Russia and Sudan – New Naval Base Agreement a Sea Change for the Region

Russia and Sudan – New Naval Base Agreement a Sea Change for the Region

Sudan and Russia have announced an agreement that will see Russia gain access to a naval base at Port Sudan. The posting of Russian troops and warships will shift the balance of power in the region, whether by permitting Russian vessels to operate in the area for far longer than before, or by requiring adaptations in procedure and behaviour by other forces. Russia’s allies on the African continent, such as Mozambique, may be inclined to believe Russian military assistance will become more readily available, especially when Russia’s own interests are imperilled. With the USA and China both already possessing a permanent military presence in the Horn of Africa, there is potential for situations to be misjudged.

Russia’s announcement that it will open a naval base in Sudan was news of significant import. Once established, the base will be Russia’s first on the African continent since the end of the Cold War, and only the second such facility outside of Russia beyond the base at Tartus in Syria. This base is intended to house 300 personnel, and up to four naval vessels, potentially including some of Russia’s nuclear-powered warships. By opening the base, Russia is expanding its sphere of influence into an area of the world where both the USA and China are already in a precarious balance of power, and at a time when Russia is flexing its military capabilities and connections with the continent.

Smoother Sailing

The agreement on the Sudanese base is part of a wider Russian strategy to reinforce its presence across Africa. Along with the naval facility to be built at Port Sudan, Russia is intending to construct further bases in the Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Madagascar, and Mozambique, according to a report from the German Foreign Ministry. In establishing a presence on the Red Sea, Russia’s new base will be the latest link in a chain of facilities that stretches from Sevastopol to Syria and now Sudan, expanding the Russian navy’s ability to operate in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.

Perhaps most importantly, the base will also act as a solid foundation from which to support Russian forces and interests across the continent. In Mozambique, for instance, Russia has invested in the country’s offshore gas reserves. Forces from the Wagner Group, a private Russian firm, are deployed throughout the northern Cabo Delgado province to combat the violent insurgency that has erupted, potentially threatening gas pipelines. The capacity to station and resupply warships in Sudan will better permit Russia to project force over the Mozambican theatre.

Since establishing naval flotillas at Sevastopol and Tartus, Russian vessels have been able to deliver cruise missile payloads in support of Russian forces across the Middle East. With interests in the offshore gas fields of Mozambique, Russian warships based in Sudan will be well-situated to intervene, either striking at insurgent targets ashore or prohibiting supplies from reaching the insurgents by river. Meanwhile, the presence of a Russian warship off the Mozambican coast may be a considerable boon in cementing relations between Moscow and Maputo.

Gulf of aden map

Making Waves

In seeking to re-establish itself on the African continent, Russia is stepping into an arena that is already fiercely contested by the USA and China. Both nations have military centres in Djibouti, separated by just a 15-minute drive. American concerns about the capacity for the Chinese to disrupt Djibouti’s main port, strangling vital supplies destined for the forces stationed at Camp Lemmonier, will be compounded by the prospect of Russian warships close-at-hand along the coast in Sudan. Easy access to supplies, ammunition, and facilities for repair and maintenance may embolden Russian ships to harass US warships and merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden. Even if not seeking to be deliberately antagonistic, the presence of a small Russian flotilla in such busy shipping lanes, utilised by NATO forces as well as the navies of Western allies and the Chinese, adds another layer of complexity to the challenges of navigating the waters of the Red Sea.

Choppier Waters Ahead

The agreement between Sudan and Russia for the latter’s use of a Red Sea naval base is a testament to Russia’s desire to re-engage with the African continent, and of the continent’s desire to reconnect with Moscow. At a time when the USA is debating reducing its overseas obligations, Russia is proving a far readier source of military support for its allies. More frequent and visible demonstrations of naval force, coupled with the deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries as an extension of the Russian state’s military power, will contribute further to impressions of Moscow as an increasingly reliable and proactive guarantor of peace and stability for the continent. The USA, China, and all other powers that rely on passage through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden may now need to re-evaluate their force deployments and the safety of their merchant vessels in future, to prevent interference or harassment.

Categories: Africa, Security

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