Why Russia’s Putin Wants a Naval Base in Sudan

Ever since Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, Russia has steadily lost influence in neighboring countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, and as far away as Cuba. Now, however, it is attempting to rebuild international influence with a presence in Sudan, thereby inserting itself more firmly into security issues – and eventually energy ones – in northeast Africa, the Middle East and further afield.

Moscow is planning to build a naval base in Sudan – no completion date is yet apparent – that will be able to berth up to four warships at a time, including nuclear-powered vessels. The deal with Sudan also will allow Russia the right to use Sudanese airspace. The location of the facility, which will be able to accommodate up to 300 military and civilian personnel, will be close to the main Sudanese trading center, Port Sudan, which itself sits almost in the middle of the southern shore of the Red Sea.

It is expected that a Sudan base will let Moscow increase its influence in the Red Sea and in the Horn of Africa. The range of its use potentially is very wide – from supporting operations against sea pirates off the coast of Somalia to providing access to the Indian Ocean and support for Russian ships of the Black Sea and Pacific fleets.

Once the base is completed, the delivery of military cargoes to Sudan, as well as other African countries, can be carried out by mostly sea and not only by air. For the past two decades, Sudan has been the second-largest African buyer of Russian weapons, and in 2018 trade between Russia and Sudan reached $510 million.

Despite all that, it remains not entirely clear why the Kremlin should want such a significant presence in Sudan. The calculations behind it is complex, involving war in the Donbass region of Ukraine and the civil war in Syria, where Russian troops are actively supporting President Bashar Al-Assad. Unlike in Syria, Russia is not officially involved in the Donbass war, but in case the situation there escalates, the Kremlin will be tempted to provide direct assistance to pro-Russian forces in the area. In such a case, the West likely will impose sanctions against the Russian Federation, which means Moscow might have a hard time supplying its troops in Syria. A presence in Sudan could ease that concern.

Next, the base opens up the potential for Russia to expand its military and political influence in East and Central Africa. Unlike the former Soviet Union, Russia’s sway in this part of the world is limited. The Kremlin currently offers some African countries “security packages” that include training programs for local armed forces and defense contracts, as well as joint economic and energy exploration projects. And since 2016, Moscow has negotiated free entry for its ships to the ports of nations such as Sudan, Eritrea, Egypt, Libya and Mozambique. The naval base in Sudan, officially described as a material-technical support facility, bolsters Russian presence in the region, making Moscow a serious player once again.

There is also belief that the base will help Moscow establish some measure of control over the flow of oil that passes through the northeast Africa region. From Moscow’s perspective, this is a very significant rationale for the base. But it is also more problematic, and where Russia must play the long game.

The bulk of oil fields in the region is located in South Sudan, but oil exports are almost entirely dependent on the Republic of Sudan. If Russia aims to indeed control oil flows in this region, it needs to own the strategically important Port Sudan oil terminal.

However, in April, Sudan’s transitional government took steps to hand over operation of its principal seaport to a company from the UAE. That said, the deal isn’t yet complete. It is worth remembering, nevertheless, that after the overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir in 2019, the UAE and Saudi Arabia announced a $3 billion aid package to stabilize the country. Moscow will thus have to find a way to avoid direct confrontation with the interests of Arabian Gulf powers in the Northeast African country.

Russia currently has six foreign military bases, five of them in neighboring former Soviet republics and one in Syria. While Russia’s naval logistical point in Sudan will be considerably smaller than the naval base in Syria’s Tartus, it is widely believed that the facility is just the first step in Moscow’s return to Africa. The Kremlin could eventually seek to secure a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean, which was lost in the post-Soviet years.

Sudan, then, is merely a prelude to the unfolding of Russia’s new strategic and energy ambitions in the region.

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.”