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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

AN INCONVENIENT TRIANGLE? RUSSIA, CHINA AND SUDAN

The conflict in Sudan has drawn some – but insufficient – attention back to Russia’s role on the African continent. That role, greatly diminished after the cold war, has been growing during the past decade.


However, while one might have argued a few years ago that Russia could use its military muscle to establish a foothold on the continent, today it looks like it is confined to playing a ‘spoiler’ role. And it strikes me that its presence could be as disruptive to China’s interests as it is to those of the United States, as suggested by the situation in Sudan.


Russia and Sudan (and Libya)


In the late 2010s, both economic and security relations between Russia and Sudan were growing. The two sides concluded trade deals and signed an agreement for a Russian naval base on the Red Sea. But the political regime in Sudan, under dictator Omar al-Bashir, was unstable.


Weeks after street protests against al-Bashir began in December 2018, Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries were dispatched to help to prop up his regime. That intervention did not stop al-Bashir from being toppled, though, and the Russian mercenaries reportedly soon took to supporting the new leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. This was, quite possibly, contrary to orders from Moscow. The thing about mercenaries is that they switch allegiances easily, and Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has routinely caused a headache for the Kremlin through his cavalier antics and outspokenness.


Over the past few weeks Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have forcefully challenged al-Burhan’s rule. As head of the military junta that has held power in Sudan since 2019, al-Burhan had initially agreed to hand over power to a civilian government but then, as often happens, overthrew it (at the end of 2021) and clung on to power. Today, two warlords are vying for control of Sudan and hundreds have already died as the country hurtles towards civil war.


According to some reports, Prigozhin’s Wagner Group has been supplying missiles to the RSF insurgents. The Russian mercenaries are able to operate out of neighbouring Libya, where they have backed the rival Libyan government of warlord General Khalifa Haftar (who controls much of the east of that country) over recent years. Wagner Group seem to be using Libyan bases as transit hubs for supplying weaponry to Sudan’s RSF.


I acknowledge that there are conflicting reports about the extent of Wagner Group’s involvement. I do not know how involved Russian actors are in Sudan – but they clearly wield some influence over both the warring sides, and they easily could become more engaged in this situation.


Enter the Dragon


When Russia involved itself in supporting al-Bashir in early 2019, that was part of a trend of Moscow becoming more enmeshed in African politics. After its direct intervention in Syria’s civil war after 2015 – its first military foray outside the former USSR – it had turned its gaze on Africa and was soon moving soldiers into the continent. Growing in swagger after its intervention in Syria, Russia saw itself as a preeminent military power.


Its mercenaries waded into the Central African Republic in 2018, where they were reported to be propping up president Faustin-Archange Touadera while also protecting Russia’s interests at the Ndassima gold mine. In fact, Russia was lending support to rival sides in the civil conflict, which hinted at its more nefarious intentions. In other words, that situation seems to have been similar to what it is doing in Sudan – keeping links to rivalrous actors in a conflict.


But another outside actor was making far greater inroads into Africa. Russia never pretended it could compete with China as a source of foreign direct investment or as a trade partner. As well, western sanctions on Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea may have cautioned African countries from deepening economic ties, although arms sales were an exception. Despite this Russia seems to have believed it could establish a leading military role on the continent and that this would afford it sizable gains in its power and reputation globally.


Since then, Russia’s involvement in Africa has only grown further. Mercenaries involved themselves in Mali and, most recently of all, I note mention of them in connection with politics in Chad. But, while Russia’s leaders had an exalted image of their state, there was a growing gap between their ambitions and capabilities.


Russia as spoiler


The Russian state almost certainly overestimated its capabilities. And all it could do was meddle and disrupt (no doubt keen to do so in respect of western interests), and what it could not do was achieve meaningful policy success. This has become acutely apparent following its large-scale invasion of Ukraine last February; Russia hardly looks like a preeminent global military power.


Russia is left, therefore, to the role of spoiling other’s interests in Africa while trying to preserve its already-established mining interests and arms sales. The latter goal is not helped by the incompetent demonstration of its kit in the war in Ukraine which will presumably have a negative effect on sales. Putin had bragged that Russia’s modern Kinzhal hypersonic missiles could not be shot down, until of course the Ukrainians reportedly did exactly that. (Suppliers of arms to Ukraine, by contrast, can expect a positive effect on arms sales to third countries.)


US strategy in Africa


Last autumn, the current US administration unveiled a major component of its own strategy for Africa. There are separate documents for the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, but it doesn’t look like the Sahel strategy document is yet published and so I am looking here at the document for Sub-Saharan Africa. It is a reasonable assumption that Russia and China will be presented similarly in both strategy documents.


The strategy document describes Russian and Chinese involvement in the continent differently. Russia, it states, ‘views the region [of sub-Saharan Africa] as a permissive environment for parastatals and private military companies, often fomenting instability for strategic and financial benefit.’ China, meanwhile, ‘sees the region as an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order’ – something where it may well see common interest with Russia. And Russia is keen to persuade Africans that it its war in Ukraine is justified and that the war is part of a wholescale challenge to the dominance of the West.


In this context, it is well to note that China and Russia are rivals in Africa. And when two actors are rivals, there is always the potential for discord. China and Russia shouldn’t be treated as a singular challenge to the West and Sudan could bring their different interests to the fore.


Conclusion: China and Russia at odds?


China is deeply invested in the current political regime in Khartoum. Chinese national companies have huge investments in the country and these may be at risk should there be a change of ruler. Of course, in the event of a regime change China will quickly move to try to preserve its interests but there seems to be doubt about its ability to do so.


China’s interest in the Sudanese oil sector seems to be one source of risk. A bigger risk still is that Sudan defaults on debts to Chinese – with several billions in outstanding loans at risk (at least $5bn according to the FT, but possibly far more). So far as I can make out, China is best served by al-Burhan remaining at the helm.


Russia seems to be leaning towards supporting the challenger, RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who CNN describes as ‘the primary recipient of Moscow’s weapons and training’ in the past. That presumably explains the supply of weapons by the Wagner Group. Moreover, Dagalo visited Moscow last year and has acted as a go-between for Russia and its mining interests in Sudan (Al-Burhan and Dagalo were allies until this latest flare up, and Russia built its ties to Dagalo as a way of engaging with al-Burhan’s regime.)


To say the above is messy is an understatement. But the seemingly inevitable civil war in Sudan will potentially put China and Russia at odds – and should Russian mercenaries become more heavily involved in supporting the RSF they may end up spoiling the show for the ‘wrong’ people.


Image credit: Photo from the Lebanese civil war by James Case from Philadelphia, Mississippi, U.S.A. - Checkpoint 4, Beirut, Lebanon 1982, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4663619

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