Red Sea competition growing as Russia enters region

Western powers need to engage with Moscow to help create stability in vital seaway

A Russian warship is seen docked in the Port Sudan, in February this year. AP Photo
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Russia’s growing ambitions in the Red Sea region could threaten freedom of navigation for shipping, potentially disrupting oil prices, a leading think-tank report claims.

Policymakers are being urged to pay close attention to Moscow’s activities in the vital seaway as Russia prepares to exert greater influence through arms deals and building naval ports, the Royal United Services Institute report said.

But other destabilising influences could also severely disrupt the sea route, part of which is the Suez Canal, vital for getting oil and goods exports from the region.

Rebel groups such as the Houthis in Yemen could use anti-ship missiles to cripple shipping in the Bab El Mandeb Strait, between the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa, which might unravel the Opec+ supply regulation agreement.

While Russia’s tilt towards greater ambition in the Red Sea has received little attention, it could have a significant security and economic effect, the report said.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin visits the Far Eastern Maritime Training Centre in Vladivostok, Russia as Moscow's ambitions grow in the Red Sea. Reuters

“Russia wishes to challenge the US and Europe for influence in this pivotal region and frame itself as a contributor to regional security,” the London think-tank said.

With the stability of the Red Sea and Bab El Mandeb Strait essential for shipping, US and European policymakers “should pay close attention to Moscow’s manoeuvres”, wrote the report’s author, Samuel Ramani, an international relations tutor at the University of Oxford.

The West, therefore, needs to engage with Russia on the Red Sea to avoid severe disruption, according to the report, titled Russia’s Growing Ambitions in the Red Sea Region.

Russia is building a new naval facility in Port Sudan that will not only give it influence in the Red Sea but allow it to expand its involvement in Indian Ocean maritime security as well complementing its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

While this could destabilise the region, it could also create opportunities for Russia and the West to co-operate in maritime security, as they did successfully in the past against Somali pirates.

But Moscow could also employ “disruptive tactics”, such as using its Wagner Group private military contractor in Sudan and with indiscriminate arms sales to exacerbate the Red Sea’s insecurity.

“Its security presence could potentially reinforce authoritarian consolidation and present a long-term threat to the freedom of navigation of western countries,” the report said.

Western powers therefore need to take measures to contain the negative influence and to encourage forms of Russian engagement to further regional stability, peace and prosperity.

Russia had also expanded its role as a security provider in the Red Sea through military co-operation agreements, anti-piracy missions and naval base negotiations.

Western policymakers needed to “acknowledge that Russia is there to stay” as the region embraces a multipolar world order, and should “exercise restraint” in countering its influence, the report concluded.

Updated: September 02, 2021, 11:57 AM