Sudan’s silence about Russian base reflects divergences in Khartoum

Agreeing to Russian military presence could clash with US interests.
Friday 20/11/2020
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin meets with head of Sudan’s transitional sovereign council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan at the Russia–Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia October 23, 2019.  REUTERS
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin meets with head of Sudan’s transitional sovereign council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan at the Russia–Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia October 23, 2019. (REUTERS)

KHARTOUM– There is a lot riding behind the silence observed by the transitional authority in Sudan regarding the agreement to let Moscow to establish a logistics base for the Russian navy on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.

In recent days, the Russian government published the terms of the agreement reached in 2019, which would give Russia a foothold in the Red Sea, a region of great strategic importance.

The Russian announcement came shortly after the US administration began removing Sudan from the list of world sponsors of  terrorism. The agreement  unleashed speculations about the path where Sudanese foreign policy is heading.

Arab political analysts say that the poles of power in Sudan, namely the Sovereignty Council, the Council of Ministers, and the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change (the ruling coalition), do not see eye to eye on the country’s foreign relations.

The analysts point out that these differences are mainly due to the divergent and often dissonant intellectual and political backgrounds of these parties, which makes it difficult to talk about harmony and a unified vision in the country’s foreign diplomacy.

When questioned about the Russian logistical base, Sudanese army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Hisham Othman Hussein, curtly said, “Not now”. In the meanwhile, officials in the civilian-led government refuse to make any statement about the issue.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially approved, by presidential decree, the draft agreement which his government brought back to life after months of silence.

According to the local Russia Today website, the draft agreement provides for the establishment on Sudanese land of a technical supply centre for the Russian naval war fleet. The presidential decree, which was published in Moscow, stated, “The establishment of the (Russian) centre responds to the objectives of supporting peace and stability in the region, bears a defensive character and is not directed against any country.”

The centre is expected to accommodate 300 soldiers and employees, and can simultaneously host up to 4 military ships, including a nuclear-powered one, while adhering to the principles of nuclear and environmental security.

The project of a Russian logistics centre in Sudan dates back to 2017, when Sudan and Russia signed, during the visit of the ousted President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to Moscow, several agreements for military cooperation, related to training, exchange of expertise, and access to ports in both countries.

During Bashir’s visit, the two parties discussed the establishment of a Russian military base in the Red Sea, but Russia was not very enthusiastic about the offer at the time, before coming back to it recently and announcing its intention to implement it.

Strategic expert and political analyst, retired Major General Amin Ismail Majzoub, said, “It is clear that the activation of the agreement by the Russians took place at this particular time for two reasons.” He gave the first reason as “the change that occurred because of the December 2018 revolution, that is, about 7 months after the signing of the agreement, and therefore, there was no government in place to deal with for a long time.”

This view is supported by the increase in official meetings between the two sides. In October 2019, Putin announced, upon his meeting with the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, during the Russian-African summit in Sochi, Russia’s support for Sudanese efforts to normalise the country’s internal political situation.

In September 2019, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at the United Nations headquarters, on the occasion of the 74thsession of the General Assembly in New York.

The two sides agreed at the time to continue their cooperation and coordination in all issues of common interest, according to the Sudan News Agency.

On the way to Sudan

The second reason, according to Majzoub, is “the removal of Sudan from the list of states sponsoring terrorism, and normalisations of relations with Israel, which will mean that the future will witness an Israeli and American presence in Sudan.”

On October 23, the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the transitional government had agreed to normalise relations with Israel. On the same day, the White House announced that US President Donald Trump informed Congress of his intention to remove Sudan from the US blacklist of terrorism sponsors, on which it figured since 1993, for hosting then-Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

In anticipation of the moves by the United States and Israel, “Russia pre-empted the two parties to come to Sudan and establish a presence on the Red Sea, by establishing this logistical centre, which eventually will be turned into a naval base similar to that of Tartus, or Lattakia, in Syria,” Majzoub explained.

Regarding the reasons for the delay in announcing the agreement by the transitional government in Sudan, Majzoub said, “The matter is due to two reasons; The first is the absence of a military official speaking on behalf of the armed forces so far, due to considerations related to the dismissal of the former military spokesman and despite the availability of candidates for his replacement.”

As for the second reason, it is linked to “the surprise caused by the Russian government’s decision to approve the agreement and submit it to President Putin for approval. It was a sudden move and Khartoum needs time to regain its balance and respond to the matter, either with approval or otherwise.”

According to observers, this issue will rekindle the same dispute that has arisen recently regarding the issue of normalising relations with Israel, as political forces supported by the Council of Ministers will be reluctant to proceed with agreements signed by Bashir’s regime (1989-2019).

Even if some of the military officers in power are in favour of proceeding with the Russian agreement, there is a level of uncertainty about the ability of Khartoum to ensure the adoption of an agreement like this one, at the Sudan reiterates its desire for greater cooperation with the United States and the international community and of working towards balanced foreign relations.

In addition, a move like this at this time may push Washington to delay removing Sudan from the list of states sponsoring terrorism, given that this step strengthens relations with Russia at the expense of US interests in the region.