Will Russia switch sides in Sudan's civil war?

Wagner mercenaries have worked with the Rapid Support Forces for years, trading weapons for gold, but Moscow’s head seems to have been turned in its quest for a Red Sea naval base.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with Sudan's army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Khartoum on February 9, 2023.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with Sudan's army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Khartoum on February 9, 2023.

Will Russia switch sides in Sudan's civil war?

On 27 April 2024, a senior Russian official visited Sudan for the first time since the outbreak of civil war in the country. The opposing forces are the army, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti). They jointly ran a junta government until they fell out.

The April visit raised eyebrows and pricked ears because full-throated Russian involvement in the war could be decisive. Moscow is known to be interested in Sudan because it wants a naval base on the country’s Red Sea coast. The April visitor was Mikhail Bogdanov, a career diplomat and trusted Kremlin advisor. As deputy foreign minister, he is Sergei Lavrov’s right-hand man and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Middle East and Africa.

Bogdanov's stature gave a clue as to what was brewing. Bogdanov is fluent in Arabic, having held positions in Yemen (1974-77), Lebanon (1977-80), Syria (1983-89 and 1991-94), Israel (1997-2002), and Egypt (2005-11), where he was concurrently Russia’s representative to the Arab League.

Following his visit, there was much discussion of Russian motives. When former President Omar Al-Bashir visited Russia in 2017, he signed an agreement to establish a Russian naval base, but his ousting in April 2019 put the plans on ice. Could their defrosting be imminent?

Wagner and the RSF

The New York Times reported that when Hemedti visited Moscow in 2022 on a weapons-seeking trip (which he did in a private plane carrying gold bullion for his hosts), he expressed support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its establishment of a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. This reinforced a partnership between his RSF militia and Russia’s Wagner Group of battle-hardened mercenaries that is already active in several African states. Previously an arms-length company, reports suggest that Wagner is now run by Russia’s military intelligence.

Wagner mercenaries have relied on RSF support for their activities across Libya, Chad, Central Africa, and West Africa, including Ghana and Mali. They have also cooperated with the RSF on gold prospecting in areas like Darfur. For years, the Wagner-affiliated company Meroe Gold—which is now sanctioned by the West—processed and exported truckloads of Sudanese gold back to Russia, one of several Russian companies to do so.

In 2021, for instance, 16 Russian flights carried smuggled gold from Sudan to the Chkalovsky Airbase via Latakia Airport in Syria, even sometimes flying under the Soviet flag. Many of the mining sites were under RSF guard, and both the militia and the mercenaries profited handsomely. In return, Wagner has reportedly given the RSF weapons, including surface-to-air missiles.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed “deep concern about Wagner’s involvement” in Sudan, saying it brought “death and destruction” wherever it operated. A CNN investigation using satellite imagery revealed how Wagner was arming the RSF with missiles from neighbouring Libya and supplying it with fuel, weapons, and fighters from eastern Libya and Central Africa, where Wagner has influence.

For Putin, another warm-water port (alongside Latakia in Syria) would be a strategic boon, located in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Army rethinks Russia

While Hemedti agreed to a Russian base, al-Burhan did not, so Russian weapons had been going to the RSF. Angered, al-Burhan then sent his own arms and ammunition to Ukraine to help it fight Russia. Kyiv soon reciprocated, sending special forces soldiers to help al-Burhan defend the capital, Khartoum. By showing al-Burhan's men how to use drones against the RSF, Kyiv has helped them slow the advance of Hemedti's militia in Sudan.

Yet the Sudanese army is still desperate for weapons that can give it the advantage over the RSF and spare parts for its Russian-made jets to reverse RSF victories and territorial gains, so al-Burhan has relented and performed a policy U-turn on the naval base, agreeing to it in return for Russian help.

His deputy, Malik Agar, visited St Petersburg last week to meet Putin on the sidelines of a major economic conference and agree to the base in person. The deal could be decisive if it means a switched Russian allegiance.

On 25 May, a month after Bogdanov's visit, news of the Russia tie-up was announced by Sudan's General Yasser Al-Atta, the assistant army chief, who described it as "a done deal", explaining that Russia would supply "vital weapons and munitions" in return for the base.

Strategic considerations

For the White House, Russia is the second unsavoury ally of al-Burhan's, who is already working with Iran, which is supplying him with drones. Analysts note that, to date, the US has been reasonably quiet on the war crimes of the RSF. In trying to deduce motives and allegiances, commentators say it recently became apparent that the RSF could not achieve total victory in Sudan, particularly when it failed to take Port Sudan, the site of the would-be Russian base, meaning that Moscow was happy to engage both parties to the conflict.

For Putin, another warm-water port (alongside Latakia in Syria) would be a strategic boon, located in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. A base near Port Sudan would give the Kremlin important Red Sea interception capabilities and strengthen its presence in the Mediterranean.

A map showing the Port of Sudan on the Red Sea.

Read more: Why do so many foreign powers have military bases in Djibouti?

The 25-year agreement stipulates that it would be a logistical supply base capable of hosting four nuclear-powered warships plus ground crew. Under the terms, no more than 300 Russian soldiers can be there at any one time. Shortly after the deal was announced, Sudan's Deputy Commander-in-Chief Shams al-Din Kabbashi flew to Mali and Niger, where Wagner forces operate. Analysts think this means that Russia is cutting supply lines to the RSF.

View from Washington

As news emerged about the deal with Russia, Blinken called al-Burhan and urged him to negotiate with the RSF in Jeddah. But al-Burhan's team are vehemently against doing so, and the call was disastrous. Even US diplomat Susan Page criticised Blinken's approach as inappropriate. Some mocked the US for its irrelevance in Sudan, suggesting that Blinken's fleeting annual interventions and calls for negotiations are badly out-of-synch with parties' feelings and events on the ground. Others said perceived US leniency towards the RSF helped drive Khartoum into Moscow's arms.

To make matters more complicated, the RSF is allied with several US adversaries in the region, including General Khalifa Haftar, who has set up a rival government in eastern Libya, and Burkina Faso, where a military junta has declared its support for Moscow and reopened the Russian embassy.

Yet advanced American weapons, including anti-aircraft systems, are still flowing to the RSF from its foreign supporters. In December 2023, US politicians called on the United Arab Emirates to stop supporting the militia with arms, vehicles, and money. Reports suggest that the UAE has received a great deal of Sudanese gold in return.

The Sudanese army's pivot towards Russia in exchange for a naval base has implications far beyond the war in Sudan, given that it affects the broader security dynamics of the Red Sea, a major artery for maritime trade. It also highlights the US State Department's wholesale failure to read, analyse, and influence a potentially significant geopolitical shift in the Middle East and North Africa.

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