On June 4, Russia joined China in blocking a United Nations Security Council draft resolution that condemned the Sudanese military government’s killings of civilians and urged world powers to call for an immediate halt to violence. To justify Moscow’s decision, Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyansky, described the draft resolution as an “unbalanced statement” that “could spoil the situation.” Two days later, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov backed up Polyansky’s statement by adding that Moscow opposed “foreign intervention in Sudan.”
Russia’s resolute defense of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) in the UN Security Council illustrates the growing importance of its alignment with Khartoum for its economic interests and geopolitical aspirations in Sub-Saharan Africa. The rising significance of the Moscow-Khartoum partnership has caused Russia to delegitimize the Sudanese opposition through a number of efforts: an elaborate disinformation campaign, a contingent of private military contractors (PMCs) that train Sudanese military officers, and a partnership with the TMC’s closest regional allies to suppress demonstrations. In the long-run, Russia hopes to entrench the TMC’s influence over Sudan’s transition process, while deflecting from accusations that it has abetted its repression, which has so far caused the deaths of at least 129 protesters.
Although numerous geopolitical imperatives drive Russia to support the TMC, Russia’s outstanding contracts with the Sudanese government and plans to construct a base on the Red Sea are especially significant. The TMC has agreed to uphold Russia’s substantial contracts in Sudan’s defense, mining and energy sectors, which have expanded significantly in recent years. According to SIPRI, Sudan is the second largest purchaser of Russian arms in Africa after Algeria, and 50 percent of Sudan’s arms purchases in 2017 came from Russia. In 2017, a Russian mining company called M Invest gained preferential access to Sudan’s gold reserves, after a meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in Sochi. As Sudanese infrastructure helps transfer South Sudan’s oil to global markets, Russia has expressed interest in constructing an oil refinery in Sudan to increase the profitability of its oil exploration deals in South Sudan.
In addition to upholding these contracts, Russia is hoping to construct a base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast to increase its influence in the Horn of Africa and expand its presence on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Sudan’s ousted president Omar al-Bashir asked Russia to consider constructing a Red Sea base in November 2017, due to concerns about U.S. interference in Sudan’s internal affairs. Bashir’s call fell on eager ears as Russia believes that a Sudanese government that has poor relations with the U.S. will be more likely to entrust it with a base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Due to Sudan’s persistent instability, Russia’s potential base construction has not been discussed publicly since January. Nevertheless, U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton’s criticisms of the TMC’s crackdowns on demonstrators could cause the TMC to adopt Bashir’s rhetoric that the U.S. is a threatening power that is intervening in Sudan’s internal affairs. The revival of this rhetoric would leave Russia well-placed to establish a base in Sudan.
As Moscow’s strategic interests in Sudan hinge on the TMC’s preservation of political hegemony, Russia has actively delegitimized the Sudanese opposition through a disinformation campaign. Prior to Bashir’s fall, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin, urged the Sudanese government to smear the protesters as pro-Israel, anti-Islamic and pro-LGBT. These recommendations were not fully implemented by Bashir but inspired the Sudanese police to arrest students in Darfur region for inciting a civil war. As the protests continued to intensify after the coup d’état, senior Russian policymakers publicly delegitimized the opposition. The most notable example of the Russian state’s delegitimization strategy occurred on June 6, when Bogdanov urged the Sudanese authorities to crack down on “extremists and saboteurs.”
Kremlin-aligned media outlets have also cast doubt on the TMC’s use of repression and claimed that the TMC is willing to facilitate a peaceful democratic transition in Sudan. To counter international condemnations of the TMC’s crackdown on demonstrators, Russian media outlets described the perpetrators of violence against Sudanese protesters as unknown people wearing military uniforms and emphasized the TMC’s commitment to punishing criminals. After the June 3 massacre of Sudanese demonstrators by the military, which resulted in at least 128 fatalities, coverage of the TMC’s involvement in these acts of repression was largely confined to liberal newspapers, like Novaya Gazeta. State-aligned outlets, like the Russian Federal News Agency, emphasized Burhan’s decision to launch an investigation into the June 3 events and reinforced the Russian Foreign Ministry’s praise for the TMC’s plan to hold elections in 2020.
Although Russia’s disinformation campaign against the Sudanese opposition has not blunted the momentum of the demonstrations, RT Arabic’s status as Sudan’s second most popular international news website after Al Jazeera suggests that Russian disinformation has reached large numbers of Sudanese people under the age of 30. Even more significantly, Russia’s delegitimization of the Sudanese opposition also demonstrates its solidarity with the TMC’s leading regional sponsors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as all three countries oppose the overthrow of authoritarian regimes by popular uprisings. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, in particular, has been an outspoken supporter of the TMC’s ability to contribute to Sudan’s long-term stability.
The potential strategic significance of Russia’s synergistic positions with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Sudan have been noted in Moscow. On May 6, an article in a major pro-Kremlin newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, mused that Moscow’s positions were “in tandem with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf,” and that Sudan provided an example of a crisis where Moscow was closer in views to these traditional U.S. allies than Washington. As Saudi Arabia and the UAE both fear that their alliances with the U.S. could face greater scrutiny if a Democratic Party candidate triumphs in 2020, Moscow hopes its synergistic perspectives with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on regional crises like Sudan and Libya could strengthen its partnerships with these Gulf monarchies.
In order to bolster perceptions of its influence amongst U.S. allies in the Gulf and cement its long-term interests in Sudan, Russia wants to ensure that pro-Kremlin elements within the Sudanese military remain dominant. This has grown in importance since the July 5 deal between the TMC and the Sudanese opposition, which institutionalized a rotating presidency and a civilian-military ruling council. In order for Russia to maintain its current influence in Sudan, after the TMC’s 21-month mandate expires, Moscow needs to repair its relations with Sudanese opposition movements.
Although Bogdanov insisted that Russia has engaged in dialogue with members of the Sudanese opposition after the June 3 crackdown, Moscow’s image amongst the TMC’s opponents has been tarnished by its deployment of PMCs to Sudan. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova has insisted that Russian PMCs were not operated by the Kremlin, and Duma representative Yuri Shvytkin insisted that the PMCs were present to implement a military-technical agreement with Khartoum. However, it was subsequently revealed that Russian PMCs sanctioned the TMC’s repression if it resulted in a “minimal but acceptable loss of life.” As prominent opposition figures like Abd al-Wahid al-Nur, the leader of Darfur’s Sudan Liberation Movement, have publicly sounded the alarm about Russian involvement in Sudan, these revelations will further tarnish Moscow’s image.
As the TMC’s willingness to uphold Bashir-era contracts and maintain close military cooperation with Moscow boosts Russia’s aspirations for influence in Sudan and the Red Sea, Russia will likely attempt to preserve its leverage by helping Burhan dilute the July 5 agreement’s terms. Russia’s ability to influence conditions in Sudan depends on the synergistic support of the UAE and Saudi Arabia for the TMC, and the Sudanese opposition’s continued inability to coalesce around a single leader or dominant faction. If these conditions remain in place, Russia will be well-positioned to remain an influential stakeholder in Sudan for the foreseeable future.
Samuel Ramani is a PhD candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford specializing in Russia-Middle East relations. Follow him on Twitter @samramani2.
Correction: In the original version, the number of fatalities cited for the June 3 massacre was listed as 35. This has been changed to reflect better estimates as more information becomes available.