The gateway to Africa Carnegie Moscow Center experts explain why Russia is setting up a naval base in Sudan
In recent years, the main indicator of Russia’s military presence in Africa has been the activities of mercenaries and political consultants associated with Kremlin-linked oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin. But now, for the first time since the Soviet era, Moscow is set to make its presence official. In the near future, Russia will have a new naval base in Sudan, on the shores of the Red Sea. That said, it’s too early to talk about large-scale Russian expansion, to put it mildly, argue Africa specialists Andrey Maslov and Polina Slyusarchuk in an article for the Carnegie Moscow Center. In their opinion, this is largely a phantom threat created by Western media — and one that’s only supported by extreme patriots inside Russia itself.
This is a translation of Andrey Maslov and Polina Slyusarchuk’s commentary, which Meduza first published in Russian with permission from Carnegie.ru.
The Russian fleet is returning to the shores of the Indian Ocean. In November, President Vladimir Putin accepted the government’s proposal to sign an agreement on establishing a logistics support base for the Russian Navy in Sudan. The next step is a bilateral agreement with Sudan, which the Russian Defense Ministry has been entrusted to conclude. Why did Russia need this “logistics point” and what does its appearance have to do with the “return to Africa”?
Why the Russians need the Red Sea
Russia has been interested in the Red Sea since the end of the nineteenth century, when in 1888 Nikolai Ashinov, the self-proclaimed “Ataman of the free Cossacks,” and his comrades went to seek adventure on the Abyssinian coast of the Indian Ocean and founded a colony there — New Moscow. Conservative publicist Mikhail Katkov supported the enterprise in Moskovskie Vedomosti, but writer Nikolai Leskov, on the other hand, criticized Ashinov for his insolence and scandalousness.
The Atman conducted negotiations with the ministries of defense and foreign affairs, but Tsar Alexander III and his ministers considered it inadvisable to aggravate relations with France and Great Britain by taunting them with the appearance of a Russian colony in Africa. As a result, Ashinov did not receive government support, only some financial aid. New Moscow — the first and probably the last Russian colony in Africa — lasted for a little more than a week, from January 28 to February 5, 1889, and was brutally defeated by the French fleet. The imperial government didn’t complain, calling Ashinov’s venture a private enterprise.
For Russia, the Red Sea, like Africa as a whole in those days, was primarily for stops along the sea route from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. This is still the case for the Russian Navy today. NATO expanding toward Russia’s borders, deploying missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, and assigning Russia the status of the main threat to NATO countries has all contributed to the appearance of a Russian base in Sudan. The reasons for this largely demonstrative decision on Moscow’s part should be sought in Europe, not in Africa or the Middle East.
For Europe and Asia, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal are a strategic artery through which basic trade flows. A whole system of military bases is located there — the United States, China, France, Japan, and Italy support contingents of several tens of thousands of people in Djibouti. These contingents are aimed not only and not so much at solving problems in the waters of the Indian Ocean, as at operations inside Africa.
The Russian base, where there can be no more than 300 people from the Navy and no more than four warships, is significantly inferior in scale and capabilities to the Djibouti bases of potential adversaries. Though in the future it could become a basis for expanding Russia’s presence in the region — the draft agreement provides for a revision of the allowable number of ships and military personnel.
Russia’s return to the Red Sea follows in the footsteps of the USSR. There were Soviet military bases in the Indian Ocean basin until 1991. In 1964, a logistics support base was built in Berbera, Somalia — it operated until 1997, when the USSR supported Ethiopia in the Ethio-Somali war. In response, the Somalian authorities demanded the withdrawal of the Russian base within three days.
In its place, a new base was organized on the Ethiopian island of Nokra in the southwestern part of the Red Sea. In 1991, Ethiopia lost access to the sea as a result of the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict and the Soviet base on Nokra was closed.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the need for bases disappeared for some time: Russia strove for a relationship of trust with NATO and was prepared to abandon its global presence. Moscow demonstratively closed similar, though larger-scale facilities, in Cuba and Vietnam.
But these concessions were not appreciated and now Russia is returning to the Global Ocean. It’s returning in order to overcome the pressure that’s being increasingly felt in Europe. Russia needs Africa and the Indian Ocean not for their own sake but in order to feel freer, to get out in the open, and acquire more opportunities for deterrence.
Rumors about the possible appearance of a Russian base in Africa were circulating back in 2019. In fact, they referred not to Sudan but to the Central African Republic (CAR). CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra himself, a fan of Russia, hinted at such a possibility during an interview on the sidelines of the Russia–Africa summit in Sochi.
The Russian side denied discussing such a question. Russia doesn’t need a base in the CAR: it wouldn’t add anything to Russia’s ability to defend itself, and it’s precisely the “defense” motive that’s key in the Sudanese agreement.
Calling the navy’s military facilities abroad “logistics points” (punkt materialno-tekhnicheskogo obespechenie) and not “bases” is also a Soviet tradition. Its symbolic meaning has a simple explanation: a base is a support for a power that came from the sea to control the surrounding land, an outpost for invasive, colonial actions. Russia, on the other hand, never needed new overseas territories, it didn’t need bases for takeovers from the sea, but rather sites for supporting the fleet on distant seas and oceans. And the fleet itself is for deterring Russia’s enemies, not for colonization.
The significance for Sudan
Talk about a Russian base in Sudan first came up in 2017, during Sudan’s then-president, and current prisoner, Omar al-Bashir’s visit to Russia. At a meeting with Putin, he asked him to protect the country from the aggressive actions of the United States and proposed discussing the question of Russia using “bases on the Red Sea.”
The Russian side didn’t support this initiative right away, but since then a lot has changed in Sudan: a coup took place, al-Bashir was overthrown, and the country’s course changed from pro-Qatar to pro-Emirates. Sudan abolished female circumcision and its apostasy law, and allowed the sale of alcohol to non-Muslims. The latter could be considered a concession to the Russians, but more importantly here is the fact that according to the draft agreement, Russian military personnel and their families will be prosecuted according to Russian law.
In all likelihood, consideration of the possibility of setting up a base began while al-Bashir was still in power, but it’s important that the agreement was accepted under the new government, which has received international support and generally looks to be much more stable. Russia is gradually moving away from betting on alliances with weak and sickly regimes, paying more attention to their international legitimacy and internal stability.
Russia wasn’t the only possible partner for Sudan in the construction of a strategic facility, but historically, the region’s governments are in favor of the presence of the Russian fleet. All of their experiences speak to the fact that Russia doesn’t want to or isn’t able to expand into the continent’s interior and requires ports for their intended purpose — as a naval bases.
For Russia, the conditions look attractive. Unlike military bases in Djibouti, where rent costs tens of thousands of dollars, Russia won’t be paying Sudan anything — at least not according to the official draft agreement. The benefit for the Sudanese will be that their companies received contracts and jobs (protecting the grounds), and the experience of working with the Russians could prove useful for other civil projects.
There are no other large-scale examples of economic cooperation between Russia and Sudan, nor are any expected. A couple of gold mining projects are in operation, but their turnover is such that the construction of a base for 300 people is likely to outflank them and take the place of the largest Russian enterprise in Sudan.
The regional context
There’s also a regional framework to the appearance of a Russian base in Sudan. In recent years, two stable military-political coalitions have been formed in the Middle East, whose rivalry largely determines investment flows in the region. In the first coalition, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Saudi Arabia play leading roles. This coalition is joined by Morocco, Sudan, and groups from Eastern Libya, Chad, Syria (in part), and a number of other countries and groups.
The opposite bloc is formed around Qatar and Turkey, where Turkey is the demographic and military-political pole, and Qatar is the financial one. They are joined by Tripoli (Western Libya’s regime), Tunisia (in part), as well as by groups from Northern Syria, Azerbaijan, and a number of other forces.
Both blocs are striving to maintain equal relations with China and the United States, as well as with Russia, though it’s increasingly regarded as a partner of the first bloc. Indeed, Moscow’s relations with the Emirati-Egyptian bloc are generally closer than with the Qatari-Turkish one.
Fewer and fewer countries remain neutral in this rivalry in the Middle East. Even non-Arab states are being drawn into it: Israel is establishing relations with the UAE-Egypt bloc, and Iran is gravitating towards supporting the initiatives of Turkey and Qatar, developing economic cooperation with them.
With the previous, sanctioned al-Bashir regime, Turkey discussed the construction of a base a little further south, in Suakin — a longstanding point of Ottoman interest. Qatar was also interested in gaining a foothold on the coast of the Red Sea. But in 2019 al-Bashir was overthrown and the new Sudanese government reoriented itself toward cooperation with Egypt and the UAE, and the Qatari and Turkish initiatives were scrapped. Interestingly, the United States is also included in the current Sudanese regime’s main foreign policy guidelines. The sanctions were lifted and to achieve this Sudanese diplomacy had to put in a lot of effort.
When a base is just a base
Russia’s main task was, and remains, the development of its own vast territory, the construction of a single and coherent country. And Russian expansion in Africa is largely a phantom made up by American, French, and British media, who interpret Moscow’s actions based on their own past and present realities. It’s their economic machines, locked within the borders of their own countries, that need or are in need of expansion, colonization, a strong presence on distant shores and across many seas.
From the Russian side this phantom is supported by ultra-patriotic publicists, Katkov’s heirs, who imagine that Russia should get involved in the competition of powers for the right to exploit Africa. They are already pathetically calling the Sudanese base the “gateway to Africa.” But there is no reality, no Putin’s plan for Africa, behind this rhetoric and these cliches.
For the Western perception — going back, most likely, to the British — the base is a link in a chain of expansion, from which penetration into the mainland’s interior begins. Now Turkey is inclined to look at bases, and possibly India. But Russia has the reverse sequence of justifications.
The Russian base on the Red Sea is just a base. Russia is opposing NATO and protecting its interests. The fleet, drawn into a global confrontation, needs support on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The stronger the external pressure, the more the Russian Navy will be in the Indian Ocean, the more “logistics points” will appear. Many countries south of Sudan will be happy to discuss proposals, and modern-day Ashinovs are already looking for suitable locations.
For other world powers, it’s worth moving away from the perception that the Russian base in Sudan is part of a zero-sum game and look at it as an instrument of deterrence, for example, against the Somali pirates who the Russian Navy are fighting rather successfully in the Indian Ocean. Or as a stabilizing factor for Sudan itself. And attempts to put pressure on the Sudanese regime to prevent the appearance of the base will only lead to the growth of counter efforts.
Read more commentary from Carnegie.ru
Translation by Eilish Hart