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Russia's influence deepens as Sudan remains ignored by western powers

  • Giorgio Cafiero
  • 19 Feb 2020

The Kremlin is positioning itself as indispensable to Sudan while it bids to increase its sway over Africa and Muslim countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and President of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan pose for a photo during their meeting on the sideline of Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019 ( AP )

Shunned by the United States and other western powers for many years, Sudan has almost naturally found itself pursuing a deeper partnership with Russia. 

From the Kremlin’s perspective, stronger relations with Khartoum serve Russian interests in many ways. 

As a resource-rich country sharing seven international borders, Sudan has become a linchpin of Moscow’s ambitious foreign policy in Africa and the wider Arab world. 

Nonetheless, many questions about the future of Russian-Sudanese relations in the post-Bashir era are open. Especially so given the possibility of more reconciliation between Washington and Khartoum and anti-Russian sentiments among elements of Sudan’s civil society who equate Moscow with the Bashir government’s crackdown on anti-regime protestors in 2018-2019. 

Yet it is a safe bet that Russia will make major efforts to keep Khartoum within its orbit of geopolitical influence regardless of how developments in Sudan’s political arena unfold in the months and years ahead.

Sudan became a Russia-friendly country years ago. By using its vote at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to protect Khartoum from international pressure in relation to the Darfur crisis of the 2000s, Russia’s leadership bought considerable goodwill with Bashir’s regime. 

In 2017, about half of Sudan’s arms purchases were Russia-sourced, making Sudan Russia’s second-largest weapons buyer in Africa. That same year, M Invest (a Russian mining firm) received preferential access to gold reserves in Sudan, which occurred in the aftermath of Bashir’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. 

During Omar al Bashir’s final months in power, he turned to Moscow for help in various forms - which he received. The Russian government sent Private Military Contractors (PMCs) to Sudan to beef up Bashir’s security forces and the Kremlin was, according to certain reports, involved in media misinformation campaigns aimed at portraying the Sudanese protestors as pushing LGBTQ agendas, attacking mosques and hospitals, and serving the Israeli government’s agendas in Sudan. 

Moscow attempted to strengthen Bashir’s position in line with the Kremlin’s wider efforts throughout Africa and the Arab world — most notably in Syria — to portray Russia as a go-to power for regimes to turn to amid domestic crises. 

The message is clear: in contrast to the US, which “betrayed” its longstanding ally Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Russia stands by its own allies in the region.

Shrewd manoeuvring

After the April 2019 coup that ousted Bashir, Moscow was quick to support the Sudanese military junta. Similar to how Russia used its power within the UNSC to shield Bashir’s government from the body, Moscow also defended the Transitional Military Council (TMC) in mid-2019. 

Following the killing of pro-democracy protestors in Khartoum by security forces in early June 2019, the United Kingdom and Germany requested that the UNSC call on the TMC to work with the civilian opposition in order to pursue a “consensual solution” which failed to pass due to Russia and China. 

Russian Deputy Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy criticised the western-backed statement as lacking balance while emphasising that the UNSC needed to exercise caution, warning that the statement “could just spoil the situation.” 

In the process, Russia’s image suffered among many Sudanese citizens who saw Russian backing for the TMC as standing in the way of their democratic and revolutionary aspirations.

Despite Moscow’s support for the military junta that ousted Bashir, Russia’s government strongly supported the power-sharing agreement reached in August 2019. Since this agreement was reached, Moscow has sought to pursue a dual agenda in Sudan, simultaneously deepening ties with Sudan’s military officials as well as the civilian opposition. 

To improve Moscow’s relations with Sudan’s civilians, Russia’s government has sought to help Sudan escape its relative isolation from the global economy caused by western sanctions. 

At the same time, Russia is also voicing its interests in bringing civilian nuclear energy to Sudan, as recently expressed by Moscow’s ambassador to Khartoum, Vladimir Zheltov.

That said, it is clear that Russia privileges the Sudanese military over the country’s civilian leadership. As Samuel Ramani expertly explained: “Russia still views the Sudanese military as a kingmaker that will guarantee the country’s long-term stability. In Russian academic circles, the 1985-89 failed transition is viewed as proof of the intrinsic instability of civilian rule in Sudan, and there are concerns that Sudan will succumb to an unstable coalition between ‘tribal groups and Sufi brotherhoods'.”

With elections in Sudan set for 2022, it is extremely difficult to predict how Sudanese politics will unfold in the interim. Much is at stake for Russia. 

The vacuum

What comes next in terms of US-Sudan relations matters significantly to Russia. Although the Trump administration has lifted many sanctions on Sudan, and Washington and Khartoum exchanged ambassadors last year, the US Department of State has kept Sudan on its State Sponsors of Terrorism list and Trump recently added the country to the travel ban list. 

If Sudan continues to be shunned by Washington, Russia will retain its ability to serve as an invaluable and indispensable partner for Khartoum. 

An opening in Sudan’s relations with the US and other western powers would likely threaten Moscow’s status in Khartoum, yet that is not to say that Russia would lose all its influence under such circumstances.  

Clearly, Russia’s interests in a stronger partnership with Khartoum is not just about Moscow’s interests in Sudan. Moscow’s agenda in Sudan must be understood within the context of Russia’s vision for its role in the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea, and sub-Saharan Africa at large. 

Establishing a more permanent military presence in the Red Sea is crucial for Russia as it competes for influence among western states and China in this domain, which makes the Moscow-Khartoum relationship of immense geostrategic value. 

Furthermore, given the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia’s strong support for Sudan’s military leaders, Russia’s defence of the TMC aligned Moscow with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh on an issue where Washington was not on the same page with these two longstanding American allies, making it increasingly clear how Russia has effectively capitalised on tensions in US-Gulf relations to advance Moscow’s own interests.

However, as observed by Ramani, Russia is not betting the farm on its partnership with Sudan. Moscow’s foreign policy in the region entails some hedging, underscored by Russia’s growing ties with some of Sudan’s neighbours including South Sudan and Ethiopia. 

Thus, if there were to be a future political order in Khartoum that is not friendly to Russia, Moscow would have other partners in the region to turn to instead. 

The odds are good that if Sudan and the US do not reconcile after nearly three decades of poor (and sometimes hostile) relations, Russia along with China will remain extremely crucial partners for Khartoum. 

As western sanctions continue hindering the prospects for development in post-Bashir Sudan, it is tough to imagine Sudan’s leadership not turning to Russia for a deeper relationship. 

With Putin at the helm, Russia is determined to regain clout in Africa and other parts of the Global South which the Soviet Union previously possessed during the Cold War. 

There is no denying that a stronger partnership with Sudan, a country that links the Arab region to sub-Saharan Africa as well as the Red Sea to Central Africa, will remain extremely important to Moscow’s determination to continue gaining influence in the African, Arab, and Muslim worlds.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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