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Sudan: Can Russia Capitalize on Sudan’s Coup?

Sudan's head of the military, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan

Sudan: Can Russia Capitalize on Sudan’s Coup?

Russia will possibly make geopolitical gains at the US’s expense because of this month’s military coup in Sudan. But with so much uncertainty in the picture, Moscow likely joins other capitals in being somewhat nervous about Sudan’s situation.

For Russia, the stakes are high in Sudan because of Moscow’s vested interests in the country and the greater region. Following the intensification of Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015, Moscow has worked to project its power in areas of the Arab world where the Soviets used to wield influence, including Sudan. Situated along the Red Sea, the country has become increasingly strategically valuable to Russia in recent years. Establishing a foothold in Sudan has been important to Moscow’s foreign policy in this body of water and the African continent at large.

Over the years, the Russians have built up strong relations with the Omar al-Bashir regime as well as the transitional government that took power after the dictator’s 2019 ouster. Sudan has become one of the major markets in Africa for Russian arms, and one of Russia’s top trade partners in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sudanese security forces
Sudanese security forces are deployed during a protest a day after the military seized power Khartoum(AP Photo/Marwan Ali)

An aspect of Russian foreign policy that appealed to Khartoum during the Bashir era was Moscow’s opposition to lecturing foreign countries about human rights and democratization. When the International Criminal Court was pursuing Bashir for his crimes, Russia sold itself to Sudan as a power which (unlike western governments) respects the sovereignty of states in the Global South. In other words, Moscow presented itself to the Sudanese regime as a force against western meddling.

That said, Russian support for Bashir’s government during its final months in power, which entailed deployment of the Wagner Group to Sudan, had a negative impact on Russian soft power over pro-democracy elements in the country which came to see Russia as a counter-revolutionary player.

However, this did not prevent Moscow from working pragmatically with the military-civilian hybrid government that ruled Sudan from 2019 until this month’s coup. In fact, by late last year, Sudan and Russia signed a 25-year military-technical cooperation deal for the establishment of a Russian naval base in Sudan’s main port, the first Russian naval post in Africa. This did not sit well with the Biden administration which, according to some sources, put pressure on Sudan’s transitional government to cool its ties with the Kremlin.

Go East or West?

The internal dynamics within Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council (TSC) shaped the country’s position between the West and Russia. The military wing was far keener to bring Khartoum into much closer alignment with Moscow and bring Sudanese-Russian relations to heights while the civilian leadership sought to move toward the US. Thus, some experts expect this month’s military takeover of Sudan to benefit Moscow geopolitically.  

“Western countries, such as France and the US, which were re-engaging with Sudan and supporting its economic development will likely curtail this cooperation,” Dr. Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the London-based RUSI think tank, told Newslooks. “Non-Western powers, such as Russia and China, and Middle East regional powers will become the foundations of Sudanese foreign policy”.

Comparing the US and Russia’s reactions to the coup is informative. The Biden administration quickly condemned the military takeover and announced its suspension of USD 700 million in aid to Sudan. Yet officials in Moscow did not condemn the coup. “We are convinced that the Sudanese can and should independently solve internal problems and determine the vector of their country’s sovereign development, proceeding from national interests,” said Russia’s Foreign Ministry. “The Russian Federation will continue to respect the choice of the friendly Sudanese people and provide them with all the necessary assistance.”

Despite the United Nations Security Council being unified behind a statement calling on Sudan to bring back civilian rule, Moscow stressed the need to prevent foreign powers from intervening in Khartoum. Indeed, while not officially supporting the coup, Moscow quickly placed blame on the doorstep of outside powers (ie. the United States) which engaged in “large-scale foreign interference in the internal affairs” of Sudan. According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, this led to Sudanese citizens losing confidence in the TSC.

“Russia’s…unwillingness to criticize the coup underscores its desire to accommodate and capitalize on the latest developments,” explained Dr. Ramani. “While the Port Sudan base issue appears to be on the backburner, [General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman] Burhan’s consolidation of power will definitely facilitate its passage. It is notable that Federation Council figures who condemned the 2019 coup are silent this time around. It shows that Russia’s foreign and defense policy establishments are united around capitalizing on the coup.”

Reasons to be Nervous

However, Russian officials are aware that Sudan’s situation comes with much uncertainty. “Officially, Moscow seems to still be carefully evaluating the situation, releasing predictable diplomatic statements like calling for peace and stability, but behind the scenes it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s very concerned,” said Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst, Told Newslooks. “That might not just be due to speculation about whether its planned Red Sea naval base could be traded away to the US as a form of pressure relief—however possibly short-lived. It’s also because the socio-political dynamics that the latest events unleashed augur negatively for Sudanese stability and could thus endanger existing and future Russian investments there.”

At the same time, Russian policymakers understand that Sudan’s military regime may attempt to play the US and Russia off each other to the junta’s advantage. “These new Sudanese military authorities might wager that it’s better to bargain away the country’s growing military-strategic ties with Russia in exchange for a reduction of pressure from the US,” according to Korybko.“ In particular, this could take the former of continually delaying — if not outright reneging — on Russia’s planned Red Sea naval base that was discussed last December. The former Bashir government’s since-stalled proposal from December 2018 for Russia to participate in the Sudanese portion of trans-African railway could also remain frozen. That would continue to deprive Russia of strategic investment potential in Africa upon which it might have prospectively relied to expand its growing influence across the continent even further.” More By the Author

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