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The chairman of Sudan's sovereign council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 2020. Wikipedia

The race for Sudan

Is Washington once again trying to be a hegemonic power in Africa? Are the Americans back?

Published: April 30, 2021, 11:04 am

    Recently, Arab media reported that Sudan suspended its military agreements with Russia concerning the deployment of a Russian military base in the country.

    The TV channel Al-Hadas reported that the agreement on the establishment of a Russian naval base in Sudan has been suspended.

    Sudan is also stopping “any new deployment of Russian military” in one of the Red Sea gulfs, the Russian news agency Interfax reported, citing Bloomberg.

    “The Russian military presence in the Red Sea is limited only to reconnaissance vessels at the Flamenco base, and it is up to the Legislative Council to decide the legality of placing a Russian or American naval base,” Sudan Plus reported in turn.

    However, the Russian Embassy in Sudan later denied this information. Nevertheless, it confirmed indirectly that the deployment of the Russian military personnel at the base in Sudan was out of the question. The embassy said that the agreement about the establishment of the Russian military base in Sudan comes into force only after its ratification by both sides. However, this ratification has not happened yet.

    In November 2020, Russia announced the signing of a 25-year agreement to build a logistics centre in Port Sudan for nuclear-powered warships and up to 300 military and civilian personnel. This would be the first Russian naval base in Africa and the second on foreign territory after Tartus in Syria.

    Inexplicable delay

    Although reports about the suspension of the agreement turned out to be untrue, the mere fact that the agreement has not yet been ratified raises doubts that Russia will be able to gain a foothold in the region. Russia and Sudan signed the military base agreement six months ago. But so far Russia has not been able to proceed with the deployment of a military base in the Red Sea. The situation was quite different in Tartus and Khmeimim, Syria, where Moscow deployed its military corpus quite promptly.

    Nevertheless, immediately after the announcement of the establishment of a Russian military base in Sudan, American and European experts sounded the alarm.

    “The Red Sea has become a geopolitical hot spot. It’s a fantastic deal for Russia that has strengthened its influence”, said Annette Weber of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

    The British leading think-tank RUSI stated that “Russia’s new Port Sudan naval facility is a landmark moment in the expansion of its naval capabilities” and that “the US, the EU and Turkey will likely view Russia’s presence in Port Sudan as a challenge to their interests.

    These assessments were based on the rather long history of interaction between Russia and Sudan. Even after the overthrow of its dictator Omar Bashir in April 2019, Moscow maintained close contacts with the military who overthrew Bashar. The Russians have worked with these combatants for nearly a decade. It would have been logical to assume that Moscow would deploy its troops quickly enough in a key region of the world. But this had not happened.

    A Sudanese delegation visited Moscow at the beginning of 2020 to discuss, among other things, military cooperation, but an agreement on the military base was not reached until November with the new leadership of the country. Sudan was not against it, but for some reason Moscow itself delayed the process.

    An American rival

    The US, which since the overthrow of Omar Bashir had not abandoned plans to draw Sudan into its sphere of influence, took advantage of Russia’s delay.

    As early as December 2020, the US crossed Sudan off the list of countries sponsoring terrorism. In January 2021, AFRICOM Deputy Commander Andrew Young and US Navy Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, AFRICOM’s intelligence director, visited Sudan as part of an important trip aimed at increasing cooperation with the United States. The US deputy commander for Africa called for “new beginnings” and a “renewed relationship”.

    At the same time, the Arab media Alrakoba announced the US plans to build its military base in Sudan. In April, The Middle Eastern Eye, citing its sources, claimed that Sudanese authorities were studying proposals from both Russia and the US to establish a regional maritime partnership and build military bases.

    In contrast to the Russians, the Americans are actively working to orient Sudan toward the United States in all spheres. Within the last few months, the US State Department called legal reforms in Sudan a model for other countries; the US provided the country with a large shipment of wheat; Washington agreed to lend Sudan US$1 billion to pay off debts to the World Bank. Restrictions on the US exports to Sudan have also been lifted, and there is an active discussion about attracting investment and financial assistance from the United States and its allies.

    Given the growing rivalry between Russia and the US, it is inconceivable that both Russians and Americans would have military bases in the country at the same time. There must be either one or the other. And judging by the US activism and the fact that the media is already discussing the issue of suspending the agreement with Russia on the military base, the Americans are the ones who will succeed in their plans.

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