A Permanent Russian Foothold in Africa

President Vladimir Putin recently approved plans for a permanent Russian naval facility in Sudan, Moscow’s first military foothold on the African continent since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and only its second official naval facility abroad after the Syrian port of Tartus. This latest move will not only expand the Russian fleet’s operational capabilities but also strengthen Russia’s growing involvement in Africa.

For years, Moscow has expressed a desire to increase its influence in Africa, a continent rich in minerals with a potentially lucrative market for Russian-manufactured weapons. 

Access to the Red Sea has also become a geopolitical imperative for Russia as it wished to compete with the French, American and Chinese presence in Djibouti.

Undaunted by its failure to establish a permanent presence in Djibouti, Sudan’s coastline soon became an attractive alternative after then-President al-Bashir first mentioned in 2017 the possibility of establishing a permanent Russian base in the country to protect it “from aggressive US actions”.

 

A Red Sea Base at Last

According to an agreement between Moscow and Khartoum signed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Russia is planning to build a permanent naval supply base, or “logistical support centre” in the country.

 

“Russia is planning to build a permanent naval supply base in Sudan”

 

Coordinates provided in the document suggest that the base will be located on the northern outskirts of Sudan’s Red Sea coast city of Port Sudan, which already plays hosts to several Sudanese Navy ships.

This agreement will last for 25 years with a possible prolongation for another decade should both parties consent to an extension. The naval facility, which will accommodate over 300 military and civilian personnel, will act as a repair and resupply hub for the Russian navy operating in the Indian Ocean, and will be capable of mooring four warships, including nuclear-powered surface vessels, which significantly increases the Russian navy’s capabilities in both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.


Location of the future Rusian Naval Base, north of Port Sudan, according to coordinates. Copyright: European Security Journal

 

The bilateral agreement makes no mention of any leasing costs, allowing Moscow to take full advantage of the land it has been allocated as well as Sudan’s sea ports and airports to bring any weapons, ammunition and equipment needed to support the facility and “for the performance of tasks by warships”. There are also reports that Russian air defence as well as electronic warfare systems will be deployed to protect the naval site.

 

“The base will undeniably boost Russia’s ability to project its power in the Indian Ocean and increase its influence in Africa”

 

However, in exchange Russia will provide Sudan with assistance in search-and-rescue as well as underwater anti-sabotage support operations, and may possibly further supply Khartoum with weapons, training and military equipment.

While the base, according to the agreement, “meets the goals of maintaining peace and stability in the region, is defensive and is not aimed against other countries”, it will undeniably boost Russia’s ability to project its power in the Indian Ocean, offer Moscow a naval stronghold south of the Suez Canal, and increase its influence in Africa.

 

A Khartoum - Moscow Rapprochement

Moscow has obvious economic and geopolitical interests in Sudan, a nation endowed with bountiful natural resources. Both nations have enjoyed increasingly warm diplomatic relations since Sudan’s then-President Omar al-Bashir paid his first official visit to Russia in November 2017, defying arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court, and during which both military and financial agreements were reached.

In 2019, a bilateral agreement for a seven-year military cooperation came into force which stipulated an exchange of views and information on politico-military affairs as well as international security related issues, with the further aim of training the Sudanese armed forces on weaponry and hardware supplied by their Russian counterpart.

Yet, whether overt or covert, Russian activity in Sudan until now has been far less known and mediatised than in Syria, Libya, or the Central African Republic despite the Kremlin publicly acknowledging in 2019 the presence of Russian private security companies tasked with training the Sudanese military and law enforcement agencies. 

Political unrest in recent years and al-Bashir’s ousting have not prevented Khartoum and Moscow from upholding valuable defence, mining and energy contracts/agreements driven by the Kremlin’s geopolitical and economic imperatives in the continent.


“The newly announced permanent military presence near Port Sudan is a crucial military and geopolitical asset for Moscow in a region where the West and China struggle for influence in an ongoing security competition”

 

True to al-Bashir’s promise in 2017, Sudan became Russia’s key to Africa, a veritable linchpin of Russia’s ambitious foreign policy in the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa.

The newly announced permanent military presence near Port Sudan is a crucial military and geopolitical asset for Moscow in a region where the West and China struggle for influence in an ongoing security competition.

More importantly, Moscow’s foothold in Sudan could possibly be the first phase of a continent-wide politico-military ambition following reports of plans for the building of Russian military facilities in five other African countries including Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Madagascar and Mozambique.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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