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US And Russia: Great power competition In Sudan

Bedscha-Nomade in Sudan
Image by Fabian Lambeck

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Russia is making clear moves to increase its influence in Sudan. The Kremlin seems determined to build a naval base in the northeast African nation despite the US alleged efforts to undermine Russian ambitious plans in the sensitive Red Sea region. Why are Moscow and Washington so interested in this nation?

In November 2020 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an agreement on the creation of a material-technical support facility capable of mooring nuclear-powered surface vessels in Sudan. It seemed like a done deal. The Kremlin was just waiting for Khartoum to ratify the treaty so that it can deploy up to 300 military and civilian personnel to the African country. A pure formality. Six months later, Russia is still waiting, and there are indications that its ships may never be permanently stationed in Sudan. 

According to several Arabic publications, Khartoum has suspend an agreement granting Moscow permission to construct a naval base just north of Port Sudan, the country’s main commercial hub on the Red Sea. The Kremlin has denied such reports claiming that they most likely originate from London and Washington. At this point, it is too early to draw any far-reaching conclusions about Khartoum’s alleged decision to prevent Russia from building a military facility in Sudan, but it is worth keeping in mind that such a scenario is entirely possible. In any case, whether such news are true or not, the very fact that they saw the light of day suggests that the Kremlin may have a hard time pushing Khartoum into the Russian geopolitical orbit. The United States, as the major player in the Middle East, certainly does not intend to give up struggling for influence in Sudan so easily. 

In 2019, United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) reportedly insisted on more than doubling the funding of operations in Africa. Moreover, it insisted on changing priorities: Instead of fight against terrorism, the main goal of AFRICOM should be to prevent the growing influence of China and Russia on the African continent. Indeed, Africa is torn apart by geostrategic interests of various global actors. The Chinese base in Djibouti, the largest Turkish overseas military facility in Somalia, as well as a potential Russian navy base in Sudan, could eventually undermine the American position in the region. 

Not so long ago, Sudan served as a transshipment base for Iran. It is believed that large amounts of weapons were supplied to Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad through Port Sudan. Given that relations between Moscow and Tehran have grown stronger in recent years, Washington likely aims to prevent Russia and Iran from using Sudan to potentially destabilize the American allies in Western Asia and North Africa. From the US perspective, a potential military presence in Sudan would be a great opportunity to erode the economic, political and military interests of all Washington’s adversaries in this part of the world. That could be one of the reasons why the US high-ranking military officials, as well as navy ships, recently visited the northeast African country. Moreover, with Khartoum in its sphere of influence, the US could become the exclusive supplier of a number of vital products for Sudan: weapons, construction equipment, as well as medical and information technology. 

Besides American, Russian navy ships also docked in Port Sudan several times over the past six months. Although the Russians have not built their navy facility there yet, they used Port Sudan as a transshipment base for military operations in Central African Republic where the government relies heavily on the Russian private security company The Wagner Group. A base in Sudan would likely be another stepping stone in Russia’s “return to Africa”, since the “Dark Continent” is another place the Kremlin’s business interests lie. Sudan, and many other African countries have always been the major buyers of the Russian military equipment, while Russian energy companies Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec and Rosatom are very active in Africa with notable investments.

The establishment of the base is also important for Russia for purely military reasons. If the Kremlin has military facilities in different parts of the world, not just in the post-Soviet space, then the Russian fleet will have many points of support for repairs and refueling. Also, having a base in Port Sudan, on such a busy sea route, is very important for Russia to regain the status of the world maritime power – which is something Moscow strives for. The successful implementation of the naval base project in Sudan is likely to open up new opportunities for Russia to expand its military and political influence in East and Central Africa.

Although Sudan is one of the poorest nations of the world, it is among the top three African leaders in gold mining, which can be another reason why both, Russia and the United States need this country in their geopolitical orbits. There is also Sudan’s 1.5 million tons of proven uranium reserves, as well as The Greater Nile Oil Pipeline through which neighboring oil-rich South Sudan can transport its energy. Thus, it is not surprising that Moscow and Washington compete for regional hegemony. For both powers, Sudan is merely an instrument, and its leadership may soon have to choose between Russian political and military backing and closer ties with the United States. 

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