Khartoum announces ‘review’ of Sudanese-Russian naval deal

Sudan’s armed forces chief said Tuesday that the deal “included clauses that were somewhat harmful to the country. That’s why it is being reviewed.”

Thursday 03/06/2021
A file picture shows Russian navy ship docked at the port of the Sudanese city of Port Sudan. (AFP)
A file picture shows Russian navy ship docked at the port of the Sudanese city of Port Sudan. (AFP)

KHARTOUM/ MOSCOW – Sudan is reviewing a deal the previous regime negotiated with Russia allowing construction of a naval base after some clauses were found to be “somewhat harmful”, a top military official has said.

For decades, Sudan was dependent militarily on Russia because of crippling sanctions imposed by Washington against the government of now ousted president Omar al-Bashir.

But since his 2019 overthrow, Sudan has moved closer to the United States which removed Khartoum from its crippling terrorism blacklist last year.

“This deal was signed under the former National Salvation Government,” armed forces chief of staff General Mohamed Othman al-Hussein said in an interview broadcast late Tuesday.

He said “talks to review the deal to serve Sudan’s interests” had been held with a visiting Russian delegation last week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated with Bashir in 2017 on establishing a naval base in Port Sudan, on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.

No announcement was ever made by the Sudanese side but Russia said it had signed a 25-year agreement with Sudan in December last year to build and operate the base.

Under the deal, Russia’s navy was to be allowed to keep up to four ships at a time at the base, including nuclear-powered vessels.

The base was to be staffed by up to 300 military and civilian personnel.

Russia said it would have the right to transport via Sudan’s ports and airports “weapons, ammunition and equipment” needed for the naval base to function.

In recent months, Sudanese media have reported that Khartoum has suspended the agreement and demanded that Moscow remove equipment already installed in Port Sudan.

President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Wednesday that Russian and Sudanese officials have been discussing the issue through diplomatic channels.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov noted in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that Russia would like to clarify the Sudanese demands.

“We need to understand specifics,” he said. “We aren’t forcing ourselves on anyone. If there is a desire to fix something, please tell us what you want.”

But Viktor Bondarev, the former Russian air force chief who heads a defence committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, argued that “there are no objective reasons” for a revision of the agreement on the base.

“For the Sudanese side, a permanent Russian naval presence with powerful weapons will guarantee peaceful life in the long-term perspective,” Bondarev said in a statement, adding that the deal will help protect Sudan from both a possible “foreign intervention” and “domestic rifts and upheavals that Sudan has grown tired of over the past decades.”

For Russia, Bondarev argued, the base in Sudan is important to ensure the Russian navy’s presence in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and spare its ships the need of long voyages to reach the area.

Sudan’s armed forces chief said Tuesday that the deal “included clauses that were somewhat harmful to the country. That’s why it is being reviewed.”

“So long as this deal has not … been ratified, then we have some freedom to discuss it,” he said.

Under Sudan’s transitional constitution, international agreements would normally be ratified by the legislative council, which has yet to be set up.

Since August 2019, Sudan been led by a transitional administration that has sought to end the country’s international isolation.

The government has forged closer ties with the United States and in December last year, Washington de-listed Khartoum as a state sponsor of terrorism.

In March, a US warship visited Port Sudan in a move that “highlights the willingness” of the US military to “strengthen their renewed partnership” with Sudan’s armed forces, the US embassy in Khartoum said at the time.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill docked shortly after the Russian frigate Admiral Grigorovich arrived in port.

“We have begun restoring our military ties with the US,” said Hussein. “The Americans are still groping their way after the long boycott … but we are open to cooperation.”

Moscow has long sought warm water ports for its navy. President Putin published a decree in November saying he had approved a Russian government proposal to set up a naval logistics hub in Sudan.