While You Weren't Looking
With Base in Sudan, Russia Expands Its Military Reach in Africa
Moscow has struck a deal with Khartoum to establish its first naval outpost on the continent.
Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly update on emerging global stories.
Here’s what we’re watching this week: Russia signs a deal with Sudan establishing its first naval base in Africa, an attack on a Nigerian school leaves hundreds of boys feared missing, and Austrian police seize a cache of weapons with links to neo-Nazi groups in Germany.
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Russia Set to Establish Naval Base in Africa
Russia has struck a deal with Sudan to establish a naval base in the country, as Moscow seeks to expand its military reach in the Middle East and North Africa. The deal, made public on Dec. 8, allows Russia to station four ships and up to 300 personnel at Port Sudan on the Red Sea as part of a 25-year agreement. It will be Russia’s first naval base in Africa.
The base will be used as a logistics support center and repair and resupply point. The deal also gives Moscow the right to use Sudan’s airports for the transport of “weapons, ammunition and equipment” required to support the base.
Port Sudan is significantly smaller than the Russian base in Tartus, Syria—Moscow’s only other naval facility outside of the former Soviet Union—but it will give Russia a strategic foothold along the Red Sea, which links European and Asian waters and is one of the world’s busiest waterways. China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 at the mouth of the Red Sea. (The only permanent U.S. military base on the continent is also in Djibouti.)
At various points during the Cold War, the Soviet Union had bases in the region in South Yemen, Somalia, and Ethiopia—but they were lost following the USSR’s collapse. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made restoring the country’s global military might a cornerstone of his two decades in power.
While Russia has sought to beef up its presence in the Mediterranean through its interventions in the conflicts in Syria and Libya, the Kremlin has also kept one eye on the Red Sea. Russian officials have previously probed the possibility of establishing a military foothold in Djibouti and Eritrea, although the talks didn’t progress.
Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir raised the prospect of hosting a Russian base in the country during a 2017 meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergi Shoigu. After Bashir’s ouster in 2019, the discussions continued with the head of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council. Moscow and Khartoum have long enjoyed a close relationship, and Russia is a major supplier of arms to the country.
The Wagner Group, private military security contractors that the U.S. State Department has characterized as a “surrogate” for the Russian Ministry of Defense, already has a well-established presence in Sudan. Two mining companies from the Wagner network, which is believed to be backed by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in July for formulating plans to suppress the pro-democracy demonstrations that toppled Bashir, including “the staging of public executions” to distract the protesters.
“Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his network are exploiting Sudan’s natural resources for personal gain and spreading malign influence around the globe,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement issued at the time.
What We’re Following
School attack in Nigeria. More than 300 Nigerian boys are feared missing after gunmen mounted an assault on their boarding school last Friday, an attack that evokes memories of the 2014 kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls from the town of Chibok. Hundreds of students fled into the forest during the attack in the northwestern town of Kankara, and 333 remain unaccounted for, Katsina state Gov. Aminu Masari said on Sunday.
Students have emerged from hiding places in the forest since the incident, and it’s unclear how many of the boys who remain missing have been kidnapped. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. It was similar in nature to previous attacks carried out by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, although Kankara is far from northeastern Nigeria, where the militants predominantly operate. The attack may have been carried out by violent gangs known to operate in the area.
Terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa. Seven of the top 10 countries most at risk for terrorism are in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a quarterly Terrorism Intensity Index released by risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft released on Friday. Militant activity in the region has surged in recent years, with a 13 percent increase in terrorist incidents across the continent during the last quarter alone compared to the previous period.
According to the index, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Mali, Somalia, and Syria are the countries most at risk, followed by Cameroon, Mozambique, Niger, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Iraq.
China squeezes freedom of speech. Hong Kong media tycoon and democracy advocate Jimmy Lai was charged under China’s controversial new national security law last Friday for allegedly conspiring with foreign forces. Lai, who was first arrested in August, is the highest-profile person charged under the new law, although other senior democratic figures have faced a variety of other charges. Separately, Bloomberg confirmed on Friday that Haze Fan, a Chinese staffer in its Beijing bureau, had been detained earlier in the week on suspicion of endangering national security.
Climate emergency. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called on global leaders to declare a state of “climate emergency” on Saturday, as 70 world leaders convened for a virtual Climate Ambition Summit to mark the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Paris agreement. Guterres noted that many G-20 members were investing heavily in fossil-fuel production and consumption as part of stimulus packages intended to curb pandemic-related recessions.
“The trillions of dollars needed for COVID recovery is money that we are borrowing from future generations,” Guterres said. “We cannot use these resources to lock in policies that burden future generations with a mountain of debt on a broken planet.”
Keep an Eye On
Germany’s far-right. Austrian police have seized a large quantity of weapons, ammunition, and hand grenades intended to help establish a far-right network in Germany. Five men with links to neo-Nazi groups were arrested in a series of house searches. The investigation leading to the discoveries was initially intended to target drug-related organized crime, but officers uncovered crossover links with the far-right. Seventy-six automatic and semiautomatic weapons were recovered, along with 100,000 rounds of ammunition, 14 handguns, and six grenades.
The Beijing-Moscow relationship. Strengthening Beijing’s ties with Moscow and resetting the relationship with Washington will be high on China’s foreign-policy agenda in the coming year, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Friday. “We must deepen China-Russia comprehensive strategic cooperation … so as to build a Sino-Russian pillar for world peace and security and global strategic stability,” he said, according to the South China Morning Post.
Russia and China have deepened their political and economic ties in recent years, but the relationship is not without its problems due to its asymmetry and areas of competing interests.
Foreign Policy Recommends
Novichok negroni. A joint investigation by Bellingcat and the Russian news site the Insider has implicated the Russian security services in the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Cellphone and travel data revealed that agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB) that specialize in poisons trailed Navalny for three years, including to the Russian city of Tomsk in August, where doctors believe he was poisoned with the lethal nerve agent Novichok in a cocktail. The investigation reveals the identities of several of the operatives involved in the poisoning.
Bellingcat co-founder Eliot Higgins described the report as the biggest story the outlet had ever published. To give you a sense of the significance of the project, that’s coming from an organization that revealed the Russian intelligence operatives who poisoned Sergei Skripal in Britain and traced the movements of the Russian missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. Watch Navalny’s own video about the investigation here.
That’s it for this week.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack