MS Risk Blog

Russian interests and goals in Sudan

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Russia has significant stakes in the conflict that broke out in Sudan on 15 April between the Sudanese military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), respectively led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemedti”). Moscow’s main interests in Sudan are access to its gold reserves and its plan for establishing a naval base in the country. Although some reports claimed Russia has provided support to the RSF, Moscow will likely refrain from overtly favoring either side and will maintain a balanced approach, focusing on forestalling any potential democratic transition in Sudan while maintaining its commercial and military presence in the country.

Moscow’s involvement in Sudan can be traced back to November 2017, when then-President Omar al-Bashir met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi and sought to establish a new alliance with Russia. During Bashir’s visit, the two countries inked agreements on gold mining concessions and the establishment of a Russian naval base in Port Sudan on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. These constitute Moscow’s two main interests in Sudan today. Even though a coup deposed Bashir in April 2019, Russia continued strengthening its presence in the country and maintained close ties with the two leading figures that rose to power in the coup’s aftermath, Burhan and Hemedti.

Russia’s interest in the gold reserves of Sudan, which is Africa’s third-largest gold producer, is directly tied to the Wagner Group, the mercenary network managed by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Right after Bashir’s meeting with Putin, employees of Meroe Gold, a company controlled by Prigozhin, arrived in Sudan and started exploiting the country’s gold reserves. According to reports, the Russians buy large amounts of gold from local miners and send it to a processing plant near the town of al-Ibaidiya, northeast of Khartoum. The gold is then smuggled out of Sudan either through flights from Khartoum and Port Sudan’s airports to the Syrian port city of Latakia, where Russia has a major airbase, or through a land route to the Central African Republic (CAR), where Wanger has also established a powerful presence. Amassing gold has enabled Moscow to accumulate wealth bypassing international sanctions imposed after its 2014 and 2022 invasions of Ukraine. A large portion of the money has reportedly been used to finance Wagner’s operations in Ukraine.

After Bashir’s ouster, both Burhan and Hemedti assisted Russia’s siphoning of Sudanese gold. With the ruling generals’ consent, Wagner’s dealings have circumvented state institutions and financial monitors, resulting in potentially hundreds of millions lost in government revenue and leading some officials to accuse Russia of “pillaging Sudan”. In return, Wagner’s mercenaries deployed in Sudan and provided training and weapons to the military and the RSF. They also assisted Sudanese security forces in cracking down on popular pro-democracy protests in 2018 and 2019, supporting both Bashir at first and Burhan and Hemedti after their coup. In October 2021, Russia supported a new coup by Burhan and Hemedti that overthrew a transitional civilian government formed after Bashir’s fall.

Russia’s plans for a naval base in Sudan, if realized, would also significantly bolster its strategic posture. With Moscow is seeking to increase its influence in Africa in the context of its broader global confrontation with the US and its allies, a military presence on Sudan’s strategic Red Sea coast would serve multiple Russian interests. First, it would provide Moscow with a foothold in a critical shipping lane between Europe, Asia, and Africa through which passes around 10% of global trade. Second, combined with its naval base in Tartus, Syria, it would enhance Russia’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean by alleviating Tartus’ resupply commitments and allowing it to develop into a multi-purpose naval base, as described by Russian experts. Third, it would enable Russia to broaden its reach and project military power into the Indian Ocean, where the Soviet Union had important naval facilities that were lost after its collapse. Moscow would thus be in a better position to challenge the US and other major Western powers’ interests.

According to a draft 25-year agreement approved by the Russian government in November 2020, Russia will be able to station up to four warships, including nuclear-powered ones, and 300 personnel at the base. In exchange, Sudan will receive weapons and military equipment. Nevertheless, despite its significance for Moscow, the naval base project was significantly derailed after Bashir’s ouster in 2019. After the second Russian-backed coup in 2021 again isolated Sudan’s military from the West, prospects for the base’s opening warmed again. Still, since ratifying the deal requires approval from the parliament, which does not exist in Sudan since the 2019 coup due to political infighting, and the country is currently mired in chaos due to the ongoing conflict, it is unlikely that the Russian base will be operating any time soon.

Under these circumstances, which side does Russia support in the conflict between the two generals? According to analysts, in 2021 and 2022 Wagner strengthened its ties with Hemedti and the RSF. Prigozhin’s main motive was gaining access to more gold in territories Hemedti controls. The RSF have reportedly provided security for Wagner’s smuggling operations. Furthermore, RSF support is crucial for Wagner’s smuggling to the CAR, which borders Sudan’s Darfur region where Hemedti has his base of operations, and access to Libya, where both Wagner forces and the RSF support warlord Khalifa Hifter. On the other hand, Burhan is seen as less close to Russia, and his main patron, Egypt, opposes the establishment of the Russian base in Sudan. Last April, media reports said that Wagner and Hifter provided weapons to the RSF, including surface-to-air missiles.

Still, experts are cautious about the extent of direct Russian involvement in the conflict, since instability in Sudan poses a threat to Russia’s interests in the country. So far, neither side seems capable of achieving a decisive victory. Support for Hemedti would probably not be enough to enable him to take power and form a stable government, while completely alienating Moscow from Burhan’s faction which has also received Russian backing in the past. Furthermore, it would worsen relations between Russia and Egypt, a crucial regional partner for Moscow. And as long as the conflict persists, the goal of establishing a naval base in Sudan will remain unattainable. As for Wagner, Sudan’s destabilization due to continued conflict could hinder its gold smuggling operations. More recent reports have suggested that rumors about Wagner’s assistance to the RSF may be exaggerated, and Prigozhin himself has publicly offered to mediate between the two sides, denying involvement in the fighting. Thus, it seems likely that Russia will try to balance between Burhan and Hemedti and officially support a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Moscow’s main goals in Sudan will likely be preserving its Wagner-linked commercial interests and preventing any potential democratic transition that could end authoritarian rule. According to Samuel Rabani, such a transition is not in Russia’s interests, as a more democratic government would likely seek improved relations with the West and would not tolerate its opaque economic activities and gold smuggling.

In conclusion, despite its significant interests in Sudan, Russia is unlikely to provide significant support for either side, since it has good relations with both generals. Instability in Sudan does not serve Moscow’s goals, as it hinders both its gold smuggling operations and plans for establishing a naval base. Therefore, Moscow will likely pursue a balanced policy, declaring its support for a diplomatic solution, while seeking to preserve its commercial interests in Sudan through Wagner and keep alive its project for establishing a naval base, if and when conditions allow for it.