Sudan Tries to Strongarm Russia. It May Backfire

Nikola Mikovic

AFP photo: Russian Foreign Ministry

Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the world, is trying to strongarm Russia. Moscow has been hoping to set up a naval base in the northeast African nation, in the middle of the southern shore of the Red Sea, but Khartoum turned out to be a much tougher negotiator than the Kremlin expected – though, only after the fact. However, Khartoum may have bitten off more than it can chew. The Russian bear isn’t going to back down so easily.

In late 2020, Moscow announced plans to open a port in Sudan, giving Russia its first military foothold in Africa since the fall of the Soviet Union. The two countries reached a deal that would give Russia’s navy a 25-year lease at Port Sudan. The facility would host up to four navy ships and 300 military personnel, in exchange for weapons and military equipment for Khartoum.

But Sudan now has second thoughts. According to Russian media, Khartoum wants to renegotiate the deal. It will now allow Russia to build the naval base, officially described as a “material-technical support facility,” only if the Kremlin also provides economic assistance. More importantly, it will let the Russian navy stay only five years, with a possibility to extend the lease up to a total of the 25 years originally agreed. For Russia, that would constitute a large investment for no great certainty of tenure.

Sudan wants to amend the agreement before the country’s parliament formally ratifies the deal that had been agreed to. Russia has not yet officially responded to the proposal. The Kremlin has, however, through its think-tanks and analysts, indicated that it is not willing to go along.

But if the Kremlin, faced with this new demand from Khartoum, gives up on its plans to open the naval base, it would be interpreted as another Russian geopolitical defeat.

On the other hand, if Russia were to agree to the new terms, there is no guarantee that Khartoum would not come up with new demands. It would also set up a precedent for Russia’s other partners around the world.

Earlier this year, the chief of staff of the Sudanese armed forces announced the revision of the agreement signed by his country and Russia, and soon after that Sudan’s defense minister visited Moscow to discuss the fate of the port. In July, Sudan’s foreign minister, Mariam Al-Mahdi, openly hinted that the future of the base would largely depend on a “positive solution to a number of issues on which Khartoum counts on Moscow’s understanding and support.”

Meanwhile, the US reportedly offered a multimillion-dollar aid package to Khartoum in exchange for canceling the deal with Moscow.

Sudan, obviously needs financial help. The government had hoped to attract foreign investment after Washington removed Sudan from its list of states supporting terrorism – but this has not yet yielded dividend.

Thus, it may be trying to determine the best outcome for itself.

The Kremlin, for its part, has at least three options. First, it could provide the economic assistance that Sudan now wants included in the deal. Or it could simply say “nyet” and walk away. Finally, Moscow could try to pressure the Sudanese and indirectly force them to reach a compromise. Russia’s trump card in the latter scenario might be neighboring Ethiopia.

Indeed, during Al-Mahdi’s visit to Moscow, she expressed hopes that Russia could convince Ethiopia to compromise regarding the future of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) – a hydroelectric power project under construction on the Blue Nile. Tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia over the GERD’s water rights, Ethiopian farmers’ use of a fertile border region claimed by Sudan, as well as a decades-old border dispute between the two countries, have threatened to turn into full-scale confrontation.

Previously, during the 2019 Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, Vladimir Putin had spoken about “Russia’s capabilities” to assist in the settlement of the dispute if required.

Thus, one calculation is that resolving the dispute would be of a higher value to the Sudanese than any economic aid they might manage to squeeze out of Moscow.

But Moscow’s leverage can work both ways. On September 4, Sudan discovered and seized 72 boxes of Russian weapons on an Ethiopian Airlines plane that arrived in Khartoum. Local authorities characterized the arms as intended for use in “crimes against the state, impeding the democratic transition and preventing the transition to [a] civil state.” The weapons apparently were originally shipped from Russia to Ethiopia in 2019. Speculations are that the fact that the weapons were on a commercial flight, and thus easily “discovered,” could be a message to Sudan to get serious about its original commitment.

Officials from the foreign ministries of Russia and Sudan are scheduled to meet on September 21. Stay tuned.

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”