Russia’s Base In Sudan: Power Projection Or Oil Hunt?

Russia’s Base In Sudan: Power Projection Or Oil Hunt?
Russian pictorial map game board of Africa circa 1900

Russia plans to establish a “naval logistics point” in the African country of Sudan. Officially, Moscow’s ambitions in the region have been motivated by the Kremlin’s desire to maintain peace and stability in this part of the world. But what is really behind Russia’s decision to increase its presence in northeast Africa?

Ever since Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, Russia shut down most of its military bases aboard. Over the past 15 years, Russia completely lost its influence in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia. The two countries are now deeply in the US geopolitical orbit. Until 2002, Russian technicians, engineers and intelligence operatives were located in Cuba – just some hundred miles from the US shore. Now the US has bases on the Russian borders. In 2003 Moscow withdrew Russian troops from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The Balkans is now in the US sphere of influence. However, the Kremlin now plans to increase Russian presence in northeast Africa, even though the region has already been divided by several global and regional powers.

On November 16 2020 Putin issued a decree authorizing Ministry of Defense to sign an agreement with Sudan to create a permanent Russian military base in the African country. According to Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, Moscow is interested in a military presence in the region in order to fight terrorism, piracy, the slave trade, as well as the smuggling of weapons and drugs. On the other hand, it is believed that the naval base in Sudan, formally described as a material-technical support facility, is likely to open up new opportunities for Russia to expand its military and political influence in East and Central Africa. The deal between Moscow and Khartoum also specifies Russia’s right to use Sudanese national airspace in support of its activities. The base will be able to berth up to four warships, including nuclear-powered vessels. The location of the new naval facility, that will be capable of accommodating up to 300 military and civilian personnel, will be close to the main Sudanese trading port—Port Sudan.

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Russia has six foreign military bases, five of them in neighboring former Soviet republics, and one in Syria. Russia’s naval logistical point in Sudan will be considerably smaller than the naval base in Syria’s Tartus. The difference between a military base and a naval logistical point is fundamental: a military base is a combat facility where the troops of any state with the appropriate military infrastructure, weapons, supplies, and defense are stationed. In other words, it is a real military unit, capable and ready to conduct hostilities. On the other hand, the point of material and technical support is a location where ships can replenish their reserves of fuel, make urgent repairs, and give the crews a break. It is a kind of infrastructure facility that helps ships and vessels on their long and difficult journeys across the seas and oceans. Thus, Russia’s naval logistical point in Sudan can hardly serve for the Kremlin’s power projection, although it is widely believed that the facility is just the first step in Moscow’s return to Africa. 

It is expected that the presence of a base in Sudan will allow Russia to increase its influence in the Red Sea and in the Horn of Africa. The range of its use is potentially very wide – from supporting operations against sea pirates off the coast of Somalia to providing access to the Indian Ocean for Russian ships of the Black Sea and Pacific Fleets during their long voyages. Once the base is built, the delivery of Russian military cargo to Sudan, as well as to other African countries, can be carried out not only by air, but also by sea. Sudan has reportedly been the second largest African buyer of Russian weapons for the past 20 years, and in 2018 the trade between Russia and Sudan reached $510 million.

Still, it remains unclear why the Kremlin decided to get involved into another “adventure” thousands of miles away from the Russian borders, while it is facing a conflict in the Donbass, as well as the civil war in Syria where Russian troops are actively supporting President Bashar al Assad. Unlike in Syria, Russia is not officially involved in the Donbass war, but in case the situation on the ground escalates, the Kremlin will be tempted to provide direct assistance to pro-Russian forces in the region. In that case, the West will likely impose severe sanctions against the Russian Federation, which means that Moscow might have a hard time supplying its troops both in Syria and Sudan.

It is worth remembering that the Soviet Union had naval facilities in Mogadishu and Berbera in Somalia, Hodeidah and Aden in Yemen, on the islands of Socotra, in Mauritius and even in the Seychelles and Andaman Islands. However, unlike the Soviet Union, that could count on its allies in both the Middle East and Arica, Russia’s influence in this part of the world is rather limited. In neighboring Djibouti, countries such as the United States, France, Italy, Japan and China have their own naval bases. Still, from the Kremlin’s perspective, it is in Russia’s interest to have a naval presence in such an important sea. 

Finally, the base is expected to help Moscow establish at least partial control over the transit flows of oil that pass through the region. The bulk of local oil fields are located in neighboring South Sudan, but the oil export is almost entirely dependent on the Republic of Sudan. The only pipeline through which South Sudan can transport its energy passes through the territory of its northern neighbor. Thus, the Kremlin’s involvement in Sudan is likely motivated by energy, rather than by Putin’s alleged huge geopolitical ambitions in Africa.

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