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Sudan: Russia’s Bridge to Africa?

Russia's Bridge to Africa
This picture taken on April 27, 2021 shows a view of a Russian navy ship docked at the port of the Sudanese city of Port Sudan. Ibrahim ISHAQ / AFP

On the eve of the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine, Lieutenant-General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, Vice-President of the Sudanese Sovereign Council, visited Russia on 23 February 2022. The visit aroused a lot of internal and international denunciations and brought back the declared, hidden and multi-objective Sudanese-Russian relations.

The suspicious timing of the visit of Dagalo (AKA Hemetti) could be due to his lack of experience and his novelty to the international relations nature. During the visit, Dagalo came up with a controversial statement. Although he expressed his hope for a peaceful solution to the crisis, he said that Russia has the right to defend its people. The semi-illiterate general added: “This is a right guaranteed by the constitution and the law, and the whole world has the right to defend its people.” In other words, the statement shows the Sudanese consent for the Russian invasion.

An Anxious, Improvised Response

Dagalo’s eagerness to visit Moscow at this time was an anxious and improvised response. It showed the political and economic pressures weighing down General Al-Burhan’s government after his coup on the civilian authority headed by Abdallah Hamdok on 25 October 2021.

The Khartoum government was greatly disappointed by the United States and Western countries’ stance against the military coup. They froze more than $3 billion in promised aid to Sudan, which is a country that faces economic difficulties and prolonged political turmoil. Therefore, the Al-Burhan government is currently seeking international support from another party. In 2018, former President Omar al-Bashir took a similar move by visiting Moscow. Then he was overthrown a few months later, in April 2019.

The US response to Hemetti’s visit came quickly through a statement by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House of Representatives, Gregory Meeks. He said in a tweet that “Sudan sending a delegation to Russia as it launches an invasion in Ukraine sends an undeniable message to the world: Sudan’s junta has no interest in supporting democracy or the basic principles of sovereignty. We are watching”.

The European Union’s response was not less decisive. Unprecedently, they sent all their ambassadors in Khartoum to the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Feb. 27, 2022, to meet with the Sudanese Foreign Minister.

After the meeting, Robert van den Dool, Head of the EU Delegation to Sudan, said that the ambassadors called on Sudan to join the international community in supporting multilateralism and adopting rules based on the international system. He also urged Khartoum not to tolerate Russia’s illegal decision to recognise the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Salma Abdul Jabbar, the official spokesman for the Transitional Sovereignty Council, made a statement in response. She said that the council affirmed Sudan’s stance in resorting to dialogue to resolve the crisis between Russia and Ukraine and made it clear that Sudan stands with a diplomatic solution as a way out of the crisis and supports the ongoing efforts between the two countries.

Reviving Old Relations

In any case, Russia and Sudan’s aspiration for closer and stronger relations is not the result of transient and emergency pressures. The only variable is the motives and aspirations of both parties, in which the Russian side uses multiple public diplomatic means and other ambiguous and unofficial ones. Russia has its eyes on Sudan’s important location on the Red Sea and Sudan’s abundant mineral resources through the leviathan Wagner Security Group.

Sudanese-Russian relations experienced an increasing growth in the military and economic fields from 1993 to 2020. At the same time, The US designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism. Consequently, Sudan was subjected to a severe political and economic siege.

The rapprochement between the two countries reached a milestone with the two visits that former President Omar al-Bashir to Russia paid to Russia in November 2017 and July 2018. He publicly asked President Vladimir Putin to protect Sudan from hostile American policies. He told Putin in the presence of journalists: “The situation on the Red Sea raises our concerns, and we believe that the American intervention in that region is also problematic. We want to discuss this issue in terms of utilising military bases in the Red Sea”.

Moscow was not enthusiastic about the Sudanese offer at the time. However, it remedied the matter and concluded four cooperation agreements between the two countries, especially after Presidents Vladimir Putin and Burhan’s meeting in Russia in October 2019.

Sudan was reluctant to move forward with the agreement when its relations with the West improved while Abdallah Hamdok was prime minister. Still, Putin ratified the agreement in November 2020.

The agreement, which is valid for 25 years, includes establishing a Russian naval base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea, which the Russians prefer to call a “logistical support centre”. The agreed-upon logistic centre accommodates 300 soldiers and employees and can host four warships simultaneously, including ships carrying nuclear-powered devices.

In a press statement, Sudanese Defence Minister Major-General Yassin Ibrahim said: “In fact, it is not about a single agreement, but instead about four deals regarding military cooperation between the two countries. It provides for establishing a representation of the Russian Ministry of Defence in Sudan, facilitates the entry of Russian warships to Sudanese ports, and works toward establishing a Russian logistic support centre in Sudan.

In statements to Sputnik, president Burhan said: “We have an agreement with Russia, including the establishment of a naval base in Port Sudan, and we talk about it constantly. Also, we have some observations that we need to remove before proceeding with it”, without further details.

He added: “We are committed to international agreements, and will continue to implement the agreement to the end”, and thanked Russia for its opposition to the condemnation of his military coup by the UN Security Council.

The Octopus That is Wagner

Russia's Bridge to Africa
Sudan’s military leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), gives a press conference upon his return from the Russian capital Moscow, at the airport in Khartoum, on March 2, 2022. ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP

News about Wagner’s activity in Sudan began several months after former President Omar al-Bashir visited Russia in 2017. It is a private Russian paramilitary company founded by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close acquaintance of Putin and Russian intelligence.

Wagner began in Sudan, through the companies “Meroe Gold” and “M-Invest”, activities to mine gold, attracting many Sudanese and foreign adventurers two decades ago. But Wagner soon expanded its activities to provide security services to Bashir’s regime to face the popular uprising against him in December 2018. It provided the regime with cyber services against activists, disrupting opposition websites and influencing the content of websites around Sudan by creating thousands of fake pro-regime accounts until Facebook was forced to intervene and block them.

Wagner security experts were seen in the streets of Khartoum roaming in Russian trucks in their distinguished military uniforms, and their photos were published on Sudanese websites. Later, the company continued to support the military against the civilian government and promote Russian interests in Sudan.

It is unknown precisely when the Wagner Company’s relationship with the Rapid Support Forces and Hemetti began. However, Wagner’s activity in prospecting for gold and other minerals in Darfur, far from government control and oversight, rich with chaos and insecurity, have brought them closer. Also, the situation there facilitated both parties’ extensive gold smuggling operations, which the Sudanese authorities recognise but do not have the means to stop them.

After that, Wagner assumed training the RSF militia, providing them with arms, and improving their image on media platforms.

Press reports indicate that Wagner has trained and is still training officers from the RSF on operating drones in Russia. That may cause an imbalance between the RSF and the Sudanese army and threaten to strengthen the military and economic power of a force of an ethnic nature and a specific geographic affiliation against the majority of citizens.

Wagner: From Sudan to its Neighbours

The cooperation of RSF and the Wagner Group crossed the Sudanese borders. Both were providing military support to Major-General Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya, fueling the Libyan civil war. That is why the Libyan parties could not expel foreign mercenaries from their lands even after acknowledging their deployment and agreeing to expel them from the country.

In cooperation with the RSF from Sudan, Wagner also infected Sudan’s exhausted neighbour, the Central African Republic. Western and local media claim that Wagner transported arms and personnel from Sudan to the Central African Republic through its airports or across the borders from the Um Dafuq region. Later, this prompted the United States to list the Russian M-Invest on the sanctions list on July 15, 2020, as a cover for the Wagner Group.

Wagner acts like a cat claw for Russian strategies in Africa. It was able even to expel France from Mali, and it seeks similar objectives in 10 other African countries in which it is active.

Le Monde concludes in a lengthy report that, “after 30 years of disengagement from Africa following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the “great saga” of Russia’s return to the continent from Sudan began in 2017″.

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