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Russia to establish naval base in Sudan

The combat capability of the Russian navy in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean would be significantly increased with a military base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin inspects the Arktika nuclear-powered icebreaker at the port of Murmansk in northwestern Russia on October 21, 2020. (Photo by Alexander ASTAFYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by ALEXANDER ASTAFYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia plans to establish a military base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast to serve as a logistics center for the Russian navy, according to a draft agreement between Moscow and Khartoum signed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and released publicly Nov. 11.  

The agreement states that Sudan will provide a land plot for the Russian base free of charge for a period of 25 years. It will automatically renew for subsequent 10-year periods. To terminate the deal, one of the parties must notify the other party of its intention at least one year before the expiration of the next period.

While the base’s capacity will be capped at four ships at a time, nuclear-powered ships are permitted to dock, thus significantly increasing the combat capability of the Russian navy in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The number of military personnel permanently staying at this facility should not exceed 300 people, according to the agreement. Also, Russia will have the right to import and export through the seaports and airfields of Sudan "any weapons, ammunition and equipment" necessary for the operation of the base and "for the performance of tasks by warships." Sudan, according to the published document outlining the agreement, will not collect import and export duties and taxes.

The base will be located near the city of Port Sudan, according to the document. External protection of the borders of the base territory will be carried out by the Sudanese side. Meanwhile, protection of the borders of the water area of ​​the base and its air defense will be up to Russia. At the request of the Sudanese authorities, the Russian side can assist in the organization and implementation of underwater countersabotage support in the territorial waters of Sudan, participate in search and rescue operations, help provide air defense for the local naval forces and strengthen the capabilities of the Sudanese armed forces. The agreement specifies that for these purposes Russia will supply Sudan with weapons, troops and special equipment in a manner and under terms that will be stipulated in a separate protocol.

Modern Russia has failed to recreate the power of the forces possessed by the Soviet navy, and its current fleet is many times inferior to the latter in terms of the number of vessels and in the ability to carry out combat missions. At the same time, the Russian military command is compensating for the insufficient number of naval personnel by deploying a network of naval bases where Russian warships could be permanently based, which serve to project force in various regions of the world.

The plan to create the Russian base in Sudan follows similar initiatives in recent years — including the establishment of the Khmeimim air base in Syria in 2015 and the reconstruction of Moscow’s naval base in Tartus (on Syria’s Mediterranean coast) to restore Russia's positions in the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian Ocean, which were lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

From 1964 to 1977, there was a Soviet military base in Somalia, in the city of Berbera. And in 1978, an agreement was signed with the pro-Soviet regime of Ethiopia, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, on the creation of a Soviet naval base on the island of Nokra in the Dahlak archipelago in the Red Sea (currently owned by Eritrea). This military facility ensured the permanent basing and repair of ships of the 8th operational squadron of the USSR navy, operating in the Indian Ocean. The base at Nokra was dismantled in 1990 due to the threat of the archipelago being captured by Eritrean rebels.

Russia's return to the Red Sea is also in many ways a matter of prestige. The military presence here made it possible to control the flow of goods from India and East Asia to Europe and the east coast of the United States. The main route for the supply of hydrocarbons — oil and liquefied gas — from the Persian Gulf region to Europe and North America also passes through the area.

The conflict in Yemen and the attacks by the Houthis on ships in the Red Sea, along with the intensification of activity by Somali pirates in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean, forced all the major military powers to acquire military bases here. Most of them were concentrated in Djibouti. The United States, France, China, Italy and even Japan have placed their military facilities in Djibouti. The United Arab Emirates has established bases in Assab (Eritrea), Berbera (Somalia) and the Yemeni islands of Perim and Socotra. Turkey, meanwhile, was in talks with Sudan to establish a military facility in Suakin, but plans collapsed following the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Under these conditions, Moscow likely felt compelled to get involved in the process of creating military bases in the region.

Previously, there had been plans for a Russian military base in Djibouti. From 2012 to 2014, negotiations were held between the Russian side and the Djiboutian government over the allocation of territory for a Russian military facility. However, Djibouti authorities agreed to provide only a small area in an inconvenient place for the Russian military on the unequipped coast. The cost of building the base was prohibitive and could have amounted to $1 billion. As a result, Moscow rejected the proposal and plans were halted.

Nevertheless, the issue of creating a military base in the Red Sea remained on the agenda and was again raised during former Sudanese President Bashir’s visit to Moscow in November 2017. At that time, the parties substantively discussed the issue of opening a Russian naval facility in Port Sudan and reached preliminary agreements. A Russian base in the country could have appeared much earlier, but this was prevented by the revolution and the overthrow of Bashir. Notably, Moscow, being interested in deploying its military presence in Sudan, tried to support Bashir during the protests. There were reports of Russian private military contractors — known as PMCs — appearing in Sudan in 2019, something which was also confirmed by official representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Despite Bashir’s removal in April 2019, the interaction between the Russian and Sudanese military and PMCs was not broken — rather it continued. Russian aid during the anti-government protests in Sudan was directed not so much directly to Bashir, but rather to the very military who first supported the president yet ultimately carried out a coup against him. Therefore the agreements on the creation of a military base between Moscow and Khartoum not only remained in force under the new Sudanese government, but were brought to the stage of a final agreement.

The agreement to establish a Russian military facility in Sudan has boosted the positive dynamics in relations between the two countries and confirmed Russian influence in Sudan. Earlier, in 2019, agreements on military and military-technical cooperation were signed between the defense ministries of Russia and the Sudan, which provided for the creation of a permanent Russian military mission under the Sudanese military department. 

In addition, according to some reports, the Russian side has already carried out arms deliveries, bypassing sanctions by going through third countries. For example, Moscow reportedly supplied Sudan with MiG-29 fighters through Belarus in 2008. However, on the sidelines of the Army-2020 forum in Kubinka near Moscow, new direct agreements were signed on the supply of weapons to Khartoum, the specifics of which were not disclosed. Russian-Sudanese cooperation has also extended to Libya, where, according to various reports, both Russian PMCs and Sudanese Janjaweed formations provided support to eastern military leader Khalifa Hifter.

At the same time, this agreement on the establishment of a military base in Port Sudan lacks a provision for an air force component and a runway. Therefore this military facility can hardly serve as a projection of power and support for Russian military missions and PMCs in sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, it will be used, first of all, in the interests of the naval forces of the Russian Federation proper, and logistical support for the Russian military and PMCs in Africa will continue to be carried out through the Syrian Khmeimim air base. 

Yet one cannot rule out the establishment of new Russian military facilities in Libya. As in the case of Sudan, the Russian military may come "in the footsteps" of PMCs, and set up bases that will be focused on serving the interests of the Russian Federation in sub-Saharan countries. As was the case, for example, with al-Watiya base in Libya, which was already used by the cargo planes of Russian PMCs until it came under the control of the Government of National Accord forces.

Ilya Kramnik, a Russian military analyst and expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), told Al-Monitor that the Russian military base in Port Sudan is designed to ensure the presence of the Russian fleet in the Red Sea and, more broadly, in the Indian Ocean.

This military facility will effectively combat piracy, suppress "black traffic" (arms smuggling, human trafficking and illegal migration) and ensure the protection of promising projects in the oil and gas sector. (In 2018, the Sudanese Ministry of Energy signed an agreement with unnamed Russian companies on the construction in Port Sudan Oil Refinery.) In addition, according to Kramnik, it is a convenient starting point for the export of maritime security services in the region.

“In the Red Sea and in the waters around northeastern Africa as a whole, there is a certain deficit of maritime security, and apart from Egypt, other states are doing poorly with this task,” Kramnik said.

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