The Russian announcement on 8 December 2020 of the signature of an agreement with Sudan to establish a "Logistical Support Centre" for the Russian Navy on Sudanese soil sparked increased interest among experts and analysts who focused on the special importance of this development, especially in terms of its impact on efforts to enhance the deployment of Russian naval forces in the Red Sea, expanding the range of their operational moves, and considering its role in countering what were described as US attempts to seize influence and control in this vital region. However, questions are raised about the possibility of the implementation of this agreement by Sudan after the improvement of its relations with the US.
Background, context and terms
Within one month, Russia completed, in accelerated steps, all the necessary arrangements to establish an agreement with the Sudanese side to set up a "technical-logistical support point" for the Russian fleet in the Sudanese port of Port Sudan, overlooking the Red Sea. The first public step in this context came through a decision that was signed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, on 6 November 2020, and published on the "Official Portal of Legal Information" on the 11 November 2020. In its header, the resolution bore the definition of "a proposal addressed to the Russian President" to sign the agreement with Sudan. At the outset of his decision, the Prime Minister referred to the approval of the agreement, which was “proposed by the Ministry of Defence, in agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the relevant executive authority institutions, as well as with the Supreme Court, the Public Prosecution and the Federal Investigative Committee, given that the agreement was formulated earlier with the Sudanese side”.
On 16 November 2020, the Kremlin announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin has approved the government's proposal and mandated the Russian Ministry of Defence to sign the agreement with the Sudanese side. On 8 December 2020, the "Official Portal of Legal Information" website published the text of the agreement signed by the two parties, noting that Moscow and Khartoum had signed it at an earlier stage.
In the preamble, the two parties affirm that the agreement came “out of a common desire to strengthen and develop military cooperation aimed at strengthening the defence capability of both the Russian Federation and the Republic of Sudan”, and in recognition by both sides that “the existence of a logistical support point for the Russian Navy on the territory of the Republic of Sudan fulfills the objectives of maintaining peace and stability in the region”, and stress that the said presence “is of a defensive nature and is not directed against other countries”.
In its general lines, this agreement is not different from the Russian agreements with the Syrian government regarding the establishment of an air base in Hmeimim and a naval base in Tartus. Under this agreement, Russia also obtains extensive facilities from Sudan, and "lands" to establish the "logistical support point" in Port Sudan, free of charge, for a period of 25 years. The agreement provides for the possibility of expanding the support point. In one of its paragraphs, it stipulates the possibility of the transfer by the Sudanese side of additional areas to the Russians free of charge if necessary, pursuant to a separate protocol. With regard to the Russian military personnel and civilian contractors who will be present at the "support point", it was stated in the agreement that their number "shall not exceed 300 people at any one time", while providing for the possibility of increasing the number, albeit in agreement with the Sudanese side. All those people shall enjoy immunity before Sudanese laws and courts, provided that they would be punished and held accountable for any irregularities or violations under Russian laws. The agreement also exempts from customs duties and other financial levies all materials, equipment and ammunition that the Russian side transfers to the support point which is allowed by the agreement to host four Russian warships concurrently, including nuclear warships, while adhering to the principles of nuclear security. The Russian side shall inform the Sudanese authorities of the entry of Russian ships into Sudanese territorial waters 12 hours in advance in normal cases, and six hours in advance in cases of operational necessity. As for departure, the notice shall be three hours before departure, and in cases of operational necessity, one hour before departure.
In addition to using the support point, Russia shall also be able to use the airspace of the Republic of Sudan for the flights of Russian planes that carry supplies, equipment and weapons to the Logistical Support Centre. As for its protection, the Russian side shall assume responsibility for the security of the maritime borders, the air defence, as well as internal protection and maintaining law and order over the area of the Centre, provided that the Sudanese side shall be responsible for the external protection of its land borders.
In return for all this, the agreement stipulates that the Russian side shall provide Sudan, "free of charge", with assistance in several areas, including combating underwater sabotage, organising rescue operations in territorial waters, organising air defence for the Port Sudan base, helping to build a berth at Port Sudan port for the Sudanese Navy, and developing the infrastructure of the Sudanese naval base. In order to implement all this, Russia shall provide Sudan with free "weapons and military equipment in a manner and according to the timetable determined by the authorised bodies in a separate protocol".
Notes on the Agreement
The announcement of the Port Sudan agreement came as a surprise to observers, given that no party had previously announced that talks were underway in this regard. The first time of a mention of a base for the Russians on the Red Sea in Port Sudan was during the visit of the ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to Moscow in 2017. It was then revealed that he discussed this matter with Russian President Vladimir Putin and then with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. At the time, the Russian President, as well as the Russian Ministry of Defence, did not show any clear reaction to Bashir's proposal. The official silence about the proposal prompted experts to say that Russia did not show enough interest in it. Many doubted the possibility of establishing that base. The reactions were limited to parliamentary figures, including Senator Franz Klintsevich, the First Deputy Chairman of the Defence and Security Committee of the Federal Council, who expressed his conviction that there are no reasons for Russia to reject this idea. After underlining that the decision in such cases is up to the President, he added: “However, personally, I do not see any reason why Russia should ignore the invitation of the Sudanese side if it is raised". He expressed his conviction that "the Russian military presence on a permanent basis in that region would constitute a factor of stability". On the other hand, experts pointed out serious difficulties that prevent accepting the Sudanese proposal, including the high "unjustified" costs, given that the base, from their point of view, does not constitute a great gain, in addition to the need to take into account the potential positions of regional and international powers.
Nevertheless, and after nearly three years had passed since Bashir's announcement, the agreement was signed. Some experts believe that Russia has been slow in signing and did not hold public talks about the base during the era of Omar al-Bashir, due to the West’s position on him, especially the US. However, others believe that the talks between the defence ministries in the two countries began since the era of Bashir, but they took place in extreme secrecy, given that the West's position on Bashir would not have hindered Russia from this step, because Moscow signed agreements with Damascus and built bases in Syria despite the West’s strict position on the head of the Syrian regime. The same applies to the continued cooperation with the Venezuelan regime. Holders of this view do not rule out that the Sudanese commitment to sign the agreement came before the removal of Bashir. Talks in this regard were briefly halted during the popular uprising, and were later resumed after the ouster of Bashir and the stabilisation of the situation in Sudan.
It is worth attention in this context that the Sudanese side signed the Russian Logistical Support Centre agreement on 23 July 2019, while Russia did not sign it until 1 December 2020. This indicates that Russia has been reluctant to announce the agreement, pending making sure that conditions are stable and secure in Sudan, and that no armed conflicts are erupting between the protagonists in the post-Bashir era, given that the new Sudanese authorities after the overthrow of Bashir confirmed in 2019 Khartoum’s adherence to the political, economic and military agreements signed with Russia.
Strategic goals of the Russian Logistical Support Centre
While taking its decision to establish the Logistical Support Centre in Port Sudan on the Red Sea, Russia based its action on several starting points, some of which are related to the ongoing competition, especially in the global seas, with the US "naval power"; others are related to efforts to restore Russia's regional and international influence. Russian military experts believed that this step came as a repetition or continuation of the approach of military leaders in the Soviet era, who used to see the possession by the US of a network of naval bases in a large number of countries as a major factor that gave the US fleets high effectiveness and the ability to quickly exist in the "theatre of operations", thus a strengthened US influence. On the other hand, the Soviets did not have such extensive networks, and their ships had to go a long journey to their main bases for maintenance and intake of equipment, fuel and supplies, which limited the effectiveness of the Soviet fleet compared to the capabilities of the US fleets. Therefore, there has been a constant endeavour in Russia since the Soviet era to expand the network of support centres for the naval forces in the ports of friendly countries in order to enhance the operational capacity of the fleets, thus enabling them to play a more influential role in limiting the almost unlimited influence of the US fleets in the global seas, especially in sensitive and strategically important areas for Moscow. This issue remains critical to this day, given the continuing US-Russian rivalry.
The retired Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, former chief of the general staff of the Russian Navy, had said in an interview with Interfax agency that Russia shall, through the maritime point in Sudan, enhance its presence in Africa and expand the operational capabilities of the Russian fleet. He added that the Russian vessels that are constantly present in that area need a support point and shall be able, if necessary, to enter the support point in Port Sudan to refuel and carry out maintenance operations.
In addition, the location of the Russian Logistical Support Centre between the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab strait, and near areas of tension such as the Arabian Gulf and the Mediterranean, will provide Russia with the capacity to play more influential roles in any potential conflict that might arise, including due to gas in the East Mediterranean or for other reasons, and also in the event of an escalation in the form of an open confrontation between the West and Iran, or between Iran and the Arab countries in the Arabian Gulf.
However, based on the evaluation of the Russian policy during the past two decades, this does not mean that Russia will get involved in any of the potential conflicts in the region. However, its military presence in the "theatre of operations", that is in the conflict zone, will enhance its chances of presenting itself as a "mediator" to de-escalate between the parties, especially that some analysts in Moscow believe that the military presence in Syria for example, while it constitutes support for the Syrian regime, is a major factor that allowed Russia to project itself as a mediator in the Syrian settlement and the acceptance by all international parties of this Russian role. The "military" factor also played a major role in the agreement of the two parties to the conflict over the Nagorno Karabakh region, namely Armenia and Azerbaijan, to Russian mediation and the subsequent deployment of Russian "peace-keeping" forces in the region.
In addition to the above, the Logistical Support Centre will doubtlessly have an impact on Russia's economic interests. In this regard, Oleg Krinitsyn, a retired brigadier general in Russian intelligence and chief executive officer of the private military company RSB-Group, believes that the Russian Support Centre can control the transit of oil in that region, referring to the oil production in South Sudan, which does not have sea outlets to export its production, depending for this on a pipeline through the Sudanese territory and the oil refinery in Port Sudan. For his part, Andrei Orlov, an expert on arms exports, pointed out that Sudan is one of the largest importers of Russian weapons in Africa. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Sudan has occupied the second place in Africa since 2000, after Algeria, in the purchase of Russian weapons. Thus, the Support Centre can constitute a "base" to secure those interests combined.
In addition to arms exports, Russia has many economic interests in the region, including projects in several fields that are implemented by Russian companies. The Russian Support Centre in Port Sudan can play a role in preserving those interests, according to a vision expressed by the expert in the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Anton Mardasov who said that "legitimising" the Russian military presence in Sudan is another goal of establishing the Russian Support Centre in Port Sudan. He pointed out that private military companies have been constituting that presence in recent years, and explained that the people with military background in those companies "sought to preserve the interests during the change of power after the ouster of Omar al-Bashir". Press reports had stated that since 2017, Russia has signed agreements with Sudan according to which the former obtained "concessions" in gold mining. An agreement was concluded with a company linked to businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as "Putin’s Chef", who according to several reports is also the owner of the Russian military company Wagner Group.
The motives and interests of the Sudanese side
Given that talk about the agreement has been going on at various levels since 2017, often behind closed doors, opinions tend to be that Khartoum was hoping that the Russian presence would relieve pressure on it by the West. Even after the removal of the former regime, dialogues with Moscow continued to take place within the framework of diversifying options for the new Sudanese leadership and improving its negotiating positions with the various parties, given that the agreement offers Sudan the potential of obtaining military donations from Russia that were identified in the document as falling within the framework of joint cooperation to protect the base in Port Sudan. Naturally, Sudan, as an important military partner of Russia, is interested in obtaining areas to reinforce the arming of its army and its rehabilitation, in addition to continuing the maintenance and renewal of the old weapons and equipment in Sudan’s possession.
However, strikingly, the Sudanese authorities met the Russian announcement of signing the agreement, and the subsequent posting of the document on the government portal of documents signed with foreign countries, with complete silence. It appeared that the developments taking place in terms of developing Sudanese-US relations and lifting Khartoum from the list of terrorism prompted Khartoum to refrain from raising a controversy over the agreement. It is difficult to determine the causes of the official Sudanese silence at present. Some Russian experts say that Moscow deliberately published the document at this time to force Khartoum to fulfil the obligation of implementing a signed agreement, and to improve Moscow’s negotiating position in any development related to this issue.
Significance of this development against the background of improved Sudanese-US relations
From the beginning, Moscow has been expecting a US obstruction to the development of military cooperation with Sudan. This was among the reasons for delaying the response to the offer made by former President Omar al-Bashir since 2017. According to the views of Russian experts, Washington will seek to halt the implementation of the agreement, although it has not yet officially commented on its announcement. In this context, Russian attention is directed towards the reaction of the new US administration, which has not yet engaged in dealing with a number of important regional issues, including the new relationship with Sudan.
In general, Moscow's hastening to unilaterally announce the agreement indicates its desire to measure the reaction of the various parties, including the US and regional powers of influence and interest.
Russian experts believe that Washington may seek to contain the practical implementation of the agreement by influencing Khartoum to delay the implementation of the terms of the agreement. However, according to Russian experts, the issue of presence in Sudan is not related merely to the situation in the Red Sea, where Moscow is seeking to enhance its presence and role. It is also linked to the Russian effort to establish a permanent presence on the African continent. Therefore, it seems that this issue will be among the points on the agenda of Russian-US dialogues in the event that understandings are reached with the new US administration to launch a comprehensive dialogue of this kind.
As far as Moscow is concerned, the options before it with regard to the agreement with Sudan are limited to the following:
1. The best option is for Sudan to preserve the agreement, which would give Moscow the opportunity to have a permanent presence in the Red Sea, in a way that would expand the operational range of the Russian fleet's movements in the whole region of the Middle East and Africa. In this case, Moscow would be ready to fully resume military cooperation with Sudan in a manner that would repeat, for example, the experience of the latter’s cooperation with Turkey, although it is a key ally of Washington and a member of NATO.
2. The less acceptable option is for the agreement to provide a legal basis, considering that it is now officially signed by the two parties, for Moscow to improve the conditions for its presence in Sudan, even if the launch of operations at the Logistical Support Centre of the Russian Navy is delayed. In other words, the agreement provides a legal basis for strengthening the Russian position in obtaining extensive facilities in Sudanese ports and airports, even if external obstacles prevent the full implementation of the agreement. This scenario was implemented, for example, with Egypt, given that an agreement was signed for the mutual use of ports and airports for military purposes between the two countries at the end of 2017, although it has not yet been activated. In other words, it has not been used in practice although it is still in place.
3. The worst option would be the emergence of harbingers of a Sudanese withdrawal from the agreement under pressure or influence of the US or other parties. In this case, the official Sudanese silence may be a prelude to a development of this kind. Russian sources do not usually reveal the possible mechanisms of action in this case. However, Moscow's intentional publication of the agreement at this time indicates that it has decided to test the extent of Sudan's ability to establish a balance in relations between Moscow on the one hand and the West on the other hand.
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