point of
access to the African continent for Russia.

“The Red Sea has become a geopolitical hot spot,” said Annette Weber
of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security
Affairs. The war in Yemen, in which several countries in the region —
including Sudan — are involved, was a starting point, she said. “It’s
a fantastic deal for Russia” that has strengthened its influence,
Weber said. The expert described Sudan as “extremely important” in
terms of trade, smuggling and escape routes.

Until a few years ago, Russia and Sudan did not have very close ties.
That changed in 2017, when Russia’s president welcomed his Sudanese
counterpart at the time, Omar al-Bashir, in Sochi.

Russia’s government was sending the message that it was ready to work
with Sudan when other countries would not, said Kholood Khair, a
managing partner at Insight Strategy Partners, a policy think tank
based in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. The country is on the US state
sponsors of terrorism list, and al-Bashir was indicted by the
International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur. Sudan is
currently trying to get itself removed from the list to end years of
isolation.

At the 2017 meeting with Putin, al-Bashir ranted against the United
States, described Sudan as “Russia’s key to Africa” and introduced the
issue of a naval base — supposedly as a protective measure against the
US. Reports followed about Russian companies mining gold in Sudan and
a dubious private military named the Wagner Group that was said to
have advised al-Bashir’s security forces during an uprising in late
2018. Russian officials confirmed a military presence in Sudan, but
denied involvement in breaking up protests.

A common interest

Al-Bashir was toppled in April 2019, and Sudan has since been ruled by
a joint body of civilians and military staff, the Sovereignty Council.
The military is the stronger partner, Khair said. Russia kept its
contacts in Khartoum thanks to Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, more commonly
known in Sudan as Hemeti. The general is the deputy chairman of the
Sovereignty Council and, Khair said, “the most influential man in the
country.”

Khair said Sudan’s gold could be one reason for Russia’s heavy
investment into ties with al-Bashir and now Hemeti. He added that
there have been reports of Russian soldiers and private security
companies guarding the gold mines in the north, to which Hemeti is
also connected. Gold is one of the key sources of income for Sudan,
which has been devastated by sanctions, corruption and inflation.

It is unclear whether Russia sees Sudan as a springboard in the
region. However, military advisers and mercenaries have been seen in
at least two neighboring countries: Libya and the Central African
Republic. That appears to be part of Russia’s strategy of establishing
new ties with Soviet-era allies. The Sovereignty Council sent
emissaries to the first ever Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in October
2019.

Last modified on Thursday, 03 December 2020 13:12