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Sudan: Russia, US vie for military presence in Port Sudan

The two superpowers are separately in talks with Sudanese authorities to gain a foothold on the Red Sea, but Khartoum's civilian leadership worries about being sidelined
US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S Churchill, is seen anchored in Port Sudan on 1 March 2021 (AFP)
By MEE correspondent in Khartoum

Sudan is in talks to allow Russia and the United States to both cement their military presence on its coast and build naval bases by the Red Sea, military and civilian sources told Middle East Eye. 

The sources, who requested anonymity because they are not authorised to talk to the media, said that Sudanese authorities were studying proposals from both countries to build regional maritime partnerships that could help the international fight against terrorism, human trafficking and piracy. 

Three Russian and US warships docked in the coastal city of Port Sudan in February and March, interpreted as an escalation of the competition between the two international powers to solidify their military presence in Sudanese territorial waters in the Red Sea. 

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Sudan suffers from an economic crisis and tribal clashes in the periphery of the country, which are widely believed to be triggered by supporters of ousted president Omar Al-Bashir.

Meanwhile, the country is seeking to warm its ties with the West after years of sanctions. This has led the joint civilian-military transitional government to normalise its ties with Israel, and pay more than $300m to the victims of attacks against US embassies in Africa in the 1990s as proof of goodwill. 

The army, which entered a power-sharing with the civilian opposition after Bashir was removed from office following mass protests in 2019, seems to be playing a big role in seducing US forces in Africa (AFRICOM) as well as Russia. 

But the issue is further complicating a continuing dispute between the military and civilian wings of the transitional government, as the latter accuse the army of once again sidelining them in shaping foreign policy. 

Navy bases and docked ships

In November, the Sudanese army struck a deal with Russia allowing Moscow to build a naval base on its coast, a move seen as an expansion of Russian presence not only in Sudan but also in the Red Sea and Africa as a whole. 

The planned base would include 300 military crew and become a logistical centre for Moscow's maritime presence in Africa.

Three months after the naval base deal, the Admiral Grigorovich became the first Russian warship to enter Port Sudan on 28 February, docking there for several days. 

In January, AFRICOM's deputy commander for civil-military engagement, Ambassador Andrew Young, and Director of Intelligence Rear Admiral Heidi Berg visited Sudan in a significant trip to expand cooperative engagement with the US, after Washington rescinded its designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in December

"We are at a moment of historic change in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Sudan, made possible by the brave efforts of the Sudanese people to chart a bold new course toward democracy," Young said at the time. "We are committed to strengthening our relationship and exploring opportunities together."

During the trip, Young and Berg met with Sudanese Sovereign Council Chairman General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, in order to recognise the efforts of the transitional government.

Around the same time as the Russian warship was in the port, US guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S Churchill and transport ship USNS Carson City also arrived in Port Sudan, similarly staying there for a few days each.

Conflicts of interest? 

Employees of the Maritime Security Services Company, Sudan, a private think tank that monitors the Red Sea, believe that the docking of US and Russian warships in Port Sudan around the same time marked a conflict of interest.

The organisation's commercial officer, Wail Wail Dagash, told MEE that the US likely intends to limit Russian presence in Sudan. 

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"While the US fully endorses the new civilian government in Sudan, the curbing of Russian influence in the Red Sea requires the blessing of the Sudanese military, which currently leads the new coalition government until 2022, when the civilian revolutionaries will then lead the transition government for another two years until elections," he said.

Dagash further believes that Sudan and the broader region would benefit from the presence of naval bases of different nationalities in Khartoum's territorial waters. 

"Having two or more strong naval bases at Port Sudan means regular sea patrols, which in turn will reduce or maybe eliminate human trafficking, piracy and other types of smuggling," Dagash said.

For his part, former diplomat US Cameron Hudson told MEE that Moscow and Washington were approaching Sudan from different perspectives. 

"On the military front, Russia and the US are trying to secure a foothold on the Red Sea, but more than that, they are vying for influence in a country that has just recently opened itself up to the outside world," he said.

"While they both may have a security interest in the country, the US has chosen a strategic approach to Sudan that involves supporting it financially, economically, politically and socially to help bring about a democratic transition in the country and long-term stability for the region," he said.

"To the extent that Russia has a strategy, it is merely to promote its own influence and to prevent Sudan from moving into a US orbit. The two approaches are hardly comparable."

However, Sudanese academic Abu Bakr Bakhit from Red Sea University believes that the race is heating up between the two international powers over control of Red Sea security.

He warned that Sudan has to deal seriously with these international pressures and refrain from participating in diplomatic games that could negatively affect Sudan's sovereignty and interests.

"Sudan is still following the same foreign policy as under Bashir's old regime, of playing with the regional and international axes," he said. "That has to change after the revolution. Sudan is supposed to adopt balanced and independent policies."

Domestic disputes 

A Sudanese diplomat told MEE on condition of anonymity that the United States was much closer to getting a military foothold in the Red Sea, based on the recent rapprochement with the US administration since Sudan's removal from the US terror list. 

"Both civilians and military officials are welcoming Washington's rapprochement with the transitional government," the diplomat said. "Meanwhile, the civilian side has been excluded from the agreement with Russia, which has only been signed with the army generals in the transitional government."

A military source confirmed that, while the deal had been cemented with Russia in November, it was considered an extension of a previous agreement between Russia and Bashir. 

"Sudan's former regime had begun an initial military rapprochement between Sudan and Russia," the source, who also requested anonymity, told MEE. "Bashir even asked Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2017 to protect Sudan from what he called 'the aggressive acts of the United States' against Sudan."

Bakhit said that the tensions over which global power to prioritise closely overlapped with the domestic conflict between the army and civilians in Sudan, including tribal clashes in Eastern Sudan, where Bashir supporters are believed to play a role. 

"We can clearly notice that the military side is closer to Russia and its alliance to the old regime of Omar Al-Bashir, while the civilians are closer to the West, particularly the US," he said. 

International race for Sudan's favour

Analysts further believe that other international and regional actors may get involved. 

"Other countries, from the Gulf to Turkey to European Union members, are seeking to gain influence and have good relations with Sudan, as all recognise it as strategically important on the Red Sea, but also because of its land routes across the Horn [of Africa]," Hudson said.

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Dagash further hypothethised that Sudan could play a role in the regional tensions between Gulf states and Iran, should Khartoum side more decisively with Saudi Arabia and its allies.

"Politically, it would mean that Iranian warships would no longer call at Port Sudan, which made both Saudi Arabia and Egypt very nervous in the past," he said.

Dagash urged Sudanese decision-makers to look beyond Moscow and Washington. 

"As Sudan's main trading partner and creditor for the last 30 years, China is watching all these developments in the new Sudan [after Bashir] and the competition between Russia and the US in Port Sudan very closely," he noted.

"I would say, don't wait. Be bold, engage the Chinese as well, thank them for their support during our dark years, and offer China a foothold in the Red Sea through a Port Sudan base as well. Port Sudan should be a strategic port for the military superpowers."

Dagash saw other countries in the area as a potential example to follow.

"Djibouti, for example, is home to the most extensive array of military powers seen anywhere in the world," he said, pointing to the presence there of forces from the United States, China, Japan, France, Italy, Spain and most recently Saudi Arabia.

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