Date: Saturday, 23 March 2019
After months of nationwide protests and calls for his resignation, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir declared a year-long state of emergency and, to quell the disturbances, Khartoum is seeking Russian assistance.
The evolving situation in Sudan is reminiscent of Syria, where the government, faced with domestic disturbances that threatened to spiral out of control, sought and accepted Russian domestic and military support, which seems to have evolved into Russian mercenary “boots on the ground.”
Syrian President Bashar Assad, who had been grappling with unprecedented challenges to his authority when pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011, sought assistance in September 2015 from Russia, which began direct military intervention in the Syrian civil war, sending troops, aircraft and warships.
That helped Damascus gain the upper hand in a country whose economy had been devastated by the time Russia interceded, shrinking by as much as 60% since the conflict began four years earlier
Now Sudan is building on previous contacts. Al-Bashir has been talking with Russian President Vladimir Putin about a possible Russian military presence in Sudan since the pair met in November 2017. During their meeting, al-Bashir offered to construct an airbase for Russia on the Red Sea coast and to re-equip the Sudanese Army with Russian weapons, including SU-30 fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles.
The Kremlin’s official transcript of the discussions had al-Bashir, on November 23, 2017, starting bluntly: “We believe that the problems the region is now facing have been caused by US interference.”
More extraordinarily, during an interview with RIA Novosti, al-Bashir requested that Putin protect him from “US aggression,” which intended to divide Sudan into five countries.
Khartoum’s and Moscow’s shared opposition to both “revolts” against unpopular regional governments, including Egypt, Somalia and Yemen, combined with rebuffs to Russian policy initiatives among pro-Western Horn of Africa countries, as when Djibouti declined a Russian military presence, will drive Moscow and Khartoum closer together.
Despite the Russian Navy using Djibouti as part of a UN anti-piracy effort, after Moscow’s request to establish a more permanent maritime presence there in late 2016 was unsuccessful, Russia turned to Sudan, seeking a naval base on the country’s Red Sea coast.
In January, Sudan’s parliament noted that the draft bilateral military agreement would provide Russia with a future opportunity to build a military base on Sudan’s Red Sea.
Al-Hadi Adam Musa, head of Sudan’s parliamentary Subcommittee on Defence, Security and Public Order, told Russian media that the draft agreement was only an initial step forward towards establishing strategic relations.
Combined with a 2018 logistics basing agreement with neighbouring Eritrea, it is clear that, in the convoluted regional strategic chess match, Putin continues to outplay Washington.
As in Syria, Russian mercenaries from the shadowy Wagner group are purportedly operating in Sudan. In late January, Ukraine’s State Security Service, which had earlier tracked Wagner mercenaries deployed to separatist Donbas, published on its website a list of 149 Wagner group mercenaries operating in Sudan on behalf of al-Bashir’s regime, a charge denied by Khartoum.
The mercenaries are advising al-Bashir’s regime on how to quell protests against his nearly three-decade rule. This emphasises Russia’s message embodied in the Syrian crisis — Moscow is a stalwart ally that rarely abandons its friends, no matter how appalling their human rights records may be.
Russia’s payoff is apparently to include gold mining contracts, natural gas exploration agreements and the possible construction by Russia of an oil refinery in Sudan with the capacity to produce 200,000 barrels per day. This is linked to the increasing operational capacity of the oilfields in the south of the country, which will benefit directly from Red Sea port access.
This year will see Russian-Sudanese relations deepen further. Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian deputy foreign minister and Putin’s representative for the Middle East and Africa, visited Khartoum March 16 as part of an African tour.
Bogdanov had discussions with al-Bashir on coordinating positions on regional and international issues in addition to regional cooperation and trade between the two countries as well as training of Sudanese cadres in Russia. At the conclusion of the talks, Bogdanov delivered an invitation from Putin to al-Bashir to attend the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in October.
For those with a sense of irony about Russia’s commitment to political stability, since March 2009, al-Bashir has been ignoring an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide and war crimes in Darfur; apparently Moscow prioritises regime change over charges of genocide committed in the name of national stability.
Despite ICC warrants and international sanctions, the common interests of the Russian Federation and Sudan ensure that their collaboration will continue to the benefit of both nations, a highlight of Russian foreign policy initiatives in advance of a summit on the Black Sea providing yet more policy alternatives beyond those of Washington and Brussels.