Between late April and early May, several authoritative information outlets, including Al Arabiya (TASS, April 28) and local Sudanese sources (Sudan Tribune, May 3), argued that Sudan’s government had de facto annulled a bilateral agreement on military-technical cooperation with Russia. Reportedly, the Sudanese authorities had requested that Moscow evacuate all of its equipment from Port Sudan that it had sent there to establish a military base on the Red Sea (see EDM, November 19, 25, 2020). This information was never officially confirmed by the government in Khartoum (Gazeta.ru, April 28). From its side, the Russian Embassy in Sudan shrugged off the story, calling it an “example of disinformation” (TASS, April 28). Given the lack of updates on the subject since, it would appear the Russian naval base in Sudan is likely to stay. Moreover, Moscow is evidently planning to use its military presence as a pretext for expanding its involvement in local resource extraction, thereby potentially increasing Russia’s own non-resource exports.
In this regard, particularly interesting was a March 2021 interview with a representative of the Russian Chamber of Commerce in Sudan (Khartoum), Nikolai Everstov, who identified the most rapidly developing areas of Russia’s involvement in this Northeast African country (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 30):
- Telecommunications. Russia is offering the Sudanese government digitalization services and helping it acquire the most up-to-date information technologies. Russia is now attempting to persuade local authorities that by using Russian services, Sudan will not only be able to strengthen its control over the information-technological space, including achieving a “sovereign internet,” but will also prospectively become a source of these services to neighboring states.
- Aviation/aircrafts. Sudan’s government is strategically interested in developing the country’s commercial aviation sector, which, given the lack of an indigenous technological base, is overwhelmingly reliant on imports. Within this domain, Russia is ready to sell Sudan Sukhoi Superjet 100, Il-114 and Irkut MC-21 passenger jet models. Moreover, the Russians are willing to render additional services, including repairs and logistical support.
- Agriculture. Given local climactic conditions, Russia is offering grain storage and processing services as well as training for local agricultural experts at Russian universities and academies.
- Energy-related projects. Russia is strategically interested in taking part in building power plants and other critical infrastructure (particularly given its setbacks in the Czech Republic, where Rosatom was until recently vying to build a new nuclear reactor—Radio Prague, April 18).
- Gold extraction. Despite being one of the most gold-endowed countries in Africa—in the last year alone, more than 100 tons of gold was extracted—Sudan lacks expertise in geological exploration and advanced drilling technologies. In turn, these are areas where Russia could readily contribute. Furthermore, the gradual lifting of international sanctions on Sudan could open up prospects for increased cooperation in the realm of associated banking services and financial transactions.
One key area not touched upon by Everstov, but which deserves special attention, is the domain of military-technical cooperation. Sudan (along with Algeria and Angola) is one of the main African purchasers of Russian-produced weapons systems. In 2016 alone, the local armed forces acquired an impressive volume of Russian-made weaponry, including 172 T-72 main battle tanks. Furthermore, the country still has large stockpiles of Russian/Soviet arms requiring repairs or maintenance, which can best be provided by the Russian side (Rf-smi.ru, December 1, 2020). Therefore, Russia’s expanding involvement in Sudan—with a naval base acting as a pretext—likely has an effect that goes well beyond the military-technical realm as such.
It is worth noting that that the opinions of leading Russian military experts regarding the costs versus benefits of the naval base at Port Sudan, its future prospects as well as strategic importance do not always converge. Remarkably, back in 2017, in reflecting on the issue, one of Russia’s leading and most authoritative military analysts, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Arsenal Otechestva, Viktor Murakhovsky, stated that opening a naval-military base in Sudan would be risky and rather wasteful (from an economic point of view). He also argued that, from a military-strategic point of view, the Soviet Union had managed to acquire far better positioned bases—Aden (Yemen), Berbera (Somalia) and Nakura (Ethiopia)—which allowed Moscow to control both the entrance to and the entire Red Sea. In contrast, a military base in Sudan cannot guarantee the same. Furthermore, Murakhovsky underscored two other risks Russia might face: first, the poor state of Sudanese military forces that Russia would have to train, and thus increase its commitment on the ground; second, the conflict in neighboring South Sudan, which could drag Russia into that confrontation. Instead, the expert argued that it would be more prudent to establish a base in Yemen in the future—within 10–15 years—once that Gulf country overcomes its own civil war (Gazeta.ru, December 1, 2017). Another prominent Russian expert, Colonel (ret.) Victor Litovkin, made a diametrically opposite argument. He suggested that since the Sudanese base is located “in the middle of the Red Sea,” its geographic positioning is actually quite good. At the same time, he asserted that the creation of the naval base is equally profitable for Russia (geopolitics, security and economic interests) and Sudan, whose population, which suffers from high levels of unemployment, could find jobs in local construction projects, services and supply of commodities associated with the Russian facility (Bfm.ru, April 29).
In the final analysis, two main aspects should to be highlighted. First, Russia will continue maintaining its nascent naval base, while for now, keeping a low profile. Russia will try to capitalize on its presence, however, by pursuing other, non-military means of cooperation with Sudan, including economic deals. Second, even though the agreement on military-technical cooperation (including the creation of the naval base) was concluded when Omar al-Bashir was still in power, his removal in 2019 does not automatically translate into drastic changes in Sudan’s foreign policy toward Russia. That agreement—including security support from the notorious Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner Group, which allegedly took part in suppressing public revolts in the country—was tailored not only for al-Bashir but was also favored by Sudan’s military elite, who ultimately toppled him (Ryb.ru, December 7, 2020).