Russia’s Dreams of a Red Sea Naval Base Are Scuttled—for Now

U.S. intelligence believes Sudan has rebuffed Moscow’s hopes of establishing its first naval base in Africa.

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Children swim in the water near docked ships at Port Sudan.
Children swim in the water near docked ships at Port Sudan.
Children swim in the water near docked ships at Port Sudan on April 27, 2021. Ibrahim Ishaq/AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s hopes of establishing a naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, have run aground, according to two U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. 

U.S. officials have closely been eyeing the deal between Moscow and Khartoum, which was first made public in late 2020. If it went through, it would grant Russia a strategic foothold on the Red Sea, where some 30 percent of the world’s container traffic passes each year. The naval base would be Russia’s first in Africa, which U.S. officials feared Moscow could use to project power further afield into the Indian Ocean.

Russia’s Red Sea naval ambitions appear to have run afoul of complicated internal dynamics within Sudan’s military leadership, which took power from a civilian-led transitional government following a coup in October last year. Although the deputy head of the country’s ruling military council, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo—known as Hemeti—has embraced Moscow, the coup leader and de facto head of state, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has sought to avoid alienating the West and his other key allies in the region, including Egypt

Russia’s hopes of establishing a naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, have run aground, according to two U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. 

U.S. officials have closely been eyeing the deal between Moscow and Khartoum, which was first made public in late 2020. If it went through, it would grant Russia a strategic foothold on the Red Sea, where some 30 percent of the world’s container traffic passes each year. The naval base would be Russia’s first in Africa, which U.S. officials feared Moscow could use to project power further afield into the Indian Ocean.

Russia’s Red Sea naval ambitions appear to have run afoul of complicated internal dynamics within Sudan’s military leadership, which took power from a civilian-led transitional government following a coup in October last year. Although the deputy head of the country’s ruling military council, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo—known as Hemeti—has embraced Moscow, the coup leader and de facto head of state, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has sought to avoid alienating the West and his other key allies in the region, including Egypt

“They’re very hesitant to give them access to this port. They continue to try and delay and do delay tactics,” said a U.S. intelligence official. “We see it as unlikely that the Port Sudan deal is going to be done anytime in the near future and that Russia is potentially looking to seek other options if Port Sudan doesn’t work out.”

Russia has made significant inroads in Africa in recent years as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to expand his country’s global influence despite its dwindling soft power and anemic economy. Even as Moscow pours its military resources into its botched invasion of Ukraine, it has expanded its footprint in unstable regions and conflict zones in Africa, including Mali, Libya, and the Central African Republic. It has leveraged arms sales, disinformation campaigns, and the so-called mercenary Wagner Group, widely viewed as a proxy for the Russian military—giving the Kremlin an outside impact relative to its tiny foreign direct investment in the continent. 

“Russia has arguably gained more influence in Africa over the last several years than any other external actor,” said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday. 

Discussions over the Russian naval base in Sudan have fluctuated over the years, leading some analysts to question whether it is truly off the table. “I think what the Sudanese military is trying to do is play all sides,” Siegle told Foreign Policy. “They want to flirt with the Russians, but at the same time, I think the military realizes that the Russians don’t bring a whole lot, that any money, any investment capital, is going to have to come from getting the Western donors back on board.”

The Sudanese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said, “Moving forward with such a naval agreement or any other form of security cooperation with Russia would further isolate Sudan’s military regime and undermine stability in the Horn of Africa and broader Red Sea region.”

Talks between Putin and former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir about negotiating a possible Russian naval presence in Sudan began in 2017. Following Bashir’s ouster in a popular uprising in 2019, the deal was put on ice as a transitional government sought to end the country’s international isolation. In late 2020, Moscow appeared to unilaterally sign and publish a copy of the 25-year basing agreement in an apparent effort to force Sudan’s hand. 

A copy of the agreement called for allowing Moscow to keep up to four naval vessels based on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. In exchange, Russia would have provided Sudan with military equipment and other government assistance. 

But Sudanese military chief Gen. Mohammed Othman al-Hussein said in June 2021 that the deal was under review, noting that the legislative council, the body responsible for approving such measures during the transitional government, had yet to be formed. 

The setback represents a small possible victory for the United States as it seeks to blunt the influence of its top geopolitical rivals in Africa, where Russia and China seek to expand their influence through deepening security cooperation with African governments—though African governments bristle from being portrayed as pawns in a geopolitical competition among the United States, Russia, and China. 

“Our adversaries are well aware of Africa’s strategic potential and are devoting resources and time to strengthen their partnerships on the continent,” Chidi Blyden, a top U.S. Defense Department official on African affairs, told a Senate panel during a hearing on Tuesday. “As part of its engagement, Russia and [China] routinely provide training and defense articles to African nations.”

Across Africa, Russian-linked mercenaries and political operatives from the Wagner Group—a network of businesses and mercenary groups closely aligned with the Russian Ministry of Defence—have been dispatched to secure access to lucrative natural resource reserves while propping up embattled regimes, often leaving accusations of unspeakable atrocities in their wake.

U.S. and French officials have voiced alarm at atrocities committed by Wagner Group mercenaries in Mali, where a military junta scuttled cooperation with Western countries on counterterrorism cooperation and began strengthening ties with Russia after taking power in a coup last year. The group has operated in Sudan since 2017, where they have secured lucrative gold mining concessions and provided political consulting for Bashir before he was ousted from power.

In the ensuing years, the Russians have also tried to play both sides of the fence with key power brokers in Sudan, U.S. officials and experts believe, signaled by Hemeti’s visit to Moscow in February—a visit that happened to coincide with Russia’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Cameron Hudson, an expert on U.S.-African relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said Russia’s strategy in Sudan has been to develop ties with both sides: using the Wagner Group to develop business and informal military ties with Hemeti while trying to deepen formal bilateral military ties with Burhan. 

Yet Russia is also wary of getting involved in a major port deal as Sudan’s political crisis remains in flux, experts said, with the military government still grappling with maintaining its grip on power in the face of widespread public backlash and massive demonstrations for a democratic transition. 

“There’s obviously a political crisis going on in the country right now, and the role of the military is in question,” said Hudson, who previously worked at the U.S. State Department and CIA. “The political sands are shifting so much in Sudan right now that that kind of an arrangement, even if it was announced as done, would be open to question.”

Russia is not the only country pushing for more Red Sea port access in the region. The United Arab Emirates have also gotten into the fray in recent weeks, floating a $6 billion port deal that would rival Port Sudan. The government’s seeming desire to court foreign investors—even as they face a political reckoning—is a sign to experts that more state assets are up for grabs. “It’s just a cash grab,” Hudson said. “They’re completely bankrupt, so they’re selling off state assets at fire sale prices because they need cash injections.”

The region is getting crowded: China opened its first overseas naval base in Djibouti at the entrance to the Red Sea. The country is also home to the only permanent U.S. base in Africa.

And just because U.S. intelligence officials believe that Russia’s hopes of establishing a base at Port Sudan may be out of sight, for now, they said Moscow was likely to seek other options along the Red Sea coast.

For instance, in 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with his Eritrean counterpart, Osman Saleh, about establishing a “logistics” hub on the Eritrean coast, ostensibly for agriculture and trade but one that could also lead to closer military cooperation. “This probably isn’t something that has to be done tomorrow,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said. “This is long-term strategic access, something they’re trying to access, so there might even be a wait-and-see approach.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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