The Russians Are Coming Back: Big Sudan for a Small Fleet

Moscow has announced plans to establish a naval logistics centre in the African country of Sudan. A lot of people were immediately excited: it’s been a long time since Russia has so weightily, crudely, visibly presented its geopolitical and military ambitions – and even in such a sensitive region as Africa and the Middle East. But is the subject itself a massive hassle to face?

In general, we are talking about the creation of a Russian logistics point on the territory of Sudan, in the waters of Port Sudan. As usual, in order to “maintain peace and stability in the region”, the decision “is defensive in nature and is not directed against other states.” The agreement will be valid for 25 years and will be extended automatically if neither party announces its termination.

No more than four Russian warships will be able to stay at the naval facility at the same time. But on the other hand- “including ships with a nuclear engine”. The number of future personnel is indicated as being “within 300 people”.

What is it for?

Formally – and this is constantly being talked about – repairs and replenishment of fuel and materials will be carried out at the naval facility, and it is also envisaged to create conditions for the crew members of Russian ships to rest.

And informally? Are we talking about creating a Russian naval base in the Red Sea, right on one of the most important routes of world trade?

At one time, Viktor Litovkin, one of the most famous military experts in Russia, explained in detail in conversations with “Tsargrad” the difference between a military base and a naval facility using the example of a similar facility in the Syrian Tartus. The difference is fundamental: a military base is a combat facility where the troops of any state with the appropriate military infrastructure, weapons, supplies, and defence are stationed. In a word, a real military unit, capable and ready to wage war.

And a naval facility is just a point of material and technical support. Here the ships can replenish their stocks of fuel, oils and lubricants, food, water, make urgent repairs, and give a respite to the crews. A kind of infrastructure facility that helps ships and vessels on their long and difficult journey across the seas and oceans. So that there is no such thing as with the “Kuznetsov” in 2016, when a heavy aircraft-carrying Russian cruiser had to almost clandestinely refuel on its way to Syria.

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However, one should not expect special “whiteness” and fluffiness either: a warship is a military unit in itself and is considered the territory of the country that sent it to sea. Therefore, if the same “Admiral Kuznetsov” turns out to be at the Sudan port one day (which is unlikely, but “Peter the Great” or his sister ship “Admiral Nakhimov” – possibly), then everyone will see clearly and crudely that it is Russia itself that stands in the Red Sea and thereby enters the Indian Ocean.

And no longer episodically, but in the same way as the USSR was leaving at one time, literally snagging the bright and kind faces of commentators from the British newspaper of The Times: “There are two main reasons why the Soviet fleet is in the Indian Ocean: there is a Soviet Navy, and (2) there is an Indian Ocean.” The article is already from the gray-haired year of 1970, but in a restrained-cold tone, the same one that today is being used to comment on the Russian-Sudanese agreements, nothing has changed in the perception of western barbarians since then.

But is it worth being afraid of a Russian with a ship?

No need to be afraid of a Russian with a ship today

And here “Tsargrad” will have to go a little against the current, especially in the domestic media and lobbies filled with military and political experts.

The main meaning of the comments boils down to the following main thoughts: wow Russia returns to Africa, and wow Russia returns to the Indian Ocean. Where there is very sensitive international trade, primarily in oil, and where the villainous western imperialists are slyly full of ferocity.

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In fact, everything is correct. The Suez Canal is one of the world’s most important transport arteries, and let it be filled with pirates, soldiers, wars and even long-standing historical showdowns between states through the Red Sea. Therefore, in particular, in neighboring Yemen, missiles fly and there is a massacre. And for control over the ports too. And in neighbouring Djibouti, a whole serpentarium of the US, France, Italy, Japan and China, which stands apart from them, keeps its naval bases. So why doesn’t Russia have its own naval facility nearby to keep its finger on the pulse of such an important sea? Moreover, at one time the Soviet Union held its naval presence in Mogadishu and Berbera in Somalia, Hodeida and Aden in Yemen, on the Socotra Islands, Mauritius and even in the Seychelles and Andaman Islands.

But what aspect is important here? Presence! For example, in the Syrian Tartus, the naval facility is very useful: here you can keep important reserves so as not to be constantly dependent on “Syrian transit” through the Turkish straits. And in Syria: a) war and b) ships from the US, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey are constantly circling in the adjacent waters of the Mediterranean – and they are all far from being our friends. Our naval grouping should be compact here, but strong.

And this is where questions arise about our presence in Sudan. Let’s be honest: the Russian Navy today is indeed compact. Of course, forcedly. But this does not change the result: by and large, the naval facility can hardly serve as a place for the demonstration of our flag, the projection of power and control of an important world water area. In fact, there is nothing to be based on in the Sudan port, except for patrol ships of the 3rd rank of Project 22160 (type “Vasily Bykov”). So, exactly four of them will be in service there, we hope, after the transfer of “Sergey Kotov” to the fleet in a year. Or these corvettes will be replaced by Project 22350 frigates …

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It’s undoubtedly also a useful thing. But will these forces be able to project at least something in Africa that would not cause grins, but fair respect among our competitors?

And what about trade?

And here is the essence of the matter. The naval facility is still really not for power projection. But it is very convenient to accept and service a ship sailing from the Far East to the Mediterranean or the Baltic. And in the opposite direction – the same. But Africa can become the main direction.

This is where Russia is returning today, seriously and for a long time, having tripled its trade turnover in just a few years! And we have allies there – both historical and situational. And as partners – almost everyone.

But Africa is also famous for its pirates. The Gulf of Guinea, the coast of Nigeria, and the same Golden Horn with such formidable Somali filibusters more recently. Today they have been crushed in some way, but the danger to world shipping remains. And for Russian shipping too. Especially if an increasing volume of goods is going to and from Africa. Especially if it will be imported, including through the territory of Sudan, which so nicely borders on the partner rulers of the Central African Republic, Egypt, Ethiopia, Congo, Kenya… And here on patrol service for protection, for the suppression of smuggling and pirate activities, the protection of ships and vessels on the transition – here small, but powerful Russian corvettes will be very, very appropriate and useful.

And at what point it will fit – it is enough to point out that Sudan is the second largest buyer of Russian weapons in Africa. And weapons are almost always special operations, and in order to carry them out, of course, it will not be too much to also have a parking place for the native fleet.

Aleksandr Tsyganov

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