On 16 November, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin gave the go-ahead for signing an agreement with Sudan for the construction of the first Russian military base on the African continent. Officially, the project is presented as a simple supply and maintenance base for Russian warships.
However, the agreement is of high strategic importance for Moscow, which is realizing its ambitions of rapprochement with the African continent and military projection in the Red Sea and beyond, towards the Indian Ocean.
OUR FULL SERIES Red Sea Dynamics
The naval base is expected to be built on the Sudanese coast a short distance north of Port Sudan, the country’s main commercial port. The facilities could accommodate up to four warships simultaneously, including nuclear-powered vessels, and a garrison of up to 300 military and civilian personnel, not including the guards who will provide security for the site.
All Russian personnel, whose numbers may be increased, will enjoy diplomatic immunity. According to the draft agreement, Sudan will grant the land to Russia for 25 years, renewable for 10 years, without any financial compensation.
Russia will be granted the right to import arms and military equipment necessary for the operation of its base via Sudanese airports and ports, without the local authorities being able to control the cargo.
In exchange, Moscow will grant “free assistance” to the Sudanese navy for search and rescue or “anti-sabotage” missions. Sudan will also be able to benefit from the protection of Russian defense systems installed on the site.
A strategic asset for Russia
Russia has been trying for several years to put a military foothold on the coasts of the Horn of Africa. After Djibouti rejected its request, the Kremlin turned to Sudan to reaffirm its presence in the region (lost since the closure in 1977 of the Soviet base in Somalia).
Located across the Gulf of Aden, Sudan enjoys a strategic position in the heart of an important maritime crossroads where nearly 10% of the world’s goods transit.
“The time has come to restore our naval presence,” Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, former commander of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, told the Interfax news agency, adding that this agreement would “extend the capabilities of our navy”.
The Red Sea base project would indeed represent a regional extension of the first Russian base abroad located in Tartous, Syria. Moscow is investing nearly $46m annually to expand its facilities there.
A naval base in Sudan would also allow Russia to realise its ambitions on the African continent. A strategy confirmed in 2019 in Sochi at a summit that brought together more than 40 African leaders. Russia, currently the largest supplier of arms to Africa, has multiplied agreements of military cooperation or mining there.
While the strategic benefits for Moscow are obvious, it’s more difficult to pinpoint the benefits Khartoum hopes to squeeze from this agreement. The project is the result of a rapprochement that began under the regime of deposed dictator Omar al-Bashir. The Sudanese President had asked for Russia’s protection “against aggressive acts of the United States” during a visit to Sochi in November 2017 at the invitation of Vladimir Putin.
“Targeted by US economic sanctions and two arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court, Omar al-Bashir had established an erratic diplomacy, leaning initially towards Iran, then flirting with Saudi Arabia before finally turning to Russia,” says Kholood Khair, analyst at the political think-tank Insight Strategy Partners based in Khartoum.
Contrary to the Chinese partners, the Russians could provide al-Bashir with military and not only economic support,
The two presidents then signed several military cooperation and arms delivery contracts. Sudan became the first Arab League nation to equip itself with Russian Su-35 fighter jets. Russia pledged to continue training Sudanese troops and the two countries agreed to facilitate access to their respective ports.
“At that time, the subject of a naval base on the Sudanese coast was raised, but Russia was not extremely enthusiastic,” says Al-Sawarmi Khalid Saad, former spokesman of the Sudanese army, now an independent expert on military issues.
After a second visit to Moscow in July 2018, al-Bashir was the first Arab League leader to visit Damascus. “In Syria, he noted that Russia is protecting its ally Bashar al-Assad in its own defence. Russia appeared to him as a reliable and solid ally. Contrary to the Chinese partners, the Russians could provide him with military and not only economic support,” adds Khair.
A few days later, in December 2018, the Sudanese street rises. After several months of protest, Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in April 2019. But his fall did not lead to a break in ties with Moscow. On the contrary.
“In one night, the regime’s ideological allies, Turkey and Qatar, lost their foothold in Sudan. But Russia remained and maintained its influence, notably through the private military company Wagner, on which Bashir had relied on to repress the demonstrations,” says Khair.
When General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, at the head of the Sovereignty Council, takes over the reins of the transition, he intends to maintain the partnership with Russia.
In May 2019, one month after the removal of al-Bashir, Moscow and Khartoum signed two new military agreements, one aimed at sharing experiences on UN peacekeeping operations, the other to strengthen cooperation in the naval field.
Then in November 2020, the Russian presidency gave the green light for the construction of a naval base in Port Sudan. “This time it was the Russians who put the subject back on the table, showing much more interest. They also caught the Sudanese authorities by surprise at a time when the civilian government is beginning a rapprochement with the United States,” says Saad.
Russian sense of timing
The decree signed by the Kremlin comes just weeks after the US administration announced its intention to remove Sudan from the list of states supporting terrorism. For the time being, this withdrawal is still not effective and Sudan’s immunity from prosecution by victims of terrorism has still not been restored by the US Congress.
The risk of economic sanctions therefore continues to weigh on companies wishing to invest in Sudan. Washington has put pressure on Khartoum by making the lifting of sanctions conditional on the normalisation of relations with Israel.
“This is a clever manoeuvre on the part of the Russians. They have a sense of timing,” says Khair. “It had to be done now before American pressure was too great in Sudan.” If the Sudanese government ends up signing this agreement, it is out of pragmatism because Russia is not demanding any conditions, unlike the United States, which has “offered nothing concrete to the Sudanese”, adds Khair.
In Khartoum, the Sudanese authorities have for the moment remained discreet about the signing of the agreement. Uncertainty reigns over the strategy to be adopted at a time when cooperation with the United States and the reintegration of the country into the international arena seem to be crucial to get Sudan out of the major economic crisis in which it is sinking.
According to Saad, “Khartoum can still back-pedal if the US makes concessions and accelerates the lifting of sanctions. But the government will not do so at all costs. The U.S. will have to move from words to deeds.”
For the time being, the precise date of the final signature of this agreement with Russia has not been announced and Washington has not yet reacted to the announcement of this project. “If this agreement is concluded with Russia, it is a new sign of the failure of the American strategy and the Trump method in Sudan”, says Khair.
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