The Harmful Role of the Kremlin and Wagner in Sudan

From the beginning of the conflict between the two military leaders who exercise power in Sudan, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagolo, pro-Russian voices have supported the latter: Hemedti would not be involved with the Sudanese Islamists. Implicitly, Vladimir Putin is camped as a bulwark against Islamism. However, one cannot ignore Russia’s links with the military-Islamist dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir and its harmful role in Sudan.

Until recently, Sudan was a “pariah state”, subject to international sanctions for terrorism and war crimes. Independent since 1956, this former Anglo-Egyptian condominium has long been torn apart by ethnic and religious conflicts — no need to go back to the Mahdist insurrection in 1885 and Gordon Pasha. From 1983 to 2011, the southern part of the country experienced a long war of independence, interspersed with fragile truces. Following the 2011 referendum on self-determination, South Sudan gained independence, but not without fierce tribal conflicts within the new state.

A long military-Islamist dictatorship

This long ethnic and religious war reinforces the role of the military in Africa’s largest country1. In 1989, General Omar al-Bashir’s coup established a military-Islamist dictatorship that made Sudan a jihadist base in Africa. In addition to the terrorist Carlos, who had converted to Islam, the regime welcomed Osama Bin Laden, who had been unwelcome in the Arabian Peninsula since the Gulf War2. In 1996, combined pressure from Riyadh and Washington on the Sudanese regime forced the founder of Al-Qaeda to leave for Afghanistan, ruled by the Taliban.

In western Sudan, starting in 2003, the people of Darfur rebelled against the central government. According to UN investigators, the massacres and abuse committed by the Sudanese armed forces (SAF) and Arab militias, called “Janjaweed”, caused 300,000 deaths and led to the flight of 2.7 million people from Darfur3. It was in this deadly geopolitical context that Hemedti emerged. He asserted himself as a militiaman and warlord, then as a businessman and politician. Later, the Janjaweed became the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This paramilitary group and control of part of the country’s gold mines form the basis of Hemedti’s power4.

The war in Darfur increased the isolation of the military-Islamist power. In 2004, a UN Security Council resolution established an arms embargo, which was not respected by Beijing and Moscow (China was the main buyer of Sudanese oil at the time). Several Western governments consider that the people of Darfur are victims of genocide. In 2009, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity and war crimes. His international room for maneuver and his ability to travel abroad are reduced to the extreme.

Yet this is the man that Putin, on November 23, 2017, received very officially in Sochi. The Sudanese president came to propose an alliance to his Russian counterpart. Moscow and Khartoum then signed several agreements on nuclear energy. By 2025, Sudan was supposed to host a Russian civilian nuclear power plant. Moscow was expected to be the main beneficiary of the opening of the uranium sector to foreign investment (Sudan’s reserves placed it third in the world). Russian engineers and geologists were responsible for the precise mapping of Sudan’s mineral resources.

Finally, Omar Al-Bashir asked for more military aid (arms deliveries and the signing of a formal agreement). He asked for Russian protection against the United States. In return, the Sudanese president proposed the opening of a naval base in Port Sudan, in the Red Sea, on the Suez route (the old India route), the main route between Asia and Europe. Russia could thus try to regain the USSR’s geostrategic positions in these areas between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean (the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria, is located halfway between the Turkish straits and the Suez Canal).

A Wagner commander presents decorations to the Sudanese military, in 2019 // Telegram channel grey_zone

Omar al-Bachir also suggested to make his country, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, Russia’s relay on the African continent. Sudan borders Eritrea and Ethiopia to the east, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Chad to the west, Libya and Egypt to the north. In fact, the Russians would use it as a gateway to the African continent, to the Central African Republic and then to Mali and other countries of the Sahel region.

It was in Sudan that Wagner’s men first set foot in East Africa5. In return for arms and military-security services, they opened up the mining sector and were able to use Sudan as a platform for the Central African Republic and Libya. Turkey and Qatar were also active in the area. Ankara intended to buy the island of Suakin, a former stronghold of the Ottoman Empire in the Red Sea. A tourist project was put forward but observers saw it as a facade for naval ambitions. Qatari money accompanied the Turkish diplomatic breakthrough6.

The failure of the political transition

In 2019, the Sudanese revolt against Omar al-Bashir’s rule and his deposition by other military leaders seemed to threaten Russia’s positions and prospects in Sudan. A “Transitional Council” was supposed to lead Sudan in stages towards a civilian political formula. Opposed to the Turkish-Qatari axis, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt saw the period as an opportunity to strengthen their own positions. In fact, Hemedti had previously supplied men for the war in Yemen, which had allowed it to increase its war chest and gain power and influence.

Finally, the major Western democracies, primarily the United States, were banking on the ongoing political transition. With the active support of the United Arab Emirates, American diplomacy obtained Khartoum’s support for the Abraham Accords, signed in Washington on September 15, 2020. This was made official in January 2021. On February 2, 2023, Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Elie Cohen went to Khartoum to prepare a future peace treaty7 (Hemedti said later that he did not meet the Israeli delegation). But the context had changed.

At the time of the Abraham Accords, the United States seemed to be able to expand its system of alliances in Sudan. The diplomatic breakthrough was all the more significant because this country belonged to the “refusal front”. It was in Khartoum, in 1967, that the declaration of the “Three Nos” had been signed (no to peace, recognition and negotiation with the State of Israel). Later, under Omar al-Bashir, Sudan served as a hub for Iranian arms to Hamas. Undoubtedly, Khartoum’s support for the Abraham Accords was a “tremendous reversal” (Benjamin Netanyahu).

On October 25, 2021, a new coup d’état against the government of Abdalla Hamdock jeopardized the political transition. General Al-Burhan, supported by the army, and Hemedti, at the head of his militia, shared power: the former presided over the “Sovereignty Council” and the latter was vice-president8. Their rivalry seemed to be contained. The coup d’état deprived Sudan of a certain amount of international funding, but donors from the Persian Gulf had the means to compensate for this loss: Riyadh and Abu Dhabi invested in colossal port projects and export-oriented agribusiness programs.

The Kremlin still in the driver’s seat

While most regional powers took care to maintain their relations with the two “strongmen”, the hierarchy of alliances was not always the same. Saudi Arabia favoured General Al-Burhan, who was also favoured by Egypt: Marshal al-Sisi intended to make Sudan an ally against Ethiopia9. He did not care that the Sudanese army was close to the Islamists, so hated in Cairo. The United Arab Emirates favoured links with Hemedti, a supplier of mercenaries to Yemen; Abu Dhabi was also a key place for the gold trade. Moreover, Hemedti preferred Ethiopia to Egypt. In this game of alliances, it appeared that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were not quite playing the same game.

Russia, meanwhile, remained active in Sudan, taking care to be gentle with both. Hemedti was allied with the Wagner company, which exploited Sudanese gold mines and, in return, provided arms and military services10 (consulting and training activities). Shortly before the Russian “special operation” against Ukraine, in February 2022, the head of the RSF was in Moscow, probably to renew his agreements with Yevgeny Prigozhin. At the same time, the Russian state spared General al-Burhan and the army. On February 9, 2023, Sergei Lavrov was in Khartoum to resume negotiations on Port Sudan.

Vladimir Putin and Omar al-Bashir on July 14, 2018 // kremlin.ru

The war between al-Burhan and Hemedti, which began on April 15, 2023, surprised all the external players. Although political negotiations were stumbling over whether or not to integrate the RSF into the official army, neither man seemed to have an immediate interest in starting hostilities.11 It is not impossible that an Islamist provocation precipitated this armed conflict. The men who were once at the heart of Omar al-Bashir’s military-Islamist dictatorship remain influential and they retain many supporters within the Sudanese armed forces, which are infiltrated by the “Shadow Brigades”.12

Moscow’s position in the current conflict is one of neutrality, especially since its ability to influence the course of events is weak.13 Unilateral positions could ruin the work of influence that has been carried out for several years. However, the Wagner group still seems to be committed to Hemedti. Mutually profitable, the links forged with the RSF and the gold trade finance operations in Ukraine. There is no question of cutting ties.

According to The New York Times and The Washington Post, several flights between Wagner’s bases in Cyrenaica (Libya) and those of the RSF in Sudan have been spotted by American intelligence services. These are said to be arms transfers, which would explain in part the ability of Hemedti’s militia to confront the Sudanese military. Other transfers of this type could have been organized from the Central African Republic, in particular anti-aircraft weapons that could counterbalance the Sudanese army’s aerial domination.

By way of conclusion

Of course, the Russian presence and the misdeeds of the Wagner group alone cannot explain the situation in Sudan. Local strongmen, factions and the historical role of the army in political life are at the root of the wars that continue to tear Sudan apart. The uncertain calculations of the regional powers, which are now in a state of disarray, are also more important than the actions of Russia and its proxies.

At least this overview of Sudanese politics reminds us of the importance of “African games” in the Russian grand strategy, at the risk of further destabilizing East Africa, Chad, and Equatorial Africa. This goes far beyond the Islamist peril that the Muscovites are exploiting. In short, the main front is in Ukraine, on the Baltic/Black Sea axis, but the importance of Russian oblique strategies, in Africa and on the southern flank of Europe, should not be underestimated.

Associate professor of history and geography and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII). Author of several books, he works within the Thomas More Institute on geopolitical and defense issues in Europe. His research areas cover the Baltic-Black Sea region, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Mediterranean.

Footnotes

  1. Sudan at the time covered some 2.5m km². Since the independence of South Sudan, its surface area is just under 1.9m km². Although it has overtaken Algeria as the largest African country in terms of surface area, it remains the largest state in sub-Saharan Africa.
  2. In 1994, Carlos was handed over by Khartoum to French services, more precisely to the direction de la Surveillance du territoire (DST).
  3. “Janjaweed” is roughly translated as “hordes”. These militias are raised in the Arab and pastoral tribes of Darfur and Chad.
  4. See “Hemedti. L’ancien chamelier qui rêverait de devenir président”, Jeune Afrique, March 12, 2022.
  5. For a perspective on Russian strategy in Africa, see “Wagner in Mali: we should not miss the forest for the tree,” Desk-Russie, October 8, 2021.
  6. A former Ottoman possession in the Red Sea, the island of Suakin (20 hectares), on the Sudanese coast, is possibly integrated into the Turkish geopolitical system. During a state visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Khartoum on December 26, 2017, Sudan announced that it had granted a 99-year lease to Turkey for the island, which is attached to the mainland by a breakwater. As late as the early 20th century, Suakin was home to one of the region’s main trading ports. It was also an important crossing point for pilgrims on their way to Mecca on the opposite shore. The port of Suakin did not withstand the emergence of Port Sudan, built 60 kilometers further north by the British in 1905, a deep-water port designed to accommodate larger vessels. Relegated to the background, despite a remarkable architectural and historical heritage, Suakin Island has been left abandoned. Erdogan’s stated ambition is to make this island a tourist and transit area for Muslim pilgrims. Because of its strategic position in the Red Sea, some believe that Turkey could set up a naval base there. The transfer of Suakin Island was accompanied by the signing of a dozen agreements on economic, agricultural and military cooperation.
  7. Cf. “Israel and Sudan on the road to normalizing their relations,” Le Monde/AFP, February 2, 2023.
  8. In December 2022, an agreement was signed with Sudanese political parties, with a view to a civilian government. It was supported by the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
  9. Cairo and Addis Ababa clashed over the Great Renaissance Dam, built in Ethiopia, on the Blue Nile, upstream from Sudan and Egypt.
  10. Wagner’s business in Sudan is conducted by Meroe Gold, which is linked to M-Invest, a company headed by the Concord holding company, which is controlled by Evgueni Prigozhin. The gold sand processed by Meroe Gold comes mainly from Darfur, where Hemedti, his family and the RSF are well established. The smuggling of Sudanese gold to Abu Dhabi is estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
  11. The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) are estimated to number between 140,000 and 250,000, while the RSF are estimated to number between 80,000 and 100,000. In view of these figures, the integration of militiamen into the SAF would change the nature and configuration of the latter.
  12. See Eliott Brachet, “Au Soudan, les islamistes en embuscade”, Le Monde, May 4, 2023.
  13. While the fighting ravaged Khartoum, a metropolis of five million inhabitants, and spread to other parts of Sudan, causing hundreds of deaths, thousands of wounded and tens of thousands of refugees, the representatives of the protagonists were negotiating in Jeddah, under the aegis of the Americans and the Saudis. Cf. “Soudan : pendant que la guerre fait rage, les négociations piétinent en Arabie saoudite”, Le Monde/AFP, May 9, 2023.

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