In early February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Sudan as part of his African trip that also included Mali and Mauritania. His visit coincided with several official visits to Sudan by American, French, Norwegian, British, German, and EU envoys. All these visits came amid an extremely tense phase between civilian and military components within Sudan’s domestic political scene, which has existed ever since the decisions announced by the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on October 25, 2021. Those decisions returned matters to the state of instability associated with the overthrow of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. These diplomatic visits confirm that the West and Russia consider Sudan a contested space through which to gain greater impact and influence on the African continent in the near term.
The growing Western-Russian rivalry in Sudan can be read in light of a set of key governing contexts, as follows:
1. Confronting the effects of the Russian-Ukrainian war: Since its beginning on February 24, 2022, the Ukrainian war has been one of the factors behind the Western-Russian scramble to Africa. Russia seeks to break the international isolation imposed on it by the Western sanctions by strengthening its network of foreign relationships and interactions with African countries in order to build strategic alliances—especially since the African position was more inclined to neutrality in its overall attitude toward the UN General Assembly resolution issued at its plenary session on March 2, 2022. The resolution demanded that Russia "immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders." The same scenario occurred when the UN voted to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council on April 7, 2022.
By contrast, the West seeks to make up for the severe shortage of Russian energy sources by strengthening ties with African countries, which boast about 8% of the world’s natural gas reserves. In 2021, natural gas reserves in Africa totaled more than 620 trillion cubic feet, the continent owned nearly 12% of global oil reserves, and African crude oil reserves were estimated at 125.3 billion barrels.
2. Expanding strategic spheres of influence in Africa: This has manifested recently through the West’s and Russia’s common attempts, which have noticeably increased since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war, to gain new spheres of influence in Africa, including Sudan, of course. This is perhaps reflected in the flurry of political visits to Africa by high-level officials from both sides, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s tour of Senegal, Niger, and South Africa in May 2022; French President Emmanuel Macron’s trip to Cameroon, Benin, and Guinea-Bissau in July 2022; and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit to South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda in August 2022. These visits by Western officials coincided with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s tour of Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Congo.
3. Balancing influence between opponents in Africa: This is one of the most significant determinants of the Western-Russian struggle in Africa. We find that the US has tried to strengthen ties with Africa in order to counter the growing Russian-Chinese presence in recent years, especially after the US role on the African continent declined significantly under the administration of former President Donald Trump, who championed "America First." This may have prompted the current president, Joe Biden, to launch a new strategy for sub-Saharan Africa, announced by the US Secretary of State during his African tour in August 2022. The strategy aimed to achieve four main objectives: encourage openness and open societies; distribute the gains of democracy and security; support recovery from the pandemic and economic opportunities; and support environmental preservation, climate adaptation, and a just energy transition. The US administration also sought to strengthen its ties with Africa by holding the second US-Africa Summit, hosted in Washington, DC, in December 2022.
On the other hand, Russia seeks to promote its influence in Africa by focusing on presenting itself as a suitable strategic alternative to Western influence—specifically French influence—which has markedly declined in several traditional areas of influence, such as Mali, Central African Republic, Chad, and others. In doing so, Russia depends on several key tools, first and foremost, private security companies like the Wagner Group. Russia is also looking to hold the second Russia-Africa Summit in the near term in African capitals, after the first summit was held at a resort in Sochi, Russia, in October 2019. The latter was the first organizational framework of its kind at the multilateral level between Russia and Africa.
4. Ongoing domestic political crisis in Sudan: The ongoing domestic political crisis clearly represents a key catalyst for international competition. International powers see the domestic crisis between civilian and military components as an opening for involvement in Sudanese affairs, while various political powers within Sudan are trying to obtain foreign support to help them compete against other powers—not to mention the role of foreign support in alleviating the economic crisis in Sudan. In this context, it is possible to understand the February 8th visit to Sudan by American, French, Norwegian, British, German, and EU envoys who aimed to meet with civil and political components to bring views closer together and advance the process of the political track in order to achieve democratic transition.
There are many indicators that warn of the growing state of Western-Russian competition in Sudan in the near term, most notably the following:
1. Support for strategic military presence: This is clear in the Russian efforts to establish a military naval base based on an agreement made with Sudan during a visit by former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to Russia in 2017. During this visit, the two countries signed cooperation agreements in the area of military training, exchange of expertise, and warship entry to the two countries’ ports. Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the establishment of this base on November 16, 2020, and a technical military cooperation agreement between the two sides, stipulating the establishment of a Russian naval logistics base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea, was signed in December 2020. This naval station is Russia’s first in Africa, and its second outside the former Soviet Union.
The 25-year agreement, which can be automatically extended for another ten years if neither party objects, allows Russia to anchor four ships, including nuclear-powered vessels, with up to 300 personnel at port. The agreement also grants Russia the freedom to use Sudanese airports to move the "weapons, provisions, and equipment" needed to support the base and help it to impose a degree of control over the flow of oil that passes through the northeastern part of Africa. The US explicitly objected to this step, and, in late September, the US ambassador to Sudan warned of the consequences of establishing a Russian military base on the Red Sea coast, pointing out that this step would isolate Sudan from the international community and undermine the country’s interests.
The West and the US also oppose the role of the Russian Wagner Group in Sudan, which began to operate in 2017, during the era of the former Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir. The group provided military training to members of the intelligence services, special forces, and the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces. The US has imposed ongoing sanctions on this group since that date, and the US chargé d’affaires and the UK and Norwegian ambassadors in Khartoum also issued a strongly worded statement in March 2022, criticizing the Wagner Group’s activities and accusing it of conducting illegal goldmining. Moreover, the US imposed new restrictions on the group’s access to technology and supplies in December 2022, due to its role in the Russian-Ukrainian war.
2. Gaining domestic political influence: This can be seen in the West’s and Russia’s tireless efforts to gain the support of active domestic political actors in Sudan, especially after the radical decisions announced by the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on October 25, 2021. These decisions consisted of declaring a state of emergency throughout the country; dissolving the Transitional Sovereignty Council and dismissing its members; dissolving the Council of Ministers and forming a new, competent, independent, technocratic government; decommissioning state governors and dismissing ministry undersecretaries; assigning general directors to run operations, and freezing the work of the Empowerment Removal Committee until its work is reviewed. These decisions caused major domestic turmoil in the state, and the Americans and Europeans completely rejected them, describing them from the start as a military seizure of power. The US also halted USD 700 million in aid to Sudan.
Similarly, the World Bank halted all its dealings with Sudan until affairs return to the democratic track. By contrast, Russia’s position was neither against nor in favor of these decisions. Russia’s deputy representative to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, stated that it is difficult to say whether what happened constituted a military coup, and he noted that what happened in Sudan might happen in other places in the world without being labeled a military coup.
In addition, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov attributed Sudan’s instability to the West’s destabilizing actions that eroded the country’s territorial integrity and imposed democracy, which, in turn, caused the Sudanese ruling elite to move toward gaining Russian support to break the isolation imposed on Sudan during this phase. For example, the Deputy Chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo Hemetti, visited Russia on February 23, 2022, in order to strengthen bilateral ties at various levels.
3. Strengthening the base of mutual economic interests: Both the West and Russia are attempting to strengthen the base of economic benefit from Sudan, which almost completely controls oil exports from South Sudan. This may have been one of the reasons for Russia’s establishment of a military base inside Sudanese territory to help it impose some control over the flow of oil that passes through northeastern Africa. In this context, the expansion of bilateral cooperation in the oil sector was discussed during a visit to Russia by a Sudanese ministerial delegation, headed by the minister of mining, in August 2022. Enhanced coordination has gone beyond the area of production to include looking at oil extraction techniques, the use of associated gas, oil refining, petrochemicals, and training. Russia has also been one of Sudan’s most important trade partners in recent years, with Russian exports to Sudan reaching USD 306.2 million in 2021, and imports from Sudan totaling about USD 272 thousand in the same year.
Sudan is seeking to secure access to Russian wheat amid the growing crises of food insecurity in Africa in the wake of the Russian-Ukrainian war, having paid about USD 110 million to this end in the first half of 2022. In return, we find that the West has tried to strengthen its economic ties with Sudan, with the US, for example, cancelling the long-term economic sanctions imposed on Sudan in 2017, in order to empower Americans in general to do business with individuals and entities in Sudan. The US administration has also taken steps to strengthen these economic ties, first and foremost by removing Sudan from the state sponsors of terrorism list on December 14, 2020. This action reflected the volume of US exports to Sudan in recent years, which increased from about USD 95.9 million in 2019 to USD 201 million in 2021.
4. Seeking influence in the Horn of Africa: A presence in Sudan is an important opportunity for international powers to consolidate their influence in the Horn of Africa. The Horn is the subject of major international competition, thus making it a potential global flashpoint consistent with its geopolitical importance and its position in relation to global trade routes. As its starting point, Sudan is an important component of the Horn of Africa, and its expanse along the Red Sea gives Sudan a strategic weight that is enhanced by the presence of the straits of Bab al-Mandeb at the southern entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to the north. An estimated USD 700 billion in international trade reportedly passes through these two points, closely linking Sudan with the interactions of regional and international systems.
In summary, it can be said that Sudan, like many regions in Africa, will witness a state of potential competition for influence between the West and Russia. The possibilities for heated competition between the two sides to strengthen their presence in Africa have increased at all levels since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war on the one hand, and with the ongoing lack of domestic political agreement between military and civilian components on the other hand. At this stage, it is incumbent on Sudan to attempt to balance the mutual interests of both sides, such that Sudan’s own objectives are served, which mainly involve finding a rapid and effective solution based on adopting a balanced domestic political formulation among the domestic players in order to get past the transitional phase.