Lavrov’s visit to Sudan: Intimidation-based diplomacy

Amgad Fareid Eltayeb
By Amgad Fareid Eltayeb

Sudanese politician, previously served as assistant chief of staff to Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and as political advisor to the UN special political mission in Sudan (UNITAMS). He is currently the CEO of Fikra for Studies and Development, a non-partisan political think tank based in Khartoum. Twitter (@amjedfarid)

Posted on Friday, 17 February 2023 15:32
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with Sudan's army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Khartoum on February 9, 2023. (Photo by Handout / RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY / AFP) /

On 8 February, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, came to Sudan for a two-day official visit. Khartoum was a stop on Lavrov's African tour covering Mali and Mauritania.

In recent months, the top Russian diplomat has been conducting a significant amount of travel throughout Africa. In January, he continued a longer tour that had consumed most of his time in the closing months of the previous year by travelling to Eritrea, South Africa, Eswatini, and Angola.

Africa appears to be another front in Russia’s war with the West. But, the weaponry of this front appears to be different. Russia seems to be adopting intimidation-based diplomacy in Africa with the aim of winning electability to its local partners. Russia is supporting coups and attempts to control transitional periods with the objective of creating partners capable of winning subsequent elections.

Revolving door of visits

Khartoum, for its part, has not been diplomatically tranquil. In January, the head of Egyptian Intelligence, Abbas Kamel, visited Khartoum and proposed a Cairo-based Sudanese dialogue process. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed paid a similar visit to Khartoum.

  • The coup leader and Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF)’s commander-in-chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan visited N’Djamena for one day.
  • The next day, his deputy, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemeti), made a similar separate visit to Chad.
  • Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen also visited Khartoum to discuss progressing the Abraham Accords with the coup government.

Lavrov’s visit to Khartoum coincided with another visit by a number of Western envoys including the EU Special envoy for the Horn of Africa Annette Weber, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Africa, Sudan, and South Sudan Peter Lord, French Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Frederic Clavier, German Director for East Africa Thorsten Hutter, Norway’s special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan John Johnson, and UK Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan Robert Fairweather.

Following Lavorv’s departure, Hemeti paid a sudden official visit to Guinea-Bissau, with unconfirmed reports about his intention to also visit CAR and Mali. Burhan, on his side, travelled to UAE. David Beasley, director of the World Food Programme, whose term is about to expire, also visited Khartoum with a delegation of businessmen and received the highest Sudanese medal from Burhan. Beasley was one of the biggest sponsors of Sudan’s accession to the Abraham Accord for normalisation with Israel.

Russia is attempting to create coup and post-coup transitional situations throughout Africa, during which it creates and strengthens electable partners who can win subsequent elections.

Meanwhile, the Quad group (consisting of the US, UK, KSA, and the UAE) continues to supervise and push the political process, which began with the framework agreement signed on 5 December 2022. The Quad facilitated the secret talks that delivered this agreement. The Trilateral Mechanism – the African Union, IGAD, and the UN, through its political mission to Sudan, UNITAMS – officially sponsors the sham political process to reverse-engineer the pre-cooked deal.

‘Drowning in regional and global interests’

This frenetic diplomatic activity demonstrates how much Sudan is drowning in a sea of intersecting regional and global interests. Foreign players seek coalitions with domestic political forces to advance their short, medium, and long-term interests in Sudan.

It also shows the lack of cohesiveness within the Sudanese foreign policy decision-making bodies under the current coup government. RSF-SAF skirmishes over the Central African Republic and Chad showed the coup government’s lack of a united foreign policy.

The public display reached its peak when Hemeti announced he was uninformed of the Israeli delegation’s presence until after they had left.

Most of these diplomatic efforts claim to be supportive of Sudan’s democratic transition.

Moscow’s preferences in Sudan

Lavrov’s visit appears to be pursuing a different path. Moscow has never concealed its consistent preference for a totalitarian government in Sudan and was not at ease with the transition. Wagner Group strategised for Bashir regime’s survival by handling the revolution with “minimal but acceptable loss of life”.

Its head expressed his frustration with Bashir’s leniency with protestors. After the revolution, Moscow worked slowly to regain its influence over the military, boosting the military’s power-grabbing inclinations. Russia continued to support the military while solidifying the RSF-Wagner alliance. This alliance boosts Russia’s influence in Africa and the Sahel while providing plausible deniability.

Shortly before the coup, Facebook revealed an organised disinformation campaign in support of a military takeover in Sudan, orchestrated by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency.

Sudan’s prime geolocation

Moscow values Sudan because it connects the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Presence in Sudan gives Russia access to the Red Sea and aids its alliance with Eritrea. It also provides a socle to increasing its influence in the rest of Africa, particularly the Sahel.

Several African countries, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Central Africa, Guinea, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, and Niger have witnessed a number of Russian-backed coups and coup attempts during the past two years.

The Russian veto in the UN Security Council established an atmosphere of impunity and tolerance for the coup plotters. Moscow’s strategy in Africa is to defeat the West in its own game of democratisation. Russia is attempting to create coup and post-coup transitional situations throughout Africa, during which it creates and strengthens electable partners who can win subsequent elections. Sudan’s RSF is the perfect example.

Lavrov’s visit to Khartoum came in the context of implementing this strategy. Particularly in light of the recent frictions in Central Africa, where RSF supported Wagner and the Sudanese army opposed it. Hemeti spent nearly a year trying to downplay to western diplomats the significance of his visit to Russia on the eve of its invasion of Ukraine and his public support for its military operation, but when the pro-Russian ruling regime in CAR was threatened, Hemeti moved his forces to close the borders and provided support to it.

US turns a blind eye

Lavrov’s visit came in support of Hemeti, who recently evaded the US sanctions imposed on Wagner-affiliated entities, including CAR and UAE-based entities. The US refrained from penalising Hemeti and his enterprises despite their known ties to Wagner in order to prevent derailing the framework agreement-initiated political process, which the US assisted in reaching.

In addition, the United States appears to avoid making an enemy of a potential candidate who might be running the country in a few years, shortsightedly aiding the Russian strategy. In Khartoum, Lavrov was unapologetic in defending and supporting Wagner’s activities in Africa, stating its role as “helping to normalise the situation in the region” in the face of the “terrorist” threat.

Lavrov also indicated that Wagner is being deployed upon the request of sovereign governments, not only justifying its presence in CAR but also flirting with Hemeti’s ambitions to continue his government influence. He also expressed Moscow’s appreciation of the comfortable conditions created for Russian mining companies operating in Sudan.

Russia’s military base

While he formally invited Sudan to participate in the Russian-African summit next June, Lavrov reaffirmed in his statements that the agreement to establish a military naval base on the Sudanese Red Sea coast is moving forward.

The agreement to establish this base was reached with Bashir’s regime but was later halted during the deposed transitional government. Apart from the Russian port in Syrian Tartus, this base would be the only Russian maritime facility overseas.

Its proximity to Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Suez Canal would give Russia a critical advantage in surveilling global oil exports. It also establishes a Russian presence in the Red Sea and strengthens its presence in the Mediterranean. The initial plan for the base was to accommodate – in addition to support – four warships, including warships with nuclear power plants.

‘Both men want to stay in power’

Reproaching Burhan and Hemeti would be the worst possible outcome of Lavrov’s visit. Both men want to stay in power, but they disagree on how. The head of Egyptian intelligence managed to calm tensions between the two in his June 2021 visit, paving the way for their collaboration in the October 2021 coup.

Now, this appears to be Lavrov’s best bid.

Hemeti, Russia’s organic ally in the Sahel, continues to uphold the Framework Agreement with civilians, even if only nominally. This support is related to his efforts to strengthen his alliance with the Western-backed Forces of Freedom and Change – the Central Council (FFC-CC), who are helping him to launder his name inside and outside Sudan.

However, Hemeti’s alliance with the FFC-CC is pragmatic in nature and based on common enmities rather than common interests. Hemeti’s desire to maintain the autonomy of the RSF under his command for as long as possible meets with the FFC-CC’s desire to limit the army’s influence.

The presence of a parallel military force serves this purpose by creating a ‘Balance of Fear’ of a clash between the two forces.

On the other hand, Burhan desires to merge RSF with SAF as soon as possible. In the absence of incentives and financial aid commitments from the west – because of the global financial aid challenges due to the war in Ukraine – Moscow may be able to offer regional influence and military incentives that help both generals to reconcile.

Reproaching Burhan and Hemeti would be the worst possible outcome of Lavrov’s visit. Both men want to stay in power, but they disagree on how.

Russia would seek to eliminate the western-backed pro-democracy civilians who made the catastrophic choice by bidding on their RSF alliance, thereby pushing Burhan away from Western influence, and re-establishing the SAF-RSF partnership.

This will contribute to SAF and RSF’s propensity to circumvent the agreement if they find other means of survival in power. Russian support could avail means for that.

Encouraging the multiplicity of decision-making centres within the coup was a misguided strategy employed by the FFC-CC in the quest to weaken the coup and regain power seats. It was a factor in creating this complicated situation.

Still, it is a risky tactic that increases the threat of civil war and further instability in the country and the region, considering the two factions’ regional connections from Yemen to Libya and to the Sahel.

The coup’s camp must be dealt with as a single entity in order to be defeated. The multiplicity of power centres will only feed each individual lust to monopolise power in Sudan.

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