Russia to Build Red Sea Naval Base

18 November 2020 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

Sudan is to grant Russia rent-free land for a naval “logistics centre” on its Red Sea coast for an initial period of 25 years, with the option of renewal for ten-year periods thereafter.

The facility will be located in the Red Sea harbour of Port Sudan, and will have the capacity to house up to 300 Russian personnel and berth up to four vessels, including nuclear-powered craft, at any one time.

While ostensibly intended to improve maritime security through the provision of a facility for the repair and replenishment of Russian naval vessels and the resting of personnel as they conduct operations to address such issues as piracy, arms smuggling, human trafficking and illegal migration, the strategically-located facility will also enable Russia to expand its military footprint into the sea lanes of the Red Sea, with easy access to the chokepoints of the Suez Canal (to the north) and Bab el-Mandeb (to the south), while monitoring all other shipping movements – both military and civilian – in the waterway. It also enables Russia to match the United States, France, China, Japan and Italy, all of which have military personnel based in Djibouti. The strategic location of Djibouti in particular, astride the Bab el-Mandeb, will, however, impart a degree of vulnerability to the Russian facility.

Comment

According to a Russian-language media report, the purpose of the Port Sudan facility is to ‘develop their [Russian and Sudanese] military co-operation aimed at strengthening their defence capabilities, and meet the goals of maintaining peace and stability, [which] is defensive and not directed against other states.’

The proposed facility first came to light in a draft agreement originally prepared for Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on 6 November, and was officially signed off by President Vladimir Putin on 16 November. Original Russo-Sudanese discussions on greater military co-operation took place in 2017 under ousted former president Omar al-Bashir, who viewed greater links with Russia as a way of countering the strict sanctions that had been imposed on Sudan by the US.

The base agreement builds upon a seven-year military and civilian nuclear co-operation agreement signed in May 2019. Although still to be signed by the Sudanese authorities, this latest agreement will remain in force until either country gives twelve months’ notice of cancellation. Until such time, the agreement gives Russia [in Russian] ‘the right to import and export through the seaports and airfields of Sudan “any weapons, ammunition and equipment” necessary for the operation of the base and “for the performance of tasks by warships.”’ Looking ahead, equally of interest, according to the same Kommersant report, is the ability for Moscow, at the request of the Sudanese authorities, to:

… assist in the organisation and implementation of underwater anti-sabotage support in the territorial sea and internal waters of Sudan, participate in search and rescue operations, help provide air defence of the naval base of Port Sudan of local naval forces and the development of the potential of the Sudanese Armed Forces. … For these purposes, Russia will supply Sudan with weapons, military and special equipment ….

Also under the agreement, Sudanese military forces will have responsibility for maintaining security around the terrestrial exterior of the base, while Russia will be responsible for maritime and aerial security; there is, as yet, no provision for a runway at the facility. Also, and again subject to mutual agreement, the number of Russian personnel stationed at the base can be increased above the initial threshold of 300.

Under the current government of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Sudan is shedding its former status as an international pariah under al-Bashir, as evidenced by such domestic changes as the official separation of religion and the state, and the criminalisation of the practice of female genital mutilation and, on the international front, the incipient normalisation of relations with Israel.

While Washington may not be pleased to see a greater Russian presence in Sudan, the furthering of links with Russia will help cash-strapped Sudan to maximise the economic, development and security opportunities that may be open to it as it reintegrates into the global order.

For Russia, the Sudanese facility, which could potentially be expanded into a fully-fledged military base in the future, fits with the Kremlin’s objective of expanding its presence and influence in both the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, and thereby reinstating its Soviet-era Indian Ocean presence. Already the second-largest customer for Russian arms in Africa and a long-time buyer, Sudan will continue to offer a stable market for Russian arms exporters and the Port Sudan facility will also contribute to the protection of offshore oil and gas projects that may be developed in Sudanese waters and in which Russian companies have expressed an interest. A close relationship with Sudan thus has the potential to bring Russia economic and strategic benefits, as well as the possibility of a supportive voice for Russian initiatives and activities in the international arena.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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