November 12, 2021 | Policy Brief

Sudanese Military Looks to Play Russia Against the U.S.

November 12, 2021 | Policy Brief

Sudanese Military Looks to Play Russia Against the U.S.

Speaking to Sputnik News last week in his first interview since his October 25 military putsch, Sudan’s top general, Abdul-Fattah al-Burhan, offered a qualified commitment to a previously suspended agreement to establish a Russian naval logistics facility near Port Sudan. Moscow may seek to exploit Khartoum’s post-coup international isolation to boost Russia-Sudan ties, while Burhan likely hopes that prospect will lead the West to soften pressure over the coup.

The Russia-Sudan accord grew out of a 2017 visit to Sochi by Sudan’s erstwhile despot Omar al-Bashir. During his stay, Bashir suggested that Sudan should host a Russian naval base, seeking “protection” from alleged U.S. aggression. He also granted gold mining rights to a company controlled by U.S.-sanctioned Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Soon thereafter, Bashir began receiving support from Prigozhin-funded military contractors, political advisors, and social media campaigns.

Despite Bashir’s fall in 2019, Moscow maintained good relations with Sudan’s military, which committed to uphold earlier agreements on mining, energy, and defense. In November 2020, Putin approved a 25-year Russia-Sudan agreement for the naval logistics facility. The facility — permitted to host up to 300 military and civilian personnel and four naval vessels, including nuclear-powered ones, plus air defense and electronic warfare assets — would bolster Russia’s military presence and influence in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Africa.

Yet the Sudanese military’s chief of staff, Mohamed Othman al-Hussein, cast doubt on the deal just days later, saying it was still “pending review.” In the spring of 2021, following reported pressure from Washington, which had restored ties with Sudan after Bashir’s ouster, Khartoum suspended the agreement, reportedly demanding that Russia remove already-installed equipment.

In June, Hussein announced Khartoum was “renegotiating” the deal, which he said “can be continued if we find benefits and profits for our country.” In September, Russian state media cited a Sudanese military source as saying that Khartoum wants economic assistance in exchange for a five-year agreement extendable up to 25 years.

On October 25, however, Sudan’s military seized power, dissolving the country’s civilian-led transitional government and military-civilian Sovereign Council and arresting key civilian political figures, including Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok. Mass protests ensued. In response, Washington joined European and Gulf allies in condemning the coup and suspended $700 million in aid.

Moscow may seek to capitalize on Khartoum’s international isolation. On October 28, Reuters reported that Sudan’s military had obtained Moscow’s “green light” ahead of the coup, lobbying Russia to block any UN Security Council sanctions. The New York Times cited a U.S. official as saying that Russia encouraged the putsch, hoping to secure commercial advantages and the naval facility, although Russian media note that resolving the latter issue will be impossible until Sudan’s political situation stabilizes.

Following the coup, Moscow watered down a UN Security Council statement so that it “expressed serious concern about the military takeover” instead of condemning it. Russian diplomats blamed Sudan’s political crisis on “foreign interference,” while stressing respect for Sudanese sovereignty — code for looking the other way as the military tightens its grip. On Wednesday, a senior Russian diplomat expressed hope that Khartoum would soon approve the naval agreement.

During last week’s Sputnik interview, Burhan praised Sudan-Russia military ties and Moscow’s stance on the coup. But when asked about the naval agreement, he was more guarded: “The creation of this base is part of an existing agreement. We keep regularly discussing the matter, and there are some faults that have to be remedied. We are committed to international agreements and will continue to implement it to the end.”

Burhan likely hopes to warn the West that continued pressure will lead Khartoum to cozy up to Moscow. Washington should continue defending the Sudanese people’s democratic aspirations while taking care not to push Sudan’s military too far into Moscow’s arms. For example, Washington should be open to civilians other than Hamdok leading a restored civilian government — a sticking point in ongoing talks with Sudan’s military.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where John Hardie is research manager and a Russia research associate. For more analysis from Hussain and John, please subscribe HERE. Follow Hussain on Twitter @hahussain. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.