Sudan, Russia’s new gateway to Africa and the Indian Ocean

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Russia, which wants to play a leading role in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, is looking to provide itself with a long-term base for its forces deployed in both Africa and the Indian Ocean. This new base would allow it to compete with those other maritime powers, whether regional or global, that are already present in this area of high tension. It fits in perfectly with Russia’s new ambitions vis à vis its southern arc, as already evidenced in the Mediterranean since 2015, in order to compete as much with western superiority as with Chinese desires. Seen from the Sudanese side, it could be a manoeuvre aimed at restarting a dialogue with the new US administration. 

40 % of the world’s shipping passes through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea, including 4 million barrels of oil a day[1]. This maritime corridor, where there were already acts of piracy in the 2010s, is now the scene of continuous incidents linked to the conflict in Yemen. In November and December 2020, several merchant ships moored near Saudi ports in the Red Sea were the victims of suspicious explosions[2]. In January 2018 the political leader of the Houthis threatened to cut maritime traffic in the Red Sea in order to force the Arab Coalition to lift its blockade of Yemeni ports. Already under tension, this region is now seeing more and more significant local and international naval involvement. The countries of the Arab Coalition are present (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates), while the Asiatic powers of China and Japan patrol there regularly and several countries, such as the United States and France, have bases there while others (like Turkey and Ethiopia) are trying to establish them. This region is therefore the arena for a renewed and complex interplay of regional and international powers. Within this context Russia, which also wants to play a leading role in the region, announced in November 2020 its intention to open a naval base in Sudan in order to provide itself a new base for its armed forces in both Africa and the Indian Ocean.  

There is no doubt that the Mediterranean played a role as an important incubator in this quest for the projection of Russian naval power into the Middle East and the Indian Ocean, consequently making this Russian bound towards the warmer seas of the Indian Ocean easier. In fact the eastern Mediterranean presented the Russian navy the chance, particularly with regard to the United States, to display its operational abilities and has allowed it to station itself in the Mediterranean on a permanent basis, from Libya to Syria via Egypt. This Russian plan to install itself in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, although it may go back a long way, now represents yet another disruption[3] for the region and reflects Moscow’s geopolitical interests in Africa and the Middle East.

What were the conditions that led to a Russian project of this kind in the Red Sea? What are Moscow’s ambitions for this part of the world? Is it conceivable that the local powers will exploit these Russian intentions? 

The Mediterranean, incubator of the projection of Russian naval power into the Middle East 

The prolonged crisis in Syria and Russia’s vital support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, led Moscow to conduct a ground and aerial intervention in the country in 2015. This has been accompanied by an increasingly significant naval presence. Originally planned to escort the Russian seaborne logistics bridge to Syria[4], the projection of Russian power has gradually grown to become a permanent fixture in the landscape of the eastern Mediterranean. This theatre has given the Russian navy the chance to display its operational and technical capabilities. Syria has become a veritable testing ground for Russian abilities to strike land targets from naval platforms (notably through the use of Kalibr missiles)[5]. The deployment of the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov to the coast of Syria at the end of 2016 was an additional sign. Beyond that, Russia has managed to set in place a strategy of area denial – as in the Black Sea – which has manifested itself through the quasi-permanent presence of a Russian naval task force off the Syrian coast, the deployment of a Bastion-P coastal defence system in Syria (range: 350 km), but also a capacity to strike ground targets up to 450 km away, accompanied by the renovation of advanced Syrian detection systems. Since the Russian Duma’s ratification on 21 December 2017 of a governmental agreement between Damascus and Moscow, Russian warships now have a 49 year access to the port of Tartus. The port will be modernised to accommodate up to 11 Russian warships, including aircraft carriers and nuclear propelled vessels. Russia has finally managed to close off, sometimes for several days, air and sea zones off the coast of Syria on the pretext of naval exercises, deterring other countries from free and unconditional access to these air/sea zones bordering Syria[6].

At first restricted to the Syrian coast up to 2018, this naval force has gradually moved away from its original coastline to extend progressively along the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. Naval exercises are more regular, and can also be very large, such as the one held in September 2018 that involved 25 warships simultaneously. In October 2020 the Russian navy began to escort Iranian oil tankers heading to Syria as soon as they entered the Mediterranean after leaving the Suez Canal[7], thus signalling to the US its preparedness to prevent any western action[8] against the oil traffic between Iran and Syria particularly in what has now become a priority zone for the Russian navy.  

This force projection has consequently allowed Moscow to increase its influence on several countries in the region. Russia first of all prioritised a return to Libya through its support of Field Marshal Haftar’s[9] LNA (Libyan National Army). One of Moscow’s objectives seems to have been the creation, unsuccessful so far, of a new naval base in Libya, no doubt in Tobruk, in order to then develop a strategy of access denial adapting the model developed in Syria to local conditions. Moscow has also increased its naval pressure on Turkey, a logical consequence of the frictions already observed whether in Syria, Lebanon or in the Caucasus. Thus, in September 2020 Russian navy ran two naval exercises to the south-west of Cyprus, in areas frequently used by Turkish naval forces to escort their research ships. In the same manner Moscow has made approaches to Egypt, another of Ankara’s regional rivals, organising a joint exercise between the Russian and Egyptian navies[10],  in the Black Sea in November 2020, and by doing so illustrating the reality of Russo-Turkish frictions. 

A base in the Red Sea: an old Russian project

On 11 November 2020, the Russian government submitted to President Vladimir Putin a proposal for a bilateral agreement with Khartoum aiming to establish a naval base in Sudan. On 17 November the Russian president approved the agreement, opening the way for the establishment of a logistics base for Russian naval forces on the shores of the Red Sea. This agreement provides for the creation of a logistics base and naval repair facilities[11] able to house 300 personnel and accommodate a maximum of 4 warships, including nuclear propelled vessels. The Sudanese government seems to have agreed to supply the necessary port infrastructure for 25 years (and renewable for a further 10 years) free of charge in Port Sudan. The agreement would also allow Russia to import and export through Sudanese ports and airports the arms, munitions and equipment necessary for the functioning of the base and the supply of the warships berthed there. If the security of this base is to be provided by Sudanese forces on land, it is Russia that will ensure it for the maritime approaches and for air defence. In addition, the agreement would allow for Russian military support for Sudanese forces in rescue at sea, sub-sea engineering and air defence of this zone. For this to happen a dedicated protocol is supposed to allow for Russian provision of arms, men and equipment to help the Sudanese armed forces[12]. The Kremlin ought therefore to have everything it requires to establish an A2/AD bubble in the Red Sea that would enable it now and again to cut – or to monitor for the rest of the time – all western shipping and communications (sub-sea cables) along this strategic maritime corridor.  

However, the project of a base in the Red Sea is an old one, and Russia has been seeking a return to the Indian Ocean for a long time.  There was a Soviet military base in Berbera (Somalia) between 1964 and 1977, and in 1978, a Russian naval base was created in the Dahlak Archipelago (on Nokra Island), then belonging Ethiopia, that remained operational until 1990. The USSR also had facilities in Yemen, Aden and Socotra, bases that served at the time to support the Soviet 8th Squadron deployed in the Indian Ocean. Over the last few years the Russians have been trying to install a base in Djibouti, then in Somalia, but these efforts have ended in failure as much through the fickleness of the local governments[13] as through the pressure no doubt applied by the United States on the countries concerned. Now, Sudan was already a country with which Russia had important ties and where the support of the private security company Wagner had already come to the help of President al-Bashir in the spring of 2019. 

Negotiations around the creation of this base are assumed to have started in November 2017 during a visit to Moscow by the Sudanese president. If the project has suffered delays through the deposition of al-Bashir, it has not, however, been buried. Russo-Sudanese cooperation has even accelerated with the creation of a Russian military mission in the heart of the Sudanese Ministry of Defence, along with the signing of several technical-military agreements[14]  Thus, as with the delivery of Mig-29 warplanes to Sudan in 2008, via Belarus, Russia has supplied Sudan with various kinds of arms and munitions types through third countries, in exchange for which Khartoum committed to deploying Janjaweed militia in Libya alongside Field Marshal Haftar’s troops[15].

The symbol of a Russian desire to project power into the Indian Ocean and Africa 

According to some Russian commentators the opening of this base signifies “Russia’s return to the world’s oceans”, “avoiding long transit voyages for the ships of the North and Baltic Fleets”[16].  In fact, Russian presence along one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world allows Russia to promote itself as a naval world power, on the same level as the other naval powers that already have access to the region[17]. This setting up of a base in Sudan is a signal in particular to Turkey, which under al-Bashir’s regime multiplied its attempts to establish bases in the region. At the end of 2017 the Sudanese authorities did in the end cede the management of the Island of Suakin to Turkey[18] for 99 years in exchange for promises of investment and military cooperation, which gave rise to great concern in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The change of regime in Sudan in 2019 and Khartoum’s rapprochement with Egypt and the UAE has made these Turkish projects much more difficult[19], and has in consequence made these Russian announcements all the more painful for Ankara.

Once operational, the Russian base in Port Sudan will serve to support Russian naval ships deployed in the Indian Ocean, and also not excluding support for private Russian security services that could see a new field of operations opening up in the Red Sea combatting the piracy that is still present in the region. The Russian presence would also allow Moscow’s oil interests in the region to be defended[20] and allow it to keep a closer eye on the conflict in Yemen that opposes Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moscow could also try to assert itself, in the long run, as a mediator in the conflict and develop its presence in this country which is a veritable observation window on the Bab el Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden. Such a base would also allow Russian warships to escort Iranian oil tankers around the Arabian Peninsula as it has done since last October in the Mediterranean, further reinforcing Moscow’s regional role[21]. Finally, to complement the port infrastructure, the Russian press has spoken of the installation of intelligence capabilities, potentially jamming and electronic warfare systems, not to mention the anti-aircraft defence systems already talked about. This allows us to predict the possible creation of a Russian access denial bubble in the Red Sea which would be problematic for the frequent transits of western warships in the region.  

The Russian facility in Sudan also constitutes a gateway in for its influence in Africa, with Port Sudan serving as a shopwindow for Russo-African military cooperation.  In this way, and providing Russia offers its help to Sudan in creating coastal defence assets, it can’t be excluded that this model would be emulated in the region. Russian naval shipyards are capable of offering fast patrol boats and launches to regional customers at lower prices than their western competitors, thus securing a very real clientele on the shores of East Africa. 

This new naval base is above all another sign of Russia’s renewed interest in Africa. Moscow has in fact multiplied its investments in East Africa (Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Sudan, in particular through the groups Rosneft and Rosatom) and organised its first Africa-dedicated summit in October 2020. Russia also represents almost half of the total arms exports to Africa[22], in particular to Egypt and Sudan. The increase in Russian intervention in the Central African Republican since autumn 2020[23], supporting the government in place through the private military contractors of Wagner, is also testament to Russian ambitions in the region[24]. In fact, Russia sees in Africa a key partner in its vision of a multipolar world order, less western, centred around the local regional powers and with which it could challenge growing Chinese influence. The creation of this Russian base in Sudan, more than 5 years after the one in Tartus in the Mediterranean, therefore constitutes a new stage in Russian ambitions, prior to a future presence of the Russian navy in other zones nearer to the Arabian Gulf (possibly Iran or Pakistan) or the Mozambique Channel, two exceptionally strategically important international routes for the world’s shipping. 

A message from local governments for the United States to reengage?  

Setting up a Russian naval base like this in Sudan ought nonetheless to prove more difficult than in Syria. Given the distance from Russia, the delivery of the necessary materials (anti-aircraft defence systems, infrastructure) will be long and complicated, certainly requiring the use of the bases in Tartus and Khmeimim (in Syria) as intermediate logistics hubs. Beyond that the state of the on-site infrastructure, in particular the electricity network, make the construction of a modern naval base problematic, especially when it comes to berthing nuclear powered warships. In point of fact, the opening of such a base will not see the light of day before long months, or indeed years, have passed which leaves a question of doubt about the real feasibility of this enterprise. A playing off of Russo-Turkish and Russo-American competition by local powers and above all Khartoum is therefore perfectly conceivable. Indeed, the political game of the Sudanese which for a time favoured the Turks’ offers now prefers Moscow’s. Sudan may have chosen the Russian option in order to allow for, in the first place, a convenient eviction of Turkey, conforming to the wishes of the Saudis and the UAE, and secondly to foster its rapprochement with the United States (by playing on America’s perception of a new Russian threat in the Middle East). Sudan recently normalised relations with Israel, in line with the Trump administration’s wishes, and for doing this it has been removed from the US’s list of states supporting terrorism, thus opening the country to western investment. The plan to create a Russian naval base on the Red Sea, a vital corridor for US naval forces, cannot have gone unnoticed and was therefore perhaps also aimed at provoking a strong reaction from Washington, or indeed a renewed commitment by the United States to security in the Red Sea.  

If the construction of a Russian naval base in Port Sudan is a long-term project, it is however probable that the Russian navy will take advantage of the dynamism of Moscow and Khartoum’s political rapprochement to increase the frequency of its deployments in the Indian Ocean, whether along the coast of East Africa, or close to the Arabian Gulf as the last Russo-Sino-Iranian exercise in the Arabian Sea showed.  The regular or indeed permanent (in the longer term) presence of the Russian navy in the Indian Ocean will complicate still further the plans of the western navies already concerned by a persistent Chinese presence.  The new era of serious competition between the great powers in the Indian Ocean seems to have well and truly started and the new US administration will have to take account of that in its future strategic choices. 

[1] Les Echos, 17 November 2020.

[2] Tanker Agrari, 25 November 2020 near the Saudi port of Al Shuqaiq; tanker BW Rhine, 13 December 2020 at Jeddah.

[3] As with the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015.

[4] Logistical resupply of its own troops and Syrian forces using maritime transport (“Syrian Express”), using both warships and hired merchant shipping.

[5] Frigates, corvettes and submarines (especially those based in the Black Sea and deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean) carried out the first operational tests of these missiles in 2016, and then more regularly since 2017 in support of ground operations. New missile launches were carried out in November 2020.

[6] Some of these reserved zones have even extended as far as the north of Israel for the largest exercises, such as the one in September 2018.

[7] USNI 21/10/2020. This type of escort arrangement occurred again in December 2020.

[8] In 2019 an Iranian tanker suspected of trafficking Iranian oil to Syria was seized and then impounded for a while in Gibraltar. The affaire prompted Iranian reprisals in the Arabian Gulf. In July 2020 the US administration also seized 4 tankers loaded with Iranian oil, this time sailing towards Venezuela.

[9] FM Haftar was welcomed on board the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov off the coast of Libya in January large 2017.

[10] Previous exercises of this kind, called “Friendship Bridge”, have normally taken place off the coast of Egypt.

[11] Or “technical and equipment support facility”, the standard nomenclature used for Russian naval bases abroad. 

[12] A Petrushka class patrol vessel was sold to Sudan by Russia in October 2020 (Defense web, 12 November 2020).

[13] Between 2012 and 2014, negotiations were held between Moscow and Djibouti on the subject, but the local government only consented to a fraction of what the Russians were wanting, and at a prohibitive cost (1 billion dollars, 5 times more than the base in Port Sudan ought to have cost).

[14] Al-Monitor, 17 November 2020. An agreement on Russo-Sudanese cooperation was signed in May 2019.

[15] Ibidem.

[16] Dmitry Litovkin for TASS taken up by Defense News, 13 November 2020.

[17] As is the case for France, the United States, China and Japan in Djibouti; and in Assab, Berbera Périm and Socotra for the United Arab Emirates.

[18] By the beginning of the 20th century the island was already an outpost for the Ottoman Empire. 

[19] The Turkish Foreign Ministry has announced that negotiations are continuing with the government about this maritime project concerned with “essentially tourist plans” – Al-Monitor, 19 November 2020.

[20] The Sudanese Ministry of Energy did sign contracts in 2018 with Russian companies for the modernisation of a refinery in Port Sudan – Al Monitor, 17 November 2020.

[21] The Russian navy has also taken part in exercise Maritime Safety Belt with Iranian naval forces in the Gulf of Oman in mid-February 2021. A similar naval exercise had already been carried out off the Iranian port of Chah-Bahar in December 2019, with the presence of Chinese warships already.

[22] Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) quoted by Deutsche Welle, 30 June 2020.

[23] The first Russian mercenaries appeared in the country in 2018.

[24] “To assist Bangui in strengthening the capabilities of the Central African Republic, Russia responded swiftly to the CAR government’s request and sent an extra 300 instructors to train the national army” as announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry; in Opex360, 23 December 2020.

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