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10th Jun 2023

Analysis

Russia poised to exploit Sudan coup as EU looks on

  • Khartoum before this week's fighting, in which hundreds of lives have been lost (Photo: Christopher Michel)
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The violent chaos in Sudan might well end with Russia building a strategic naval base there, as warlords court foreign sponsors, experts say.

"They [Russia] already have a base in Syria very close by and I don't doubt they'll build this one very soon," Joana de Deus Pereira, a Russia specialist at British defence think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), told EUobserver.

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She spoke amid ongoing clashes in Khartoum on Wednesday (19 April), which claimed hundreds of lives in the past few days.

The violence broke out when paramilitary warlord general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo failed to agree on power-sharing with Sudanese junta chief general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in what he called an "attempted coup".

The EU and the US, as well as Russia, have all urged a ceasefire in a rare moment of harmony because peace would better suit all concerned.

But despite this, Western and Russian interests in Sudan could hardly be more different.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was in Khartoum in February to finalise a 25-year lease for a Russian base housing up to 300 troops and four warships in Port Sudan on the Red Sea — the jugular of Western trade and oil flows — in return for Russian arms.

The initial agreement goes back years, with Russian mercenary group Wagner flying in its first 100 military trainers to Sudan in 2018.

Some 50 Russian geologists followed them to map Sudan's mineral wealth in a side-deal, de Deus Pereira said.

Wagner now mines and smuggles Sudanese gold via two EU and US-blacklisted firms, Meroe Gold and M-Invest, in what provides a "heavy" source of funds for Russia's war-effort in Ukraine, she said.

Sudanese military intelligence helps by moving Wagner's contraband on unregistered military flights, she alleged.

And Hamdan Dagalo's paramilitary army, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), guards Meroe Gold's mines on the ground.

But whether it's the RSF or the junta who end up in control, one thing is sure, the Rusi analyst said — Russia will continue doing business with the winner.

There are no reports of Wagner fighters getting involved in the current flare up, but "they are there on the ground [in Khartoum] and they're waiting for the next development before choosing sides," de Deus Pereira said.

Back both sides

Paul Stronski, a Russia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the US, also said: "Russia's modus operandi in Africa has always been to back both sides in a civil conflict — so that they always end up on the right side".

By contrast, EU diplomacy tends to back the more democratic party.

And any potential European military intervention in Sudan would be a post-conflict humanitarian or peacekeeping mission that would require authorisation from flat-footed African regional bodies.

"The EU tries to stabilise things and mediate. The Russians come in with a proposal to back one party in any given conflict, usually autocratic ones, which are isolated from the West by their own behaviour," Theodore Murphy, an Africa expert at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), told this website.

In Sudan, the only ones who ever said a "soft no" to Russia's naval-base plan, Murphy noted, were the leaders of its pro-democratic civilian movement, which the renewed violence has sidelined.

And "whichever general now wins, they'll be seeking support from international partners going forward," Murphy said.

Putin's Africa

Meanwhile, building power in Sudan is even more valuable for Russian president Vladimir Putin than Red Sea access and black-market gold.

Planting a Russian-flagged base in the symbolic source of the Nile and 'gateway to Africa' would give Russian media some good news amid depressing losses in Ukraine.

It would help Russia portray itself as a new alternative to old Western powers in a continent scarred by colonial history.

The growing pro-Russian axis in Africa helps Moscow by voting in line with its interests in the UN.

Russia, using Wagner, has created power-bases in several Sahel-region countries in the past 10 years, as well as in the Central African Republic, Libya, Madagascar, and Mozambique.

Putin is to host a "First Russia-Africa Summit" in St Petersburg in July in a sign of his ambition.

The EU ambassador in Khartoum, and a US diplomatic convoy, were both attacked by unknown assailants in the past two days.

And while this was probably just "part of the rough and tumble" of the security collapse, the ECFR's Murphy said, they might also have been targeted due to anti-Western feeling fuelled by Russian propaganda, other analysts said.

"The fact Western elements were attacked highlights that the West has lost leverage and status in Sudan," Carnegie's Stronski said.

But for all that, it would be a mistake to overestimate Wagner's capacity to steer the outcome of the current hostilities, the experts warned.

Beyond Sudan, the Kremlin's shadow army has been pulling fighters out of Africa to send them to Ukraine, weakening its overseas capabilities, according to a report by Estonia's Foreign Intelligence Service [EFIS] in February.

Russia's trade volume with Africa is falling and tiny compared to the EU or China and some of its arms shipments do little for its image, the report noted.

"According to our information, the equipment delivered from Russia to Mali broke down within a year: only one out of eight attack helicopters … was operational at the end of 2022," it said.

Russian racism

And Estonian signals intercepts indicate that Russian racism can be just as toxic as any neo-colonial arrogance.

"If negotiations do not proceed quickly enough, Russian representatives [in Africa] humiliate their supposed partners, use racist language, and complain that 'your hair will turn grey or you might die before you beat a contract out of them'," EFIS said.

The EU and US have already imposed asset-freezes on Wagner, its subsidiaries, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, and his family.

But they could hurt Putin's minions much more in future by listing Wagner as a "terrorist" entity on grounds of its human-rights atrocities in Africa, Syria, and Ukraine, Rusi's de Deus Pereira added.

"It's the atomic bomb of sanctions," she said.

"It means any transaction involving Wagner gold or food shipments, for instance, would become a criminal activity worldwide," she added.

But as the seven countries on Sudan's borders look on in horror at the spiralling instability and as the EU ponders its next step, Russian foreign policy has one final edge — Putin's cynicism.

"The Russians don't live in the neighbourhood, so if the entire country [Sudan] burns down, it's not the end of the world for them," the ECFR's Murphy said.

Opinion

EU vs Wagner paramilitaries: a view from the ground in Mali

Mali has kicked out European forces. Instead, the Russians, and their Wagner paramilitaries are welcomed in. What can we learn from it? What do Mali's pro-Russian civil society actors themselves say? What drives the choice to invite Russia in?

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