In recent years, Russia has upped its engagement in the Horn of Africa to bolster its global foreign policy clout.
In September 2020, German newspaper Bild cited a leaked document from Berlin’s Foreign Ministry stating that Russia has signed military cooperation deals with 21 countries in Africa since 2015. Moscow was also reported to have begun the establishment of military bases in the Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan, according to the Foreign Ministry’s leaked document. Though Russia has not been transparent over its military presence in the continent.
Evidently, Moscow is keen to exert greater military influence in East Africa, yet it has largely avoided taking an overt position in African countries’ external and regional affairs. Indeed, while retaining strong ties with Ethiopia’s government, it did not become involved in Addis Ababa’s conflict with separatists in the Tigray province, despite unproven claims that Russian S-400 missile defense systems have been sighted there.
Moscow is keen to exert greater military influence in East Africa, yet it has largely avoided taking an overt position in African countries’ external and regional affairs.
Russia has courted Ethiopia, a key actor in the Horn of Africa, and commenced preparatory work for a nuclear plant in the country in January 2020, based on an agreement in 2017.
Also in January 2020, Moscow was reportedly in talks with the autonomous government of Somaliland to establish a military base in the strategic port city of Berbara. While this has yet to be officially finalized, achieving it would greatly expand Moscow’s military presence along the Red Sea region.
Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Vassiliy Nebenzia, said in December that Moscow supports talks between Somalia and Somaliland’s autonomous government. Russia has often played a tactical “waiting game,” restraining from choosing sides in a conflict until it can find the strongest actor to side with.
Moscow’s involvement in the Horn of Africa was relatively less pronounced over a decade ago. In 2010, Russia’s navy was in contest with Somali pirates, which posed a threat to Moscow’s commercial activities. As analyst Samuel Ramani points out, this initially provided Russia with a rare avenue of cooperation with the United States and the European Union, but its involvement was mostly limited.
Russia still looked to bolster its ties in the region, with plans to expand its military presence. It initially began eyeing a military base in Djibouti in 2012, though this too was eventually abandoned following the Ukrainian-Russian conflict that began in 2014, which Russia prioritized.
In addition to building stronger ties with various governments in the region, Moscow now seeks to reap benefits and establish further influence in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and particularly along the Bab el Mandeb strait with its 10 percent of global trade. Overall, it has focused on a stronger military presence rather than on investments.
Russia established a deal with Sudan in November, which was signed on December 1, to run a military base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast.
A recent development came as it established a deal with Sudan in November, which was signed on December 1, to run a military base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast. In return, the Sudanese navy will obtain Moscow’s support for search and rescue or “anti-sabotage” missions, and benefit from the Russian defense systems installed on the site.
Russia established positive relations with the autocratic regime of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir who was toppled in April 2019, as he praised Russia during a visit in 2018. “We have been dreaming about this visit for a long time,” Bashir told Putin at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. “We are thankful to Russia for its position on the international arena, including Russia’s position in the protection of Sudan [ . . . ] from the aggressive acts of the United States.”
Russia’s Wagner group also reportedly sent mercenaries to bolster Bashir’s regime in the conflict against South Sudan in 2018, according to Stratfor.
Moscow generally prefers supporting authoritarian leaders, and in Sudan’s case, it was an opportunity to outmaneuver Washington in the region, taking advantage of Bashir’s sour relations with the United States. Indeed, the Sudanese strongman had long been wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Sudan’s Darfur region, and his regime had been under US sanctions and on the list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1993.
Moscow generally prefers supporting authoritarian leaders, and in Sudan’s case, it was an opportunity to outmaneuver Washington in the region.
After Bashir’s downfall in 2019, Moscow’s influence in the key state was threatened. The US in July of that year helped broker a deal between the civilian opposition factions – which pushed the former president from power, and the military— which seized power following the revolution and tried to crack down on protestors.
Despite Bashir’s ousting and a new transitional government, Sudan still faced the prospect that it may not be removed from the terror sponsors list. The designation removal was crucial as the country faced economic instability, with growing inflation and severe hard currency shortages, worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sudan formally recognized Israel in October 2020, reportedly in exchange for removal from the US’ list of terrorism sponsors. Interestingly, since Sudan was not taken off the list until December 14, Russia could have capitalized on the delay and built stronger ties with Khartoum to help it compensate for Washington’s hesitancy.
However, Washington has not provided further support for Sudan, and Moscow can still strengthen its influence since it has not demanded any political conditions for bilateral relations and Russian support while the US required recognition of Israel, a domestically unpopular move. Though Moscow would likely prefer to side with the transitional government’s military leaders, which could disrupt the fragile democratic transition Sudan has been undergoing since Bashir’s fall.
Still, there may be considerable obstacles for Russia establishing a greater hold in the region. Firstly, Russia lacks deep financial pockets, which could limit its investments in the region, compared to China – whose greater economic prowess has allowed it to become a dominant actor in Africa, and bolster its presence along the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
Another crucial factor that enabled Russia to boost its clout in the Horn was Washington’s relative lack of engagement in the region under Donald Trump’s administration. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has taken a more critical stance on Russia’s foreign policy, indicating he will be less tolerant of Moscow’s adventurism in the region. Yet whether Washington will step up its engagement and whether this could hinder Russia’s involvement remains to be seen.
The ‘Tug of War’ Over the Horn of Africa and Its Consequences
Djibouti: A Busy Hub of Foreign Military Bases on the Horn of Africa