In a deal signed on December 1, Sudan agreed to a 25-year lease that will allow Russian naval vessels to make port calls, replenishment, and light repairs at a designated area within Port Sudan. The deal came about after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had visited Russia in 2017.

During that visit, al-Bashir had claimed that the U.S. was meddling in regional politics and that the secession of South Sudan in 2011 was a U.S.-led effort. In meeting with Putin, al-Bashir sought to use the presence of Russia as a foil against what he believed would be further aggressive U.S. actions in the region.

Port Sudan is a sprawling port. It was originally built by the British in 1909 and it served as the last stop in a rail line that linked the Nile River with the Red Sea. The rail line moved cotton, sesame seeds, and Egyptian sorghum to export markets in the British Empire. Now, it is known as the primary port of departure for African Muslims making the Hajj to Port Jedda in Saudia Arabia. Today about 700 ships a year visit the port handling about 487,000 cargo containers and 12 million metric tons of shipping overall. (For the sake of comparison, the Port of Los Angeles handles over nine million cargo containers and nearly 200 million metric tons of shipping each year.)

The agreement allows up to 300 Russian personnel and a maximum of six ships to be stationed at the port facility at any time. It also permits nuclear vessels to dock in the inner harbor. In exchange, Russia will supply Sudan with military equipment and weapons. No doubt the agreement will also include Russia buying fuel from Sudan which has a pipeline, refinery, and storage facility at the port. Since the port’s facilities are not known to be modern in any sense the Russians will have to build from scratch anything they need for their vessels.

Some have hyped this deal as the latest move in the “Great Game” of Great Power politics. This may be overstating things a bit.  The presence of just 300 permanent personnel and a maximum of six ships does not give Russia a “base” in Sudan. A proper base would require defensive capabilities. These would include the use of the airport to launch jets to patrol surrounding waters and the ability to station an anti-air defense system and lay mines in the outlying waters.

Most likely, this move by Russia is calculated to extend the deployment time of its Black Sea Fleet. Currently, to refuel, replenish and give shore leave to crews, the Black Sea Fleet must transit the Suez Canal and return to Sevastapol via the narrow Dardanelles and Bosphorus in Turkey. The use of port facilities in Sudan will provide the Russian Navy with a more localized refueling point and allow shore leave for crews. (Although it’s hard to imagine a port call in Sudan being fun for these crews). A refuel and resupply station in Sudan will also extend the patrol range of the Russian Navy into the Indian Ocean. This should result in the Russian Navy’s Indian Ocean deployments to extend from six months to one year. It will also reduce the transit time of Russian ships operating in the Indian Ocean by providing them with a port closer to the patrol area.

Badr Airlines Ilyushin Il-76TD (ST-BDE) at Port Sudan Airport. (Wikicommons)

The port will also allow the Russian Navy to play a greater role in anti-piracy operations near the horn of Africa in protecting its own shipping. For at least a decade now, Russia has been relying primarily on the U.S. and Chinese navies for piracy protection. The prospect of U.S. or Chinese naval personnel boarding Russian ships in the course of these anti-piracy operations is not something the Kremlin likes at all.

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Sudan giving permission for nuclear-powered vessels to enter Port Sudan most likely refers to Russian submarines using the port for sustainment. (Securing similar permissions is a problem for U.S. Navy ships in foreign ports.) One of the six Russian ships allowed in the port will likely be a Sub-Tender stationed permanently at the pier to supply and do light repairs to these subs. This Sub-Tender in turn can be supplied from the international airport at Port Sudan. And the Russians will have little choice but to leave it at the port permanently. Otherwise, its presence or absence at Port Sudan will be notifying U.S. intelligence services when Russian subs are in or out of the Indian Ocean.

During a brief period in the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union was able to obtain limited use of the port at Berbera, Somalia under similar terms to those offered to Sudan. By 1977, however, the Soviets had been ejected by the Somalis for arming both Somalia and Ethiopia which were in armed conflict over possession of the Somali-claimed Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Like Port Sudan, the facilities in Berbera could only accommodate four to six vessels, one of which was a supply and repair vessel, and about 1,500 personnel. The majority of the personnel were working on an unfinished 10,000 ft runway. This runway would have been capable of landing heavily loaded military transports.

At the beginning of the year, Russian-controlled media and other outlets had reported that Russia was in negotiation with Somaliland with an eye towards returning to Berbera. This was almost certainly an internet hoax prompted by the Reddit post below. The hoax was more apparent by the fact that the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) had made a deal with Somaliland in 2016 to establish a 42 acre naval base at Berbera with a 30-year lease, which was presumably for hard cash rather than arms.