An unexpected development in Africa has another one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pet projects looking increasingly untenable.
A military coup in oil-rich Sudan this week has ousted corrupt, long-serving President Omar al-Bashir. Sudan’s defense chief announced a two-year period of direct military rule, closed the airports and suspended the constitution. The anti-Bashir opposition, although elated at the downfall of the tyrant, is demanding a transitional civilian government be quickly put in place.
The situation is critical for the Kremlin, as Sudan was a place where Moscow thought it could leverage its protection services, prop up an unpopular government — and exploit the mineral fields for the enrichment of Russian oligarchs and the Russian state.
Consummate entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin, otherwise known as “Putin’s Cook,” had been already deploying his mercenaries of the infamous Wagner Group to the east African country, with its warm water ports on the Red Sea, in order to cement an offer from Moscow that Mr. al-Bashir couldn’t refuse. A sweet deal was in the works: Russia got minerals, wealth and a new naval base in the Middle East, and Mr. al-Bashir got to stay in power.
But things didn’t turn out as planned and the Sudan experience may prove a cautionary example for another Moscow client across the Atlantic — Venezuela. Mr. Putin has deployed a similar strategy there to strengthen the Chavista socialist regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has pillaged the country, squandered its natural resources and destroyed its economy. With the Trump administration pointedly keeping the military option in reserve, it is doubtful the few hundred thugs and cyberwarriors Russia has jetted to aid Caracas will do much good if the U.S. military decides to act, overtly or covertly.
Of course, the whole narrative coming out of Sudan could be a false cover story for the Kremlin, with Mr. al-Bashir sacrificed but the new military junta carrying on with Russia as usual. But that is yet to be seen. The initial coverage coming out of Russian state-run media, which is the usually reliable tell of the Kremlin’s mood, doesn’t look promising for Mr. Putin’s strategy.
“Forcible, unconstitutional change of power is unacceptable in Sudan, as it is in any other country in the world,” Andrei Klishas, the chairman of the Federation Council’s Constitution and State Affairs Committee, told RIA Novosti Thursday. “We are consistent in this position. All crises must be resolved in accordance with the constitutional order and through political dialogue.”
The real question is how the developments in Sudan will play back home for the Kremlin. Overseas adventures have been the bright spot over the last few years for the Russian leadership — first in Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, then Syria and Venezuela, all initially “success stories” that demonstrated to Russian voters that Moscow was getting its swagger back.
But as the financial costs add up and the reputational risks rise, failure in foreign adventures can look very bad to the “Russian street” and dent Mr. Putin’s approval numbers even further.
With the Russian government tightening the screws on the internet, destroying the last refuge of freedom in the federation, a gigantic failure in Sudan could be a domino that starts the others falling.
Who knows if Western security services had anything to do with this setback for Russia? Who knows if the development is even a setback for Mr. Putin at all? Maybe Sudan’s new military masters will appear in Moscow just as Mr. al-Bashir once did, with Mr. Prigozhin and the Russian defense establishment seated chummily around the table.
Originally published at The Washington Times