Amid the most sustained wave of protests Sudan has seen for decades, many external actors have hedged their bets with even some of embattled President Hassan Omar al-Bashir’s historical allies, such as Qatar, offering only cautious statements in support of the regime.
The Russians have taken a different tack. In an intriguing sub-plot, in the months-long effort by a diffuse protest movement to oust the strongman in Khartoum, Moscow has gone further than other players, giving fulsome support to the regime and, allegedly sending mercenaries to advise Bashir’s security forces on how to put down the protests.
While Russia’s growing interests in Africa are often cast in economic terms — an effort to help Moscow absorb Western sanctions by expanding its ties to other regions — Russian intervention in Sudan underlines deeper political interests.
It offers yet another illustration of Moscow’s distaste for the ousting of governments through street uprisings.
It also underlines a further Russian message flowing from the Syrian crisis, that Moscow is a stalwart ally that rarely abandons its friends, no matter how appalling their human rights records may be.
Credible reports of Russian involvement in helping to tackle the protests first surfaced on New Year’s Eve.
In Khartoum, a group of Caucasian men were photographed disembarking from a Russian-made Ural-4320 vehicle, dressed in army fatigues, carrying cameras, presumably to monitor and record the activities of protesters. As the photos circulated on social media, The Times of London attributed these men to the Russian mercenary outfit, Wagner.
A string of online outlets reported that Wagner were actively involved in putting down the protests.
On January 15, Vladimir Tomsky, spokesperson for the Russian embassy in Khartoum, denied reports that “Russian experts” had been involved in suppressing the protests.
The case of M Invest, Putin’s Chef and Wagner
The presence of Russian private military companies in Sudan has been on the rise in recent years.
According to the website of the Russian Federal Security Service, 200 Russian nationals entered Sudan at the end of 2017. According to the same data set going back to 2013, the highest number of Russians entering Sudan in any given quarter stood at 76. These figures indicate an almost threefold increase in Russians travelling to the country in recent years, although evidence that they could be military contractors is only anecdotal.
The end of 2017 dovetails with a series of contracts signed between Russian companies and the government of Sudan for the extraction of natural resources.
In November 2017, Sudan’s Ministry of Minerals signed a gold prospecting contract with a Russian company called M Invest. The signing was witnessed by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
A policy memo of January 2019 identifies a company of the same name, M Invest, which was founded in St Petersburg for the “extraction of ore and other non-ferrous metals.”
The report identifies M Invest’s director, Andrei Mandel, a longtime associate and partner of Yevgeny Prigozhin, thought to be the owner of Wagner, and who has also been reported to be the owner of M Invest.
Mr Prigozhin is considered a close confidant and fixer to President Vladimir Putin. His proximity to the corridors of power came to light when he was put under US sanctions for his alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
In Sudan, a number of reports detailed Wagner’s possible role in training Sudanese security forces and securing goldmines, likely those under M Invest’s concessions.
On January 23, 2019, Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry’s communications director, confirmed that “Russian private security companies, unrelated to the state, are acting in Sudan.”
Web of security, economic and geo-strategic interests
Russian foreign policy in Africa is often characterised as defence co-operation in return for primary resource extraction — and there is evidence to explain this as a motive for greater involvement.
On November 23, 2017, around the same time that M Invest signed concessions with the Sudanese Department of Minerals, Presidents Putin and Bashir met in the Russian city of Sochi, where they discussed ways to increase security co-operation.
Shortly afterwards, Sudan became the first Arab nation to purchase Russia’s fourth generation SU-24 fighter jets, as part of a deal for equipment upgrades and training worth an estimated $1 billion. Mr Bashir also invited Russia to build a naval base in Sudan to would offer critical geo-strategic access to the Red Sea.
Russia has been left behind in the recent scramble for great power influence in the Horn of Africa, as the US, France and China have secured military bases on Djibouti’s Red Sea coastline. After Djibouti rejected a Russian request to establish a military base, Sudan’s coastline offer a viable alternative.
On January 12, 2019, coinciding neatly with the protests, the Sudanese parliament announced that a draft military agreement would pave the way for a Russian military base in Sudan.
Russia has also made moves to explore the construction of an oil refinery in Sudan with the capacity to produce 200,000 barrels per day. This is linked to the increasingly operational oilfields of South Sudan and will benefit directly from Red Sea port access.
In October 2018, a South Sudanese delegation reportedly signed memoranda of understanding in Moscow, from three of Russia’s largest oil companies; Zarubezhneft, Gazprom Neft, and Rosneft.
Strategic access to the Red Sea could also enable Russia to consolidate its growing sphere of influence in the region, with Sudan acting as bridge for a security architecture extending from Syria to the Central African Republic.
While these theories of grand strategy regarding a military base on the Red Sea are compelling, whether Russia could afford such an investment remains to be seen. Regardless, these complex networks of extraction, security co-operation and geo-strategic interest could explain why Russia would want to maintain the status quo in Sudan or at least limit the fallout of a popular uprising.
More broadly, the deployment of Wagner personnel on the streets of Khartoum fits in with a long-term Russian foreign policy goal — to promote a multi-polar international order designed to restrain US and Chinese hegemony.
Moscow blamed Western geopolitical meddling on protests in Russia from 2011-2013, the “colour revolutions” of the preceding decade in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and popular uprisings across the Middle East, termed the Arab Spring, which began in 2010.
Like those movements, the protesters’ diverse coalition in Sudan similarly represents a popular uprising and calls on broad support from civil society, labour unions, academia, elements of the powerful Islamic movement and youth groups.
Syria and Ukraine, regions where Wagner have been active, faced similar existential questions about the type of society or governance model that would take each respective country forward and in both cases Wagner were not on the pro-democracy side.
By limiting the success of a popular uprising, Moscow could mitigate the spread of such a movement beyond Sudan’s borders.
Protecting a friend, no matter what
Russia also stands to lose a reliable friend in the international order. President Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Sudan’s Darfur region, has found mutual ground with President Putin, over a shared disdain for the ICC.
In November 2017, Ghareb Khidir, spokesperson for Sudan’s Foreign ministry, welcomed Russia’s withdrawal from the founding statute of the ICC.
Russia is also one of Sudan’s principal cheerleaders at the UN Security Council where it opposed proposals to expand the UN’s peacekeeping mission to Darfur.
The nuances of this relationship can be seen in how, on December 17, 2018, President Bashir landed in the Damascus for a meeting with President Assad as the first Arab League leader to visit the country since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.
This rapprochement, after Sudan earlier backed an Arab League decision to suspend Syria’s membership of the Arab League, appeared to have been brokered by Moscow. In Damascus, Bashir disembarked from a Russian military Tu154M aircraft.
Moscow and Khartoum enjoy strong bilateral relations. Wagner’s alleged interventions could be designed to limit the scope of the uprising, in the hope that Sudan remains a reliable international partner. Ensuring Sudan does not transition into full-scale democracy and that power is handed to a regime stalwart could be one such reason for Wagner’s tracks on the streets of Khartoum.
Just as it did with Assad, Moscow has yet again sent a message that it will always stick with its allies, in an implicit critique of what it casts as a more fickle US defence and foreign policy.
Popular uprisings ousted Sudanese governments in 1964 and 1985. It is likely that the current protests will facilitate some form of regime change and at the minimum could prevent Bashir from running again in 2020.
As the standoff between protesters and Bashir continues to build, who blinks first is likely decide the fate of Sudan. But, at what cost to Sudan’s population? Countrywide protests in September 2013 were eventually suffocated under a crackdown by security forces which left almost 200 civilians dead.
The conflict in Syria suggests embattled strongmen, with Russian backing, can withstand structural levels of turmoil as grave as state-collapse. The alleged presence of Wagner in Sudan and its possible deployment in the streets of Khartoum could illustrate Russia’s growing economic, security and geostrategic interests in Sudan and the broader region.
A successful popular uprising could also offer a dangerous counter-narrative to authoritarian governance and thereby threaten Moscow’s attempt to forge a multi-polar international order.
Moscow’s intervention shows that while economic imperatives are not irrelevant in its calculations, deeper motives are also at play as it expands its footprint in Africa and elsewhere.
Will Johnston is a Nairobi-based researcher focusing on security in Sudan and South Sudan. Email: [email protected]