Understanding the Connection Between Russia, Sudan and the Red Sea

Published on 14th February 2023

Noticeably, Russians are extremely slow in undertaking various development projects across Africa and this policy approach documented in the "Situation Analytical Report: Russia and Africa" was publicly presented in November 2021. Russia has, long ago, developed deep interest in building a naval base and related military facility in the Republic of Sudan due to its geo-strategic location - in the Mediterranean Sea. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's meeting with Sudanese officials during his February vivit to the Northeast African country was not, apparently the first when first time this question on establishing the naval base in Sudan.

Western countries are concerned about Russia's widening sway in Africa's Sahel and its border regions. Sudan's ruling military council has previously considered allowing Russia to open a naval base on the Red Sea coast, a strategic region where Gulf countries and Turkey also vie for influence. Lavrov acknowledged the existence of Russian mining companies operating in Sudan and said that agreement had been reached previously on a naval base but was awaiting Sudanese legislation to implement it. Such a deal had been reached under Omar al-Bashir, who was toppled in a 2019 uprising.

Before his overthrow, Omar al-Bashir made one more trip to Moscow in November 2017. During this official working visit, agreements were reached on Russia's assistance in modernizing the Sudanese armed forces. Khartoum also said at the time that it was interested in discussing the issue of using Red Sea bases with Moscow. That proposal drove Moscow into signing a document, after several discussions and negotiations, the possibility of constructing a naval base in the region, along the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean. 

The Mediterranean Sea is a junction of three continents and bordered by a great diversity of countries and cultures. Further tracking down from the Maghreb coastline to Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, there are many competing interests within EU countries, notably between France and Germany, and in the Arab world. Nevertheless, Russia presents itself the right reliable strategic partner for building a foreign naval base, and control that sea route.

According to the executive order, the published document says "an agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Sudan on creating a facility of the Navy of the Russian Federation in the territory of the Republic of Sudan be adopted" and further authorizes "the Defense Ministry of Russia to sign the aforementioned agreement on behalf of the Russian Federation." 

The document stipulates that a maximum of four warships may stay at the naval logistics base, including "naval ships with the nuclear propulsion system on condition of observing nuclear and environmental safety norms." 

According the Kremlin website, that document submitted by Russia's Defense Ministry, approved by the Foreign Ministry, the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General's Office, the Investigative Committee of Russia and the Russian Cabinet. As the document says, the Russian Navy’s logistics facility in Sudan "meets the goals of maintaining peace and stability in the region, is defensive and is not aimed against other countries." 

Foreign Minister of Sudan Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi following talks in Moscow together with Lavrov, agreed to the ratification of the document by both the State Duma of the Russian Federation and Parliament of Sudan. Thereafter on July 1, President of Russia Vladimir Putin submitted an agreement on building a Russian naval station in Sudan for ratification by the State Duma. Earlier, Sudan announced its decision to revise the 25-year agreement that was first brokered by its ousted leader Omar al-Bashir during a meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2017 to establish a Russian naval base in Port Sudan, on Sudan's Red Sea coast. 

After the 2017 meeting, the project did not take up immediately though. But it signified that Russia would make one huge stride by establishing a naval facility in Sudan. It was expected to distinctively mark its maritime security presence in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea region. Sharing a northern border with Egypt, Sudan is located on the same strategic coastline along the Red Sea. Experts interviewed told me that Russia needs both Sudan (Northeast Africa) and Egypt (conduit to Maghreb) to have unshakable influence in the region. 

During the first Russia-Africa summit held in Sochi 2019, President Vladimir Putin held business discussions with Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan. Putin where both noted that "Sudan is certainly one of our long-standing reliable partners" - referring to those previous years of Omar Al-Bashir. 

With the internal political processes are taking place there, Putin said "the signing of the constitutional declaration, the formation of the Sovereignty Council and the establishment of a transitional government to be the first steps aimed at getting the country on the path of sustainable development. Many tasks still lie ahead. We intend to continue rendering all necessary aid and support for the normalization of the situation." 

Abdel Fattah Burhan replied: "Our relations have a long history: 60 years ago they began to develop, and you have always supported Sudan, always stood by Sudan, and we always know that Russia stands together with countries that fight for their rights, for justice. We would like to tell you that the changes in Sudan are positive. They are happening in a successful and positive way. Today armed forces and coalition forces play an important role in these events, and they want to build the future of Sudan." 

He added: "As you have already mentioned in your speech, our relations are developing, and these bilateral relations are based on several agreements. We hope that we will sign new documents and cooperation agreements, and you will help us, in particular, to build up our armed forces," the Sudanese leader said, and concluded "We have much common ground, such as, investment cooperation. We also cooperate at international forums, and share common positions on many international problems."

Now the key necessary condition for implementing the military naval base, as shown in official discussions and reported on the ministry's website, is a transition from military to civilian power in Sudan. Russia has to wait for Sudan's legislative approval for a planned naval base on the Red Sea. The agreement already signed needs ratification. And the ratification will be made only after the formation of a civilian government and a legislative body. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also said this at his joint media conference "the deal still needs ratification by Sudan's yet-to-be-formed legislative body" - an indication that there has to be a well-constituted civil body. Sudan has been without a parliament since a popular uprising forced the military overthrow of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. The country has been mired in political chaos since an October 2021 military coup derailed its short-lived transition to democracy.

In February last year, Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, held talks with senior Russian officials in Moscow. Upon his return from the week-long trip, Dagalo said his country didn't have objections to Russia or any other country establishing a base on its territory as it poses no threat to Sudan’s national security.

"As a first step if any country wants to open a base and it is in our interests and doesn't threaten our national security, we have no problem in dealing with anyone, Russian or otherwise," Gen. Mohammed Dagalo explained that year in Khartoum.

Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan Abdel Fattah Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has suspended a number of provisions of the constitutional declaration, which sets the frames of the interim period after toppling of President Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled the country for 30 years, and determines relations between the military and civilian authorities, but sternly promised that next political elections planned for July 2023. 

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, however, sets the primary task to resolve the stalemate between political forces and the army, reshape the declaration towards the transition to the civilian government and political elections. It remains if the interim military administration would ever deliver on its promise to the people and the world.

The African Union (the continental organization) and the Maghreb and East African Community (EAC) have been highly concern that Sudan returns to civilian democratic-elected government. This position has largely been unacceptable for Sudan's military government and even Russian authorities. Russians interpret any talks over democracy as "direct interference" into internal affairs of the African country.

Throughout all his speeches during his visit to Sudan, Lavrov repeatedly said Russia favors "non-interference" in Sudan's internal affairs and accused the United States and Europe of adopting colonial approach and methods in Africa. In addition, Russian Special Presidential Envoy for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov and Ministry's Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, unreservedly considered as "unacceptable" the foreign intervention in Sudan's and Africa's internal affairs, consistently demonizing principles of modern democracy. 

Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina Mohammed has reiterated that African leaders have to address sustainable development as one of the steps towards conflict resolution. In this contemporary period, Sudan, like many African countries, badly needs development especially building its infrastructure, modernizing agriculture (large-scale food-production) and adding value to products (industrialization), strengthening its health institutions, improving education and engaging in employment creation sectors. Thus, potential external investors have to logically realize these for Sudan.

In addition, rhetoric is not only ineffective in terms of conflict resolution but also may, in fact, be aggravating tensions and violence. Instead, African leaders require comprehensive development-oriented policies combined with good governance, these are the best solution, at least, to minimizing social conflicts and economic disparities, ultimately ensure that long-term peace and harmony on the continent.

 Amina Mohammed  deployed African leaders ad hoc approach to the continent's development issues, most often relegated to the background. She explicitly pointed to a military coup d’état in Sudan, to continuing conflict in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and persistent threats of terrorism and violent extremism. In her observation, there has been "a rise in seizures of power by force” and "a proliferation of militias" across Africa. 

Amina Mohammed said that despite these "worrisome developments" happening there in Africa, Africans have continue working relentlessly for a prosperous, sustainable and peaceful continent, based on the universal principles of human rights, as witnessed through growing cooperation between the United Nations, African Union and sub-regional organizations on sustainable development, elections and peace processes.  

The Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, has expressed deep dismay of the current situation in Sudan. Faki Mahamat has called for the immediate resumption of consultations between civilians and military within the framework of the political declaration and the constitutional decree. He, however, reaffirms that dialogue and consensus be the only important path to save the country and its democratic transition, and further called for the necessary strict respect of human rights. But in the end, Sudan was suspended from the African Union. 

As always trumpeted, the global perception is that Africa remains as one of the world's least developed regions, infested with all kinds of conflicts and deep-seated poverty despite its enormous resources. In conclusion, and particularly for this argument, conflict resolution must be seen inextricably incorporated into pursuing development goals, there is one surest way for African solutions to African problems: African leaders have to necessarily resolve to "focus on sustainable development" and be abreast with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the African Union's Agenda 2063.

By Kester Klomegah

The author writes frequently on Russia, Africa and BRICS.


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