Sudan Could Be the Setting for a Re-Play of the ‘Great Game’

Last November, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, announced an agreement with Sudan to build a seaport technical facility with mooring capabilities for nuclear-powered vessels. At that time, Khartoum had not yet ratified the agreement, but it appeared nevertheless to have been a done deal. Six months on, however, the Russians are not only still waiting, but there is every chance that the deal will never happen – because the US won’t allow it.

The prospect of a Russian military base in Africa, in addition to the Chinese naval base in Djibouti and Turkey’s largest overseas military base in Somalia, has forced the US to rethink its priorities in Africa. Now, the focus of the United States Africa Command, often known as Africom, is no longer centered on the prevention of terrorism, but on the curbing of Chinese and Russian influence on the African continent. Africom’s funding for operations doubled in 2019.

For Russia, a naval base in northeast Africa would serve several purposes. African countries long have been Russia’s main customers for military equipment. Russian energy companies Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec and Rosatom all have invested heavily on the continent. In the past six months, Russia also has been using Port Sudan to supply weapons to the private security company, the Wagner Group, which is working for the government in the Central African Republic.

(In the recent past, Port Sudan served as a transshipment base for Iran to funnel weapons to Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.)

Logistically speaking, having military facilities dotted around the world where the Russian fleet can dock for repairs and refueling, is very helpful. A naval base in Port Sudan, positioned on an extremely busy sea route, would also confer both prestige and opportunities to expand Russia’s political and economic influence throughout East and Central Africa. It is no secret that the Kremlin is interested in large-scale business projects in Sudan, primarily in telecommunications, aviation and agriculture.

Sudan may be one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is in the top three nations in Africa for gold mining. Sudan also has 1.5 million tonnes of proven uranium reserves and its neighbor, oil-rich South Sudan, exports energy via the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline that passes through Sudan.

It is hardly surprising, then, that for the US, the possibility of Russia co-opting Sudan has not only sounded a warning about the potential threat to American interests in the region, but also has forced Washington to reappraise Sudan’s usefulness – which is why a delegation of high-ranking US military officials recently paid a visit.

Andrew Young, Africom’s deputy commander for civil-military cooperation, and Rear-Admiral Heidi Berg, head of the naval intelligence directorate, were there in January. The American military sealift command’s expeditionary fast transport ship, the USNS Carson, entered Port Sudan on February 24. Then, March 1 saw the arrival of the guided-missile destroyer, USS Winston S Churchill.

According to Arabic media, the Khartoum government has suspended permission for the Russian naval base, which would sit just north of Port Sudan. Moscow has dismissed the claims as Western rumor-mongering. Whether true or not, the very fact that they have surfaced in public is in itself significant and certainly suggests that pressure from Washington is a major factor in Khartoum’s delay. The US is still the main player in the Middle East and will not cede that role easily.

In early March, Sudan received $1.15 billion from the US to repay a loan to the World Bank. In response, the World Bank announced the resumption of relations with Khartoum after nearly three decades. Sudan also recently reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund over $50 billion in debt relief. Both could be seen as indications that Sudan is about to enter the American geopolitical orbit.

By contrast, in 2014 Russia wrote off a $17 million debt in the hope of gaining access to Sudan’s oil and gas infrastructure, but the gesture has not yielded the desired reward for Moscow.

Sudan, meanwhile, looks like becoming the arena for a re-staging of the “Great Game,” the political and diplomatic confrontation between the British and Russian empires that took place in Afghanistan and Central Asia and lasted for most of the 19th century into the early years of the 20th century.

This time, it could be a three-sided fight between the US, Russia and China. Sudan is a pawn here. But even pawns get to make their move sooner or later. Khartoum will then have to choose a direction: east or west? Russia or the United States?

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”