In January 2019, a Sudanese parliamentarian saidSudan and Russia had reached a military deal to make mutual naval Maduro port visits that could in future also lead to Moscow developing a naval base on the Red Sea coast. This is no surprise as in 2017 the then Sudanese President Omar al Bashir agreedto set up an air base for Russia in the Red Sea, and also requestedMoscow protect Sudan from the US.
Amid the protests to remove Bashir as president, Russian support for him attracted a lot of attention. This was not for the first time Mosco has lent such support – theAssad regimein Syria and Venezuela’s Maduroregime are but two examples.
Even as Bashir was oustedby a popular revolution this year, Russia continuesoperations in the country, because its contractors signedmining ventures with Sudan on the grounds that Moscow would serve as a protector of Sudan. The two also signed military and defense cooperation. It is clear Russia views Sudan as strategically important even as the Bashir regime collapsed. Sudan also forms an important market to sell its defense equipment. In 2017 Bashir expressed interestin Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets and surface to air missiles - and was reportedto have received Su-35 fighter jets from Russia. There is little doubt that defense and military cooperation form a basis for setting up military bases in countries of strategic interest.
Russia wanted to set up a permanent maritime presence in Djibouti where it only had ananti-piracy role. However, its request to the United Nations to make Djibouti a permanent base was rejected– which is why it turned to Sudan to set up a base in the Greater Horn of Africa.
Russia’s focus on Sudan has other reasons: gold mining contracts, natural gas exploration agreements, and possible construction of an oil refinery in Sudan - all of which would need a port and access to the Red Sea. Moscow also wants controlof the Bab el Mandeb Strait and Red Sea port access makes this easier. The Bab el Mandeb Strait is an important transportation routedominating part of the Gulf of Aden, the gateway from the Mediterranean with the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean. The US naval base in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier helps it gain access to the Red Sea, and so it is imperative for Russia to look for other regions to set up naval bases as a direct challenge to the US military influence in the Greater Horn of Africa.
Sudan also hasestranged relationswith its neighbors Eritrea and Egypt - two countries with whom Russia shares cordial relations. A naval base in Sudan would enable Moscow to become a mediator between the three - especially as it plans to develop a logistical basein Eritrea and a military base in Egypt.
Russia also aims to act as a mediatorin the Yemen crisis, and southern Yemen is geopolitically crucial as stabilitythere is crucial to strengthen its foothold in the Red Sea region. A strong Red Sea military position would enable it to perform its balancing act in Yemen – in particular it wants influencein the Yemeni Island of Socotra and a strong military presence in the region makes this task easier.
Reports say the transitional power at the moment is more Saudi and US friendlyand hence Russia’s chances may be limited but not restricted. In April, 2019, following Bashir’s ouster, Moscow recognizedthe ruling military council in Sudan and was in constant touch with representatives of the Military Transitional Council (MTC).
However, Russia is also in talkswith the opposition and military council to defuse the stand-off that led to a violent crackdown on pro-democracy supporters. Therefore, it can be said that Moscow is trying to play the mediator role between the MTC and the Bashir regime.
It is only a matter of time before it either loses Sudan like it did Djibouti, or it keeps its presence strong in the region.
Debalina Ghoshal is non-resident fellow at the Council on International Policy, the EastWest Institute.