On April 24, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed “deep concern” about the activities of Wagner Group mercenaries in Sudan and asserted that the Russian private military company (PMC) “simply brings more death and destruction wherever it is involved.” Blinken’s dire warning followed revelations from Sudanese and American officials about Wagner Group’s assistance to Rapid Support Forces (RSF) chief Mohammed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo. These allegations included claims that Wagner supplied the RSF with surface-to-air missiles from its Khadim and Jufra installations in Libya or offered such weaponry from its stockpiles in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Although there is mounting evidence of the Wagner PMC’s clandestine support for Hemedti, Russia’s approach to the intra-military conflict in Sudan is more nuanced than it appears. Russia’s primary goal is not to see one or another side win the civil war but rather to thwart a democratic transition in Sudan, as continued authoritarian rule facilitates profits from Sudanese gold mines and the construction of a Russian Red Sea naval base in Port Sudan. These objectives will likely encourage Moscow to eschew a hard alliance with Hemedti and maintain favorable relations with his main rival, the chief of Sudan’s Armed Forces, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan.
Since hostilities erupted between Burhan and Hemedti on April 15, Russia has launched propaganda attacks on Sudan’s democratic transition process. In an April 25 statement, Moscow’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Anna Evstigneeva, claimed that “external powers tried to enforce the transfer of authority to civil powers artificially” and argued that the December 2022 democratic government transition framework was not sufficiently inclusive. Evstigneeva framed Sudan’s transition attempts as a catalyst for the Burhan-Hemedti conflict by stating that “fragile stability in the country fell prey to those attempts to establish a so-called democracy,” and she chastised efforts to make international assistance contingent on a civilian transition.
Evstigneeva’s comments were echoed by major Russian Telegram channels. The “Militarist” channel linked the Burhan-Hemedti conflict to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland’s democracy promotion efforts in Sudan. Former Kremlin advisor Sergei Markov compared the Burhan-Hemedti clash to the conflicts between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin during the Soviet Union’s final days and praised ousted President Omar al-Bashir as a Leonid Brezhnev-style stabilizing figure.
While Russia’s aversion to a democratic transition in Sudan mirrors its earlier responses to the 2011 Arab Spring and 2013-14 Euro-Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, it also underscores why authoritarianism is a necessary enabler of Russian interests in Sudan. As part of his sprawling business empire, Wagner Group chief and Kremlin-linked oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin oversees the “Russian Company,” a tightly guarded gold mining plant in al-Ibediyya, 200 miles north of Khartoum. Due to Russian collusion with Sudan’s military leadership, 16 gold smuggling flights reportedly left Khartoum International Airport for Russia in 2021-22. This smuggled gold allegedly provided the Kremlin with vital hard currency for Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. Although the Sudanese military authorities charged one Russian national for gold smuggling, they have allowed gold processing to resume at a key Wagner-linked facility and dropped probes against other employees. A civilian government in Khartoum, particularly one not intertwined with Russia’s smuggling nexus, would likely prosecute these crimes more vigorously.
Russia’s Port Sudan naval base ambitions also explain its support for Sudan’s military leadership. After meeting with his Sudanese counterpart, Ali al-Sadiq, on Feb. 9, 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia and Sudan had finalized the terms for the Port Sudan facility’s construction. While the basing agreement needs Sudanese parliamentary approval to take effect, it is broadly supported by Sudan’s military brass. In March 2022, Hemedti likewise stated that Sudan should consider a naval base accord with Russia if it did not threaten its national security. As Russia’s base construction plans received backlash from local tribes and the United States, its Red Sea power projection ambitions could suffer under a pro-Western civilian Sudanese government.
Russia is not firmly aligned with either Burhan or Hemedti in the present armed conflict. And that non-aligned position is reflected in expert commentaries. In an April 17 RBC interview, IMEMO RAS Center for International Security researcher Stanislav Ivanov argued, “Whoever wins, the attitude toward Russia is unlikely to change.” Yet Institute of African Studies expert Sergey Kostelyanets contends that neither Burhan nor Hemedti will swiftly advance the Port Sudan base project if they prevail, as they wish to avoid antagonizing the West. Meanwhile, a prolonged conflict in Sudan is also not in Russia’s interests. Kostelyanets asserted, “Any military-political destabilization, and the current one is no exception, is a threat to such sensitive agreements as agreements on the creation of foreign bases.” Persistent instability would risk exacerbating violence in gold smuggling along the Sudan-CAR routes and necessitate further costly interventions by Wagner mercenaries.
Even as the civil war continues to rage, Russia is unlikely to provide large-scale support for Hemedti. In an April 21 interview with The Financial Times, Hemedti insisted that the RSF has suspended military training links with Wagner Group. Moreover, there is substantial institutional mistrust of Hemedti inside the Kremlin. In a 2021 interview with this author, Russian State University for the Humanities Professor Sergei Seregichev contended that “Sudan’s revisions of the agreement on the Russian military base worsens the image of Hemedti as a reliable partner for Russia.” This suggests that the Wagner Group’s ability to support Hemedti could be limited to what Prigozhin can procure.
So as the conflict in Sudan drags on, Russia will probably try to position itself as a supporter of a diplomatic solution and hedge its bets in the Red Sea region. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, Prigozhin declared, “I want peace for the Sudanese people” and offered to mediate between Burhan and Hemedti. The Kremlin has backed African-led solutions to the Sudan crisis, which would contrast with how the West ignored African voices during the 2011 Libyan civil war. Prolonged instability in Sudan could also see Russia deepen its security partnership with neighboring Eritrea. “Rybar,” a major Russian Telegram channel, expressed tentative support for Russia’s construction of a low-cost logistics point in coastal Eritrea, as an alternative to the Port Sudan base agreement.
Although Russia has vested interests in the Burhan-Hemedti conflict, it is unlikely to actively pursue a blanket destabilization strategy in Sudan. Instead, it is likely to balance close ties with both warring parties and continue actively opposing a democratic transition in Sudan. Regardless of whether Burhan or Hemedti ultimately prevails, Russia is well positioned to remain an influential stakeholder in Sudan and a vexing complication for the U.S.’s Red Sea security strategy.
Samuel Ramani is a tutor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, where he received his doctorate in March 2021, and an associate fellow at RUSI. His first book, Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender?, was published by Oxford University Press and Hurst and Co. in 2023. Follow Samuel on Twitter @samramani2.
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