Lavrov says Russia supports Sudan's call to end UN sanctions and awaits naval base nod

Russian Foreign Minister's Sudan visit is final step in African tour

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Sudanese acting foreign minister Ali Al Sadeq in Khartoum, Sudan, on February 9.  AP
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday that Moscow stood by Sudan's call for the UN to lift an arms embargo, and said Moscow awaited legislative ratification of a 2018 agreement with Khartoum, granting it a naval base on the Red Sea.

Mr Lavrov was speaking after talks with Sudan's military leaders in Khartoum, in the third and final stop of an African tour by the Kremlin’s top diplomat designed to ease Moscow’s isolation.

Russia has for years been courting Africa, competing with the US and China for influence in the resource-rich continent.

But its diplomatic drive there intensified after the invasion of Ukraine a year ago and the sanctions and isolation that followed.

Sudan, with its 750km Red Sea coastline and its location as a bridge between the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, is central to Russia’s drive to court African regimes.

Naval base ambition

Ousted dictator Omar Al Bashir granted Russia a logistical base on the Red Sea during talks in 2018 with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Under pressure from the US, regional Arab powers and Khartoum's then civilian-led government, Sudan shelved the deal in 2021, much to the dismay of Moscow.

International resistance to the deal reflects the growing competition to control the Red Sea’s strategic shipping lanes, where the US, its European allies and regional powers are seeking to prevent Russia and Iran from gaining a foothold, experts said.

It was not clear whether Mr Lavrov raised the subject during his talks on Thursday.

But before his departure, he told a briefing that Moscow was awaiting Sudan’s legislative approval for the planned base.

An agreement already signed needs ratification, Mr Lavrov said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Khartoum, Sudan, on February 9. AP

Statements issued by the Sudanese authorities made no mention of the proposed base.

They focused on bilateral relations, reviewing regional and international issues and Moscow’s intention to help Sudan upgrade its fragile infrastructure.

Mr Lavrov’s visit coincided with the presence in Khartoum of several western envoys, including those from the US, Britain, France, Germany and Norway.

In a thinly veiled reference to the envoys' presence, he said the West was "hounding" Russia.

The envoys gathered in Khartoum to encourage the military and civilian leaders to push on with talks to advance a preliminary deal reached in December on the restoration of Sudan’s democratic transition.

That transition was derailed when derailed when Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan seized power in a coup nearly 16 months ago.

The agreement provides for the military to quit politics and for a civilian prime minister to steer the country for two years until elections are held.

Key issues, such as the restructuring of the military and security agencies, as well as transitional justice, were left for a second round of negotiations.

Civilian government

Mr Lavrov, who arrived in Khartoum on Wednesday, held talks on Thursday with Gen Al Burhan, Sudan’s military leader, and his deputy, Gen Mohamed Dagalo, head of the influential Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia.

He also met acting Foreign Minister Ali Al Sadeq.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shakes hands with Sudan's military leader Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan in Khartoum, on February 9. EPA

“Mr Lavrov emphasised his support for the preliminary deal … and the importance of reaching a political solution by the Sudanese to the crisis and a comprehensive agreement that produces a civilian government in the near future,” the ruling Sovereignty Council said.

Mr Lavrov said that Moscow supported Sudan's call for long-standing UN sanctions, including an arms embargo, to be lifted.

The sanctions date to the civil war in Sudan's western Darfur region in the 2000s.

"We stand with the Sudanese side in its endeavour to lift the sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council," Mr Lavrov said.

Russia has cultivated cordial relations with the military in Sudan as part of its drive to forge closer ties in Africa.

Its relations with the Sudanese military contrasts with the suspension by the US and its allies of aid to Sudan worth billions of dollars in response to the 2021 coup.

Wagner controversy

Russia, meanwhile, is coming under mounting pressure over the expanding involvement in Sudan of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor company owned by an oligarch with close ties to Mr Putin.

Washington is increasing pressure on Sudan and others to expel the group, US officials told AP this week.

US President Joe Biden's administration is making a broad push against the Wagner Group, the target of new sanctions in recent months over its expanding role in Russia's war in Ukraine.

In Sudan, Wagner was originally associated with Al Bashir, who drew closer to Moscow late in his 29-year rule. It now works with the generals who replaced him.

“Wagner tends to target countries with natural resources that can be used for Moscow’s objectives — gold mines in Sudan, for example, where the resulting gold can be sold in ways that circumvent western sanctions,” said Catrina Doxsee, an expert on Wagner at Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Wagner started operating in Sudan in 2017, providing military training to intelligence and special forces, and to the paramilitary RSF, according to Sudanese officials and documents shared with AP.

Sudanese military leaders appear to have given Wagner control of gold mines in return, with the documents showing the group receiving mining rights through front companies with ties to Sudan’s powerful military and militias.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Deputy Chairman of the Transitional Sovereignty Council Gen Mohamed Dagalo in Khartoum, Sudan, on February 9. AP

Gen Dagalo created a stir when he voiced his support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February last year while on a visit to Moscow.

On Thursday, a statement by his office after talks with Mr Lavrov showed a more balanced position on the war.

It said Gen Dagalo told Mr Lavrov that “Sudan seeks balanced relations with all nations that are based on mutual respect and serving bilateral interests.

"He also expressed hope that Russia and Ukraine will reach a political and diplomatic solution that ends the war.“

Updated: February 09, 2023, 8:05 PM