Russia Moves in on Sudan and keen for base in Eritrea

by Debalina Ghoshal – Gatestone Institute


  • Moscow has reportedly signed a “draft military agreement” with
    Sudan, “to facilitate entry of Russian and Sudanese warships to the
    ports of the two nations.” According to Maj. Gen. Al-Hadi Adam Musa,
    head of Sudan’s parliamentary subcommittee on Defense, Security and
    Public Order, “This deal will pave the way for more agreements and
    greater cooperation… possibly a Russian base on the Red Sea.”
  • Russia also “is looking at establishing a logistics base in Eritrea”
    and has reached a “draft agreement with Egypt for Russian warplanes to
    use Egyptian military bases.
  • “It is crucial for the West not only to keep a close watch on
    Moscow’s moves in Sudan, but to prevent Russia from increasing its
    influence in the region.


    Given Russia’s increasing diplomatic and military efforts to upgrade its presence in Africa, it came as no surprise when Russia backed Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during the popular protests that sparked Bashir’s removal him from power on April 11. Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Bashir in Sochi, Russia on November 23, 2017.

    In January, three months before the April 11 military coup in Sudan that ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir after 30 years of iron-fisted rule, Moscow reportedly signed a “draft military agreement” with Sudan, “to facilitate entry of Russian and Sudanese warships to the ports of the two nations.” According to Maj. Gen. Al-Hadi Adam Musa, head of Sudan’s parliamentary subcommittee on Defense, Security and Public Order, “This deal will pave the way for more agreements and greater cooperation… possibly a Russian base on the Red Sea.”

    This draft agreement followed other defense discussions between Russian President Vladimir Putin and al-Bashir. According to a recent report in The Arab Weekly:

    “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…

    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.”

    These reports point to Russia’s increasing diplomatic and military efforts to upgrade its presence in Africa.

    It came as no surprise, then, when Russia backed al-Bashir during the popular protests to remove him from power. Moscow’s support for anti-American regimes is nothing new, as is illustrated by its fight to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, and its attempt to preserve the illegitimate rule of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

    Russia’s interest in setting up a naval base in Sudan may have been sparked by Djibouti’s rejection of its request in 2016 to make permanent its temporary maritime presence in the country, where the Russian Navy was “using Djibouti as part of a UN anti-piracy effort.”

    To take advantage of its gold-mining contracts and gas-exploration agreements with Khartoum — and the possible construction of a Russian oil refinery in Sudan — Russia may feel the need for its own port in the Red Sea.

    Russian may also be interested in playing mediator between Sudan and its estranged neighbors, Eritrea and Egypt, with which Moscow enjoys cordial relations. A naval base in Sudan would facilitate this process, especially as Russia also “is looking at establishing a logistics base in Eritrea” and has reached a “draft agreement with Egypt for Russian warplanes to use Egyptian military bases.”

    In addition, Russia offered in 2018 to act as a mediator in the civil war in Yemen. A strong military foothold in the Red Sea would enhance its ability to do so.

    A key challenge for Russia at this point is the transitional government-in-formation in Sudan, which seems friendlier to Riyadh and Washington than to Moscow.

    Nevertheless, in the immediate aftermath of Bashir’s ouster, Russia announced that it recognized Sudan’s interim Military Transitional Council (MTC) that replaced him. Since then, “Russia said it’s in talks with Sudan’s ruling military and the opposition in a bid to help defuse the standoff that’s led to a violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators” — again inserting itself as a “mediator” in the internecine strife of a foreign country.

    It is crucial for the West not only to keep a close watch on Moscow’s moves in Sudan, but to prevent Russia from increasing its influence in the region.

    Debalina Ghoshal is an India-based non-resident fellow at the Council on International Policy in Canada. She is also an Asia Pacific Fellow with the East West Institute.


    FILE - Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, welcomes Eritrea's Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed, second from left, prior a meeting in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.
    FILE – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, welcomes Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed, second from left, prior a meeting in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.

    Russia and Eritrea expanded their diplomatic relationship Friday when Moscow announced plans to build a logistics center at a port in the East African country.

    Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov disclosed the plans at a meeting with a high-level delegation from Eritrea, according to RIA, a Russian state-owned news agency.

    The scope, location and timeline of the project have not been announced, but the diplomatic development is an important milestone for both countries, each of whom has sought to expand its bilateral ties.

    For Russia, it’s the latest effort to forge alliances with countries in Africa, following multiple trips to the continent this year by Lavrov to discuss military, economic and diplomatic partnerships.

    In late August, Russia signed a military cooperation agreement with the Central African Republic. That deal focuses on training armed forces in the CAR.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, May 23, 2018.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes ha

    Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, May 23, 2018.

    For Eritrea, a deepening Russia alliance is the latest sign that decades of isolation may be ending, after a historic peace deal in July with neighboring Ethiopia. Since that agreement was signed, Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, has met with leaders from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Somalia and South Sudan.  He’s also received delegations from Japan and Germany.

    For Friday’s meeting, Eritrea sent a delegation led by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and Yemane Ghebreab, a senior presidential advisor, to Sochi, Russia, about 3,100 kilometers north of the Eritrean capital, Asmara.  It’s the latest get-together in the countries’ 25-year diplomatic relationship.

    Strategic location

    Eritrea’s two ports, in Massawa and Assab, occupy strategic points along the Red Sea.  Access to those ports is one benefit Ethiopia, a landlocked country, may reap from the peace deal.

    Ethiopia and Eritrea began talks about the possibility of joint port development immediately following the deal.  Such a cooperation could involve an existing facility or one that hasn’t yet been conceived.

    Meanwhile, specifics on the purpose of the planned Russian logistics facility haven’t been announced, but Russian and Eritrean leaders said the project would invigorate trade and business deals between the countries.

    If Russia follows through on its plans for a logistics center, it won’t be the first time a foreign player has set up shop in Eritrea.

    Assab is already home to a United Arab Emirates naval base, and Eritrea has allowed the U.A.E. to launch planes from Assab to fight Houthi rebels in Yemen.  The port, at the mouth of the Red Sea, has a particularly strategic location less than 200 kilometers north of an array of international military bases in Djibouti.

    Decades earlier, in the 1940s, the United States established a military and logistics base at Kagnew Station in Asmara for reconnaissance missions in Word War II and the Cold War.

    Last year, U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher called for renewed military ties with Eritrea in the fight against terrorism.

    Sanctions next?

    Eritrea faces U.N. sanctions against specific individuals, along with an arms embargo.  It’s hoping to use evolving diplomatic relationships to build momentum to remove the penalties.

    Talk of lifting the sanctions has accelerated since the peace deal with Ethiopia, but Eritrea’s sanctions, in place since 2009, were imposed not because of that conflict, but rather separate concerns with other regional neighbors, including alleged support of al-Shabab in Somalia and a border dispute with Djibouti.

    The al-Shabab issue is all but settled, with the United Nations deciding last November to disband the monitoring group that was tasked with investigating Eritrea’s links to the armed extremist group, after years of inquiries produced no evidence of ties.

     

    FILE - "We urge Eritrea to resolve the border dispute peacefully with Djibouti ... in a manner consistent with international law," Djibouti's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohamed Siad Doualeh, told VOA last week.
    FILE – “We urge Eritrea to resolve the border disp

    FILE – Djibouti’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohamed Siad Doualeh.

    Objections over the border with Djibouti, however, have persisted, with Mohamed Siad Doualeh, Djibouti’s ambassador to the United Nations, writing a forceful letter to the U.N. Security Council in late July outlining his country’s grievances, which include occupation of Djiboutian land and prisoners of war who have not been accounted for or returned.

    Lifting sanctions will require nine of 15 Security Council votes, including the support of all five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

    Lavrov said Friday that sanctions against Eritrea should be lifted, according to TASS, a Russian state-owned news agency.

    It’s the first time a permanent member of the Security Council has addressed the sanctions issue since the peace deal with Ethiopia and, backed by aspirations for bilateral business deals, increases Eritrea’s odds before a potential vote.

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