Russia Is Achieving Its Goals in the Middle East and Africa:
Russia will build a modern seaport at Port Sudan, and enhance its military presence in the Red and Mediterranean Seas
By Ksenia Svetlova | December 17, 2020
A Russian port in Sudan: "Russia is connecting to the global ocean"
After three years of discussions and planning, during which the regime in Khartoum was replaced, the Russian seaport in Sudan is finally underway. The new agreement signed between Moscow and Khartoum is a distinct manifestation of Russia's successful policy in the Middle East as the Trump era draws to a close. The plan was not incepted yesterday, this topic was already discussed with Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president deposed during the 2019 coup d'état. However, the current regime's decision to advance this idea attests to Russia's ability not only to reach understandings with Khartoum, but with its sponsors in the Arab world as well, primarily the UAE, and possibly the United States too.
Why does Russia need a port in Sudan?
The Russian port at Port Sudan will be the first military Russian base in Africa, providing a convenient place for Russian battleships to dock, refuel, and make any necessary repairs. It is also an important strategic junction that would allow Russia to have tremendous impact on the goings-on in both Africa and the Middle East. This port joins Tartus, the Syrian port in which Russia will be investing half a billion Dollars to turn it into a modern base and significant anchor for the Russian navy in the Middle East. An important commercial maritime route will pass from the Russian port in the Red Sea to the Arab Sea and Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, where Russia is currently establishing an industrial and free trade zones.
At the same time, Russia is not neglecting its attempts to set up additional ports and bases in Africa. It is currently holding talks with several other countries such as Egypt and Eritrea in an attempt to expand its geopolitical clout. Such anchors will allow Moscow to achieve its goals in areas it views as crucial – the Middle East and Africa.
Russia has always dreamed of setting up "warm water" ports, and is now making these dreams come true on two continents and important crossroads – the Mediterranean and Red Sea.
One can also safely assume that, in addition to battleships, among them nuclear ones, the new Russian port will be home to some electronic intelligence as well as air defense systems.
The seaport in Sudan is also the gateway to Africa – important commercial routes will pass through it, and it will also allow Russia to take action more easily in other African countries' territories, such as the Central African Republic, where Russian mercenaries have been reportedly active for several years now. Furthermore, this is a significant marking of territory, and, in view of the increasing struggle between the various superpowers over their influence in Africa, this goes down as a major accomplishment for Moscow.
In which geopolitical climate is the agreement between Moscow and Khartoum being signed?
The Sudanese government was first contacted by Moscow about the Port Sudan port 3 or 4 years ago. The then president, Omar al-Bashir, a war criminal convicted by the court in the Hague, was invited to Moscow for an official visit. Shortly after that visit, the media in Russia and the West reported that the parties had reached an understanding about the establishment of the first Russian port in Sudan, and a host of other agreements pertaining to mineral mining in Sudanese territory.
However, those plans were never executed. A popular protest broke out in 2018, and gradually gained momentum. In 2019, Omar al-Bashir was ousted by the very military officials who, up until then, were his closest partners and associates. The western media published fascinating details about Russia's involvement in the attempt to suppress the protests and coup. However, even if al-Bashir was more convenient for the Kremlin, Russia immediately acknowledged the new Sudanese government, perhaps because it was not all that different. The interim military council members that took over from al-Bashir and rose to power had been part of the former regime, and many were familiar with their Russian counterparts. The relations between the new Sudanese government and Russia developed at the same time as the close relations between Khartoum and Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The latter seems to have played a key role in shaping the new regime in Sudan, and in its pro-western political tendency. It is hard to believe that any decision, particularly a resolution as meaningful as allowing Russia to set up a military naval base in the territory of a country this dependent upon Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, would not have obtained the "green light" from those capitals first. Assuming that the U.S. has the ultimate power to remove Sudan from the list of sanctions imposed on countries that support terror, would Khartoum have dared to take such a step without receiving Washington's silent consent?
What is Russia planning in Africa?
In recent years, Russia has become the number one arms exporter to Africa, leaving behind the other countries that traditionally supplied weapons to African states, namely France and the United States. Although this arms market is prestigious and desirable, Moscow is not only interested in providing weapons to the poorest countries in the world, it is also seeking to increase its economic activity in areas such as mineral mining, and broaden its influence in Africa. The Russia-Africa Summit hosted by Russia last year led to the signing of several arms, nuclear energy, and food transactions. Most of the agreements have yet to be performed, however, the level of Russian involvement in Africa only increased during 2020 (as demonstrated, inter alia, by the number of senior Russian officials' visits to African countries).
In the past, Russia tried to reach understandings with Djibouti about the establishment of a seaport there, but its efforts were in vain, inter alia due to U.S. determination to keep that particular strategic point overlooking the Indian Ocean for itself. In Sudan talks had been more successful for a variety of local and geopolitical reasons. Much like its older sister, Egypt, Sudan maintains close ties with the United States, while also trying its luck with others as it pursues the greatest possible advantage from its relations with potential superpowers. Thus, Russia tried to help former president Omar al-Bashir remain in power, but having failed to do so – made a pact with the old-new regime currently in office in Khartoum. It is important to remember that the current state of affairs in Sudan is extremely sensitive – an interim government that does not meet the need for democratization shared by many Sudanese who wish to put their difficult past behind them. In the future, this government will need help from anyone who offers it. From now on, it will be Russia's top interest to protect its assets in Sudan, as well as the stability of the regime that allowed it to have them.
It seems that the Russian policy designed to position Russia above regional players – a superpower capable of mediating between adversaries while providing them with the weapons and power they need for their local wars – has been tremendously successful this time. Russia's accomplishment is joined by its efforts to help Armenia and Azerbaijan reach a ceasefire at Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as its successful maneuvering of Turkey in Syria, Caucasia, and Libya, where Russia is advancing its goals without creating an actual crisis with Ankara. President Trump used to cooperate with this policy (as much as possible considering he was accused of collaborating with Russia during his elections campaign). The question is: Will Russia manage to promote its policy during Biden's term in office, despite the president-elect's acute awareness of Russian strategy, and his apparent determination to thwart Moscow's efforts to increase its influence in the Middle East, Africa, and other areas around the world.
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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