Russia’s 2020 acquisition of a naval base in Sudan represents a milestone in Moscow’s Africa strategy. While this base occupies the juncture of Russia’s Africa and naval policies, underscoring their interconnection, its acquisition should convince external observers that Moscow actually possesses an African strategy comprising discernible objectives along with the instruments and tactics necessary to implement it. Acquisition of this base also represents the culmination to date of Russia’s decade-long quest for naval bases in the Horn of Africa. Moscow’s tactics to obtain and secure this base and its overall position in Sudan demonstrates their strategy.
Russia’s operations in Sudan are part of a determined and comprehensive Russian strategy aiming at state capture in Third World countries and regions, including Africa. This strategy is embodied in a “whole of government” approach that even involves organized crime as an instrument of Russia’s government. By gaining leverage in one or more sectors or in a state – particularly one where civil war or inter-state conflict is occurring – Russia then aims to expand that leverage and obtain a “veto power” if not a permanent presence for its pecuniary and security interests. In Sudan’s case, Russia entered through arms sales, a typical example, particularly in Africa. However, the condition for arms sales went beyond training Sudanese officers to use them to include Russian support for the embattled Sudanese government led by Omar Bashir. Russia was thereby encouraged to use Vagner, a Russian private military company (PMC), to conduct this training whereby it obtained valuable gold and other mining concessions. Vagner also conducted information warfare operations on behalf of the regime. Yet they did not miss a beat after Omar Bashir was deposed by a military regime in 2019, and staunchly supported the new military government against domestic and foreign military challenges. Once so ensconced in Sudan, Russia then expanded into economic and bilateral ties through private military companies (PMCs) and again typically leveraged those presences into a naval base.
Ultimately Russia aims to create a bloc of pro-Russian states over which it has lasting political, economic, and military leverage, i.e. a sphere of influence. As Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has reported, Russia has sought permission to establish military bases in Egypt, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan. Moscow also concluded arms sales agreements with 21 African countries between 2015-2020, having only had cooperation agreements with just four African countries before that. The report also indicated that Russia sometimes formally and sometimes secretly trained the forces of those countries. The report further stated that Russia not only sends its offers for training, but also invites soldiers of African nations to train in its facilities. It also actively operates there through security companies such as Vagner, In turn this regional transformation will then effectuate an enduring change in the regional strategic order. Not surprisingly, Russian analysts view Russia as a balancing power in Africa between the rival poles of the West (U.S. and EU) and Asia.
Those states where Moscow can obtain economic-political leverage, if not bases, and which now include newly acquired “friends of Moscow” like Mali and the Central African Republic, will in turn support Russian initiatives in and out of the UN, distance themselves from Europe and the U.S., and become vulnerable to ever greater Russian penetration, including military bases. We see this process, not only in Africa, but also in Venezuela where Russia not only has enormous economic-political leverage, especially through energy ties, but was also offered a base at the island of La Orchila in the Caribbean. Therefore, Russia’s motives are ultimately primarily strategic even if they encompass immediate and, seemingly, merely tactical economic gains. Economic gains, from participation in gold and other mineral mining operations and participation in hydrocarbon and/or nuclear energy operations though important, function ultimately to enhance Russia’s strategic profile and creation of this sphere of influence, i.e., they are a means to an end and not an end in themselves. Sudan represents the latest success in a decade-long quest for bases in Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somaliland, Yemen, and also in Sub-Saharan Africa. This Russian policy was already emerging by 2014-15. Obstacles to the creation of bases appear to be a combination of Western – U.S. and European – counter diplomacy, arms sales, and economic ties as well as the inherent reluctance of newly independent states to host foreign military bases.
This strategy, as befits a “whole of government” operation, rests on several interactive pillars. Beyond normal diplomatic relations, they comprise the visible economic presence of Russian energy and mining firms, particularly firms close to Putin personally or Russian state corporations – including nuclear energy (Rosatom) and the operations of “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin – large-scale arms sales, military training and education, use of GRU and PMC personnel, and ongoing information warfare. Indeed, a recent study of the Vagner PMC controlled by Prigozhin observes:
It now performs government-in-a-box contract services for a wide variety of politicians and combatants in the developing world. It negotiates arms sales and military repair work on behalf of the Russian government and mining and extractive projects on behalf of Prigozhin. It builds or revives national media enterprises as part of its influence operations. It hires European neo-Nazis and white supremacists to “monitor’ (read: sway) elections in Sub-Saharan Africa, ironically instructing them to use the pretext of anti-colonialism and pan-Africanism to advance Russian interest at the expense of American, British, and French ones. It provides security details, drawn from the past or present ranks of Russian intelligence organs to its foreign clientele.
Vagner also supports anyone who wants to contract with it, even against other Vagner clients, and Moscow’s agents can easily end up supporting both sides in current African and other conflicts. Vagner’s presence in Africa thus allows other states to “hitch a ride” on Russian foreign policy there by supporting Vagner.
Russia has sent “political technologists” to at least 20 countries in Africa, political technology being a euphemism for “a highly developed industry of political manipulation.” Thus Moscow also targets African voters with disinformation campaigns as in the U.S. and Europe. While election rigging may be commonplace in Africa, Russia’s activities nevertheless stand out for their visibility in countries like South Africa, Libya, Nigeria, and Mozambique. In Nigeria, Russian hackers allegedly conspired with the People’s Democratic Party and its candidate Alhaji Atiku Abubakar to rig the presidential elections. Similarly, the Vagner fighters sent to Libya engaged in election rigging on behalf of General Khalifa Hafter. In Madagascar, they sought to coopt candidates who could then drop out and allow their favored candidate to win. Meanwhile in South Africa, Russian operatives created a think tank to act as a vehicle to tarnish Mmusi Maimane, the Democratic Alliance leader, and Julius Malema, the populist leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters.
The team drew up documents, obtained by the investigators, that listed its proposed tactics, ranging from “generating and disseminating video content” and “coordinating with a loyal pool of journalists” to find ways “to discredit” the opposition.
The diversity of instruments employed in Sudan and throughout Africa demonstrate that Moscow’s ambitions in Africa far transcend the merely tactical level. Moreover, the scope and persistence of their actions testify not only to Priogozhin and other elites’ aspirations for wealth, power, and influence at home and abroad, but also to Russia’s global power projection strategy.
Russian tactics in Sudan
While we now see similar tactics being used, in particular the reliance on Vagner and small numbers of Russian military representatives in Mali and the Central African Republic, Sudan represents the apogee of Russian success in such endeavors. In 2017, Sudan’s leader General Omar Bashir offered Russia a naval base in return for armed support against insurgents. By 2018, Russian agents were infiltrating the UN’s Sudan program to influence it, while companies tied to Prigozhin began working with Bashir’s former protégé and leading strongman Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo to cut gold mining exploitation deals. Hemedti then headed Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and served as deputy chair on the transitional government’s ruling civilian-military council in Khartoum. He reportedly possessed close family ties to Algunade, a Sudanese gold mining company. The RSF concurrently oversaw security for gold industry sites in the Darfur region and province of South Kordofan.
Social media activity also then began on behalf of Bashir. Thus by 2018, Russian diplomacy at the UN, covert activities, mining operations in Sudan, information warfare, weapons transfers and military training, in support of the regime were underway along with negotiations for the base. Although Bashir was deposed in 2019, all these activities intensified, leading up to the original announcement, in November 2020, of the base. Russian activity elsewhere in Africa suggests this process is a paradigm for Russia’s strategy of power and influence projection into Africa.
The announcement of the new base galvanized the Biden administration into action to reverse the decision. During 2021, it sent high-ranking Senatorial delegations there, arranged for loans from European states to Sudan, contemplated arms deals, forgave Sudan’s debt to the U.S., and sought an active role in mediating the Ethiopian civil war and the conflicted Egyptian-Ethiopian relationship over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, issues that threaten regional stability. It also sent military delegations and naval ships on port visits to enhance security, expressed Washington’s determination to have a presence in this region, and competed vigorously with Moscow.
Thus, by May 2021, numerous reports indicated Sudan’s desire to curtail or at least strictly limit Russian activities at, and with, this base. There also evidently was local concern that since the original agreement had been signed by Omar Bashir’s regime and not ratified by the Parliament, it may have been against Sudanese interests. Sudan’s hesitancy prompted Russian calls for re-evaluating the base. Nonetheless, on July 12, 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Sudanese counterpart, Mariyam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi announced, after talks in Moscow, that they were both submitting the agreement for ratification to their Parliaments although no specifics were given. As of early 2022, there is no formal announcement of the base’s final disposition – though Russo-Sudanese negotiations have occurred concerning the scope of Russia’s abilities to use this base in the future. In fact, internal developments within Sudan, particularly the army coup launched on October 25, 2021, strongly suggest an enhanced Russian position there and an end to the disputes concerning this base. As of this writing, there is no sign that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has affected this base.
Indeed, Russia may well have had a role in the October 2021 coup or at least signed off on it in advance, given its anti-American nature. Russian sources have also blamed U.S. pressure on Sudan for Khartoum’s earlier change of mind. And if Sudan’s army leadership actually negotiated the coup with Moscow, then we are dealing here with more than so-called hybrid or maritime hybrid warfare. Russian policy would then represent a contemporary manifestation of classic gunboat diplomacy where Moscow helps stage-manage a coup in order to obtain a naval base and other economic-political concessions in Sudan. There is no sign of Russian disapproval of the coup; instead, Moscow typically blamed it on U.S. intervention in Sudanese politics and the previous Sudanese government’s failed policies. Furthermore, there is also abundant evidence that the coup – which was launched hours after Washington’s Emissary Jeffrey Feltman left Sudan following efforts to preserve a civilian government – caught Washington by surprise, and was clearly an anti-American gesture. Certainly, the new government in Khartoum has already expressed its appreciation for Moscow’s support.
In addition, numerous commentaries openly asserted that Moscow will benefit from the coup, regarding opportunities for further engagement in Sudan’s politics and economy, which will also involve the enhanced presence of Vagner PMC, Russian mining firms, Rosatom – given prior Sudanese interest in a reactor – and perhaps, most importantly, the fulfillment of the earlier agreement by Sudan for a Russian naval base at Port Sudan.
This story does not end here. Russia’s subsequent probes in Mali and the Central African Republic signify Moscow’s expanding interest in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. These probes also show that Moscow exploits its positions in these states to strike as well at France in Europe. Recent trends in those countries reveal the same pattern of the resort to Vagner’s multifarious services to authoritarian regimes and the presence of arms sales and military trainers in return for mining and economic concessions. Moscow is also acquiring new proxies that support its strategy, as is the case with Algeria, who reportedly agreed to pay Vagner’s salaries in Mali. Moscow’s repetitive pattern in Africa thus clearly signifies the presence of both a strategy and the adroit exploitation of tactical opportunities despite Western disparagement of Russia’s African achievements and policies.
China has for years conducted a large-scale African policy of trade and investment leading to significant influence in Africa. While China does have a base at Djibouti and may well be interested in acquiring new ones, it apparently aims to obtain them through gaining leverage over civilian ports in conjunction with its Belt and Road Initiative, which clearly possesses an important military component. There is no sign that Beijing is concerned about Russian penetration of Africa. Nevertheless this Russian offensive in Africa clearly represents and is intended to represent a challenge and a threat to the West. But does the West have its own countervailing strategy in Africa? That, sadly, remains to be seen.
 Stephen Blank, “Will Sudan Be The Latest Jewel In the Russian Crown ?” Forthcoming from the U.S. Naval War College.
 Ruslan Stefanov and Martin Vladimirov, Deals In the Dark: Russian Corrosive Capital In Latin America,National Endowment For Democracy, Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience Series, 2020.
 Samuel Ramani, “’Engaged Opportunism’: Russia’s Role In the Horn Of Africa,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, July 2, 2020, p. 8.
 “Russia Seeks To Establish Military Bases in 6 African Nations,” Defense World, August 4, 2020, https://www.defenseworld.net/news/27582/Russia_seeks_to_Establish_Military_Bases_in_6_African_Nations#.YO8zxy-caS4.
 Andrew Korybko, “Russia’s Grand Strategy in Afro-Eurasia (And What Could go Wrong),” Oriental Review,, May 7, 2018, https://orientalreview.org/2018/05/07/russias-grand-strategy-in-afro-eurasia-and-what-could-go-wrong/.
 George Martin, “Russia Announces Plans to Set Up Its First Ever Military Base in the Caribbean – the Country’s Largest Presence In the Region Since the Cuban Missile Crisis In 1962,” Daily Mail, December 17, 2018, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6504447/Russia-announces-plans-set-military-base-Caribbean.html.
 Ruslan Stefanov and Martin Vladimirov, Deals In the Dark: Russian Corrosive Capital In Latin America,National Endowment For Democracy, Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience Series, 2020.
 J.Peter Pham, “Russia’s Return to Africa,” Atlantic Council, March 14, 2014, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/commentary/article/russia-s-return-to-africa/.
 Adam R. Grissom, Samuel Charap, Joe Cheravitch, Russell Hanson, Dara Massicot, Christopher A. Mouton, and Jordan R. Reimer, Russia’s Growing Presence In Africa: A Geostrategic Assessment (Santa Monica: CA: RAND Corporation, 2022), pp. 1-19.
 Michael Weiss and Pierre Vaux, The Company You Keep: Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Influence Operations In Africa (Washington, D.C.: Free Russia Foundation, 2020), p. 3, https://www.4freerussia.org/the-company-you-keep-yevgeny-prigozhin-s-influence-operations-in-africa/.
 Paul A. Goble, “Moscow Inserts Political Operatives into African Countries Where Elections Are Scheduled,” Euromaiden Press, April 21, 2018,. http://euromaidanpress.com/2018/04/21/moscow-inserts-political-operatives-into-african-countries-where-elections-are-scheduled/; Paul Goble, “Moscow Exporting ‘Political Technologists’ Beyond Africa to Europe,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 19, 2019, www.jamestown.org.
 Yomi Kazeem, “Russia is Targeting African Politics and Elections with Misinformation Campaigns on Social Media,” Quartz Africa, October 31, 2019, https://qz.com/africa/1739308/facebook-bans-russia-accounts-interferinginafrican-elections/.
 Martin K.N.Kollie, “The Fatality of Democracy: Why Elections Are Rigged in Africa,” The African Exponent, September 12, 2016, https://www.africanexponent.com/bpost/4355-rigging-elections-is-a-common-political-phenomenon-in-africa.
Michael Weiss, Pierre Vaux, “Russia’s Wagner Mercenaries Have Moved into Libya. Good Luck With That.” The Daily Beast, September 13, 2019, https://www.thedailybeast.com/russias-wagner-mercenaries-have-moved-into-libya-good-luck-with-that; Karen Allen, “Madagascar Exploits Highlight Russian Influence Peddling in Africa,” Daily Maverick, April 11, 2019, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-04-11-madagascar-exploits-highlight-russian-influence-peddling-in-africa/; Newdawnngr, “PDP Engages Russian Hackers to Rig 2019-Elections – BMO Alleges,” New Dawn Nigeria, December 19, 2018, https://www.newdawnngr.com/2018/12/19/pdp-engages-russian-hackers-to-rig-2019-elections-bmo-alleges/; Samir Khalil Al-Artush, Ilya Arkhipov, and Henry Meyer, “Libya Accuses Russian of Meddling in African Elections after Two Arrested from Alleged Troll Farm,” National Post, July 5, 2019, https://nationalpost.com/news/world/libya-accuses-russian-of-meddling-in-african-elections-after-two-arrested-from-alleged-troll-farm.
 Taha Abdel Wahed “Bashir Discusses with Russia Setting Up Military Base on Red Sea,” Asharq Al-Awsat, November 26, 2017, https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/1095236/bashir-discusses-russia-setting-military-base-red-sea.
 Candace Rondeaux, “How a Man Linked to Prigozhin, ‘Putin’s Chef,’ Infiltrated the United Nations,” Daily Beast, November 27, 2020, https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-a-man-linked-to-prigozhin-putins-chef-infiltrated-the-united-nations.
 “Evidence of Russia-Linked Influence Operations in Africa,” Stanford Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, October 30, 2019, https://fsi.stanford.edu/news/prigozhin-africa; Nathaniel Reynolds, “Putin’s Not-So-Secret Mercenaries: Patronage, Geopolitics, and the Wagner Group,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 8, 2019.
 “Intel: Biden Dispatches US Senators to Forge Further Ties with Sudan,” Al Monitor, May 6, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/05/intel-biden-dispatches-us-senators-forge-further-ties-sudan#ixzz6xVXUn7XJ,
 “‘First US Navy Ship in Decades’ Docks in Port Sudan,” Dabanga, February 25, 2021, https://www.dabangasudan.org/en/all-news/article/first-us-navy-ship-in-decades-docks-in-port-sudan; “US Military Delegation: ‘Partnerships Key to Lasting Security’ In Sudan,” Dabanga, January 30, 2021, https://www.dabangasudan.org/en/all-news/article/us-military-delegation-partnerships-key-to-lasting-security-in-sudan.
 Bruce Jones, “Sudan to Renegotiate Russian Naval Base Agreement,” Janes, June 4, 2021, https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/sudan-to-renegotiate-russian-naval-base-agreement; “Sudan Refuses to Allow Construction of Russian Naval Base,” UAWIRE, June 2, 2021, https://www.uawire.org/sudan-refuses-to-allow-construction-of-russian-naval-base#.
 Jakub Wozniak, “Sudan Reviewing Russian Naval Base Agreement,” Overt Defense, June 4, 2021, https://www.overtdefense.com/2021/06/04/sudan-reviewing-russian-naval-base-agreement/.
 Bruce L. Jones, “Sudan To Renegotiate Russian Naval Base Agreement,” Janes, June 4, 2021, https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/sudan-to-renegotiate-russian-naval-base-agreement.
 “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Remarks and Answers to Media Questions at a Joint News Conference with Foreign Minister of Sudan Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi Following Talks, Moscow, July 12, 2021,” July 12, 2021.
 “Russian Navy Ships Continue To Visit Sudan,” Janes, May 5, 2021, https://bit.ly/3DtnXbc; “Sudan Suspends Planned Russian Naval Base – Reports,” The Moscow Times, April 29, 2021, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/04/29/sudan-suspends-planned-russian-naval-base-reports-a73770; “Russian Warships Visit Port Sudan Amid Reports of Khartoum Suspending Naval Base Deal,” Defense World, May 8, 2021, www.defenseworld.net.
 Sanuel Ramani, “Sudan-Russia Relations After the October Coup: The View From Moscow,” Middle East Institute, December 20, 2021, https://www.mei.edu/publications/sudan-russia-relations-after-october-coup-view-moscow. As for gunboat diplomacy, the resemblance to U.S. actions that led to the building of the Panama Canal is striking.
 Ibid; Tom O’Connor “How U.S., China, and Russia Are Reacting to Latest Government Overthrow in Sudan,” Newsweek, October 25, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/how-us-china-russia-reacting-latest-coup-sudan-1642409.
 Chris Olaoluwa Ogunmodede, “Sudan’s Military Might Have Overplayed Its Hand,” World Politics Review, October 29, 2021, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/30080/in-sudan-democracy-can-t-be-counted-out-yet.
 “Khartoum Values Moscow’s Stance in Regard to Recent Events in Sudan Army Chief Says,” Sputnik News, October 31, 2021, https://sputniknews.com/20211101/khartoum-values-moscows-stance-in-regard-to-recent-events-in-sudan-army-chief-says-1090375575.html.
 Kirill Semenov, “Sudan Coup Could Offer Boon for Moscow,” Al Monitor, October 28, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/10/sudan-coup-could-offer-boon-moscow.
 Samuel Ramani, “Why Russia is a Geopolitical Winner in Mali’s Coup,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, September 16, 2020, https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/09/why-russia-is-a-geopolitical-winner-in-malis-coup/; Jared Thompson, “The Wagner Group Has Its Eyes on Mali: A New Front in Russia’s Irregular Strategy,” Modern War Institute, October 14, 2021, https://mwi.usma.edu/the-wagner-group-has-its-eyes-on-mali-a-new-front-in-russias-irregular-strategy/.
 Ibidem; Eren Erzosoglu, “Wagner in CAR: Russia’s ‘Non-State State Actor’ Part VI,” Grey Dynamics, April 15, 2021, https://www.greydynamics.com/russias-non-state-state-actor-part-vi/.
 Safaa Kasraoui, “Wagner-Mali Affair: Algeria Seeks to Finance Part of Russia-Mali Security Agreement,” Morocco World News, October 14, 2021, https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2021/10/344946/wagner-mali-affair-algeria-seeks-to-finance-part-of-russia-mali-security-agreement,
 Grissom, et al; Arnaud Kalika, “Russia’s ‘Great Return’ to Africa?” French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), Notes D’Ifri, Russie.Nei.Visions, No. 114, April 19, 2019, https://www.ifri.org/en/publications/notes-de-lifri/russieneivisions/russias-great-return-africa; Paul Stronski, “Late to the Party: Russia’s Return to Africa,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 16, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/16/late-to-party-russia-s-return-to-africa-pub-80056.
 Stephen Blank, “Sino-Iranian Relations and Their Impact on South and Central Asia,” Forthcoming in Baku Dialogues, 2022.