The Regional Implications of the Abrogation of Russia’s Port at Sudan
In April, news broke that Sudanese officials had abrogated an agreement to host a Russian naval logistics hub at Port Sudan. Though the Russian foreign ministry dismissed the news, the Sudan Tribune, a local paper, reaffirmed these claims on May 2. And, on June 2, Sudan’s military chief stated that Sudan was still reviewing the deal. Russia signed the agreement with the ostensible goal of upholding “peace and stability” in the region.
Because Moscow aspires to play a more significant role in the Red Sea, a potential abrogation of the Port Sudan deal will push Russia to look for ports in North Africa or the Horn of Africa. If the deal with Sudan falls through, Russia could make overtures to Egypt or Libya in North Africa or further south, Moscow could reach out to Somaliland or Eritrea. If Moscow decides to choose the most convenient option for a port, it may opt for Libya. If Russia wants a strategic location on the Red Sea, however, it may look to the Horn of Africa. Nevertheless, each location will threaten U.S. interests in the Red Sea.
Problematic for Moscow is that both Egypt and Algeria do not allow foreign bases on their soil. Russia, however, could negotiate a naval access agreement with Egypt. Moscow tried with Algeria in 2010 to no avail. Russia and Egypt maintain historic ties that have become much closer in recent years. In 2019, Cairo and Moscow signed an agreement for an industrial zone in Egypt that portends massive Russian investment, including in the civilian nuclear realm, near the Suez Canal. For the past twenty years, Russia has also exported around $4 billion of arms to Egypt. Russian warplanes can use Egyptian bases, and it has conducted recent naval exercises with Egypt. And the two have found a common interest in backing Libya’s Khalifa Haftar and constraining Turkish ambitions in the Mediterranean.
Due to this budding alignment, Moscow could turn to Cairo if Sudan dents its Red Sea aspirations, especially since Egypt offers Russia direct access to the Red Sea. But, like Algeria, Egypt forbids the establishment of military bases on its soil. In this context, Russia could propose an access agreement like that which covers its warplanes with Egypt. Although this would not give Russia a base, it would augment Russia’s presence in the Red Sea and circumvent Egypt’s ban on foreign bases.
Libya is the most likely target for a future Russian North Africa naval base, but it is not as attractive of a location as Egypt due to instability and the unreliability of Russia’s client in Haftar. Moscow has supported Libyan warlord Haftar since 2015, directly and indirectly, and a catalyst for this support is Haftar’s rumored promise of a port at Benghazi. Moscow has reportedly made overtures to Haftar about this commitment, but changing conditions in Libya could upend these initiatives.
Notably, the October 2020 ceasefire in Libya, endorsed by the UN Security Council, puts Putin in an awkward position. Russia has courted Haftar heavily with the Wagner Group, but Russia can’t be seen as directly engaged on the ground in Libya. Moreover, Haftar is heavily dependent on foreign support, especially from the UAE, and he has hinted at a less militarized approach, given the change in administrations in Washington. Haftar’s position, consequently, is becoming more untenable. However, despite Haftar’s vulnerability, Libya is currently the most feasible option for a Russian port in North Africa.
Horn of Africa
Russia has also expressed interest in establishing a logistics center at one of Eritrea’s ports, Massawa or Assab. Each occupies an outlet on the Red Sea, and Assab hosted an Emirati naval base until 2021. In 2018, news emerged that the Russians and Eritreans were in talks to establish a logistics center – nothing more has yet been announced, as Moscow’s deal with Sudan subsumed any rumors of a Russian position in Eritrea. Given that Eritrea has previously hosted foreign naval bases, occupies a strategic position on the Red Sea, and has held previous talks with Russia, it is likely that Russia could turn to Eritrea in an attempt to supplement its desired position on the Red Sea.
Somaliland presents Russia with another attractive option for a strategic port. Somaliland possesses the port of Berbera, also a strategic outlet on the Red Sea, near Djibouti. Somaliland, a self-declared state within Somalia, previously agreed for the UAE to build a port at the location, but the agreement fell through. Like Eritrea, Somaliland has also indicated willingness to host foreign ports. And, in 2021, U.S. Department of Defense officials stated that Russian officials “are eyeing” a port in Berbera. Notwithstanding that the Soviet Union once maintained a base at Berbera, a new Russian presence would balance against Turkey’s warming partnership with the national government of Somalia, with whom it has inked several deals. In the context of these considerations, it is also likely that Moscow makes increased overtures to Somaliland about establishing a port.
Libya currently presents the most promising option for a port, but Haftar is a strategic liability and Libya is not on the Red Sea. Somaliland and Eritrea both are littoral Red Sea states, and each would probably remain open to working with Russia. These states occupy the most strategic position on the Red Sea, but Russia does not maintain the rapport with them that it does with Haftar. Even though Haftar provides Russia an easier opportunity, strategic imperatives imply that Russia would most likely incline towards Eritrea or Somaliland, to establish a port to directly pursue its interests in the Red Sea.
Though Russia says that a port would bring “peace and stability,” it would pose a threat to the U.S. and its NATO allies. That the Evergreen blocked the Suez Canal and held up $9.6 billion worth of international trade in 2021 is an indicator of the dangers that accompany a Russian port on the Red Sea. Not only could this port threaten shipping, but it would also add yet another element to a Red Sea that is characterized by a delicate geopolitical balance, with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the U.S., and other countries all striving for power.
In Russia’s eyes, this could make its proposed Northern Sea Route more attractive and shift the balance of power in international trade. Moreover, ports in North Africa would provide Russia another avenue of power projection that threatens Europe’s southern flank; it also expands Russia’s warm water port network started at Tartus. Sudan has not yet officially canceled the Russian port deal. However, in the eyes of the U.S. and NATO, Russia’s Red Sea ambitions oppose peace and stability and further Russian interests in menacing Europe.