Sudan army set to give Russia Red Sea base in exchange for arms

Potential deal with Moscow comes at a time when the army appears determined to dig deep in civil war

Malik Agar, the deputy of army chief Gen Abdul Fattah Al Burhan on the ruling Sovereign Council, is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin this week in St Petersburg. AFP
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Sudan's army is expected to allow Moscow to build a naval logistics base on the Red Sea in exchange for arms as a top official from the north-eastern African country visits Russia to negotiate the deal.

The army has been fighting a civil war against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces since April last year, with both sides seeking international allies and legitimacy.

Malik Agar, a former rebel leader and army chief Gen Abdul Fattah Al Burhan's deputy on the ruling Sovereign Council, flew to Russia on Tuesday and is scheduled to meet President Vladimir Putin later this week on the sidelines of an economic forum in St Petersburg.

If concluded, the deal could give the army a significant edge over the RSF, whose gains in the early days of the war in Khartoum caught the army off guard and allowed the paramilitary to capture large areas of territory in the western Darfur region and south of the Sudanese capital.

“The army is in desperate need of weapons, ammunitions and spare parts for its Russian-made warplanes,” said prominent Sudanese analyst Osman Al Mirghany. “Offering Russia a naval base in return for them is its best option.”

The expected deal between the army and the Kremlin would be a revival of an agreement that Moscow signed with former dictator Omar Al Bashir shortly before he was removed from power in April 2019 amid a popular uprising.

That deal, publicised by Russia’s state-owned media in 2020, provides for the construction by Russia of a naval base north of the city of Port Sudan, which has remained in control of the Sudanese army.

The base would accommodate up to four vessels and include storage for weapons, fuel and ammunition. Up to 300 navy personnel could stay at the site at any given time.

Gen Al Burhan appears determined to dig deep in the fight against the RSF as he shuns calls by the US and Saudi Arabia to return to the negotiating table in Jeddah to find a peaceful end to the war.

“Our real achievement is that we shifted from defence to attack. Our capabilities are ready for the recapture of Bahari and Khartoum,” said Gen Yasser Al Atta, assistant army chief, referring to the capital and its sister city.

The capital’s other sister city is Omdurman, where the army has recently scored a string of victories, pushing the RSF out of the old quarter.

The US and Saudi Arabia brokered several ceasefires soon after the war broke out last year but they collapsed soon after they came into force or were totally ignored.

News of the potential deal with Russia first broke in a May 25 interview by Gen Al Atta that was broadcast by the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based Al Hadath television channel.

Gen Al Atta said the Sudanese army would receive “vital weapons and munitions” in return for granting Russia use of the outpost.

Russia’s interest in a naval base in Sudan is part of its ambitious drive to gain leverage in Africa and a foothold on the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest commercial routes and a focus of regional rivalries.

Sudan has an 853km coastline on the Red Sea that sits on the waterway’s middle reaches, south of the Suez Canal and north of the Horn of Africa.

'A done deal'

Sudanese analyst and former army officer Nouraldeen Al Sayed said he had no doubt that the deal would be struck.

“It’s a done deal. Agar’s mission is to finalise the agreement, sign the deal. Only procedural issues remain to be resolved.”

The deal is expected to stoke concern in the West about Russia’s efforts to forge closer ties with African countries, sometimes at the expense of former colonial nations such as France in West Africa and the Sahel regions.

The close ties being forged by the Sudanese army and the Kremlin could signal a shift in Moscow’s approach to Sudan, ending the support the RSF once received from the Wagner Group, whose mercenaries had for years armed and trained its fighters.

Washington is already alarmed by Khartoum’s close ties with Iran, which has supplied Gen Al Burhan’s army with attack drones that shifted the balance of power in favour of the army.

News of the potential deal with Russia has also come at a time when the army is gaining confidence while determined not to negotiate.

“We are not going to Jeddah,” Mr Agar said last week. “Those who want us to go there had better first kill us in our homeland then take our bodies there.”

The war in Sudan has caused a massive humanitarian crisis, with more than eight million people displaced, 18 million people facing acute hunger and 3.6 million children at risk of malnourishment.

“Time is running out for millions of people in Sudan who are at imminent risk of famine, displaced from their lands, living under bombardments, and cut off from humanitarian assistance,” UN agencies said recently.

– Al Shafie Ahmed reported from Kampala, Uganda

Updated: June 05, 2024, 2:00 PM