Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 4 December 2017

What is behind Sudan’s ’rapprochement’ with Russia?

By Ahmed H Adam

On November 23, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir paid his first official visit to Russia, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu.

The visit took place in defiance of the two arrest warrants for Bashir issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in relation to a court case on war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Darfur. Putin not only invited the controversial leader to Russia, but also sent a Russian plane to Khartoum to ensure his safety and comfort during the journey.

Bashir responded to Putin’s gesture of goodwill by using the visit to express support for Russia’s positions in the Middle East. This move was a message of defiance to Washington and Riyadh and a desperate attempt by Bashir to hang on to power, at the expense of his country’s future.

US ’interference’

During his meeting with Putin in Sochi on 23 November, Bashir levelled serious accusations against the US. After expressing his gratitude to Russia for its support in international fora, Bashir told Putin "we are primarily opposed to US interference in the domestic affairs of Arab countries, in particular US interference in Iraq." He also expressed support for Russia’s role in Syria and said that the country is suffering because of US interference.

In an exclusive interview with the Russian news agency Sputnik, Bashir blamed the US for the secession of South Sudan in 2011, and claimed that Washington was now planning to split the rest of Sudan into five countries. Bashir also told Sputnik that he discussed the establishment of military bases on the Red Sea coast with President Putin and his defence minister. He also revealed that he was interested in purchasing Russia’s S-300 air defence system as well as Su-30 and Su-35 jets.

The key question raised by Bashir’s remarks is why he chose to attack the US just weeks after the permanent lifting of decades-old US economic sanctions on Sudan and in the midst of an ongoing high-level diplomatic dialogue aimed at the normalisation of relations between the two countries.

This unexpected shift is a desperate attempt by Bashir to stay in power beyond the elections scheduled for 2020. There are reports that Bashir has recently discovered that the US is not willing to support his candidacy.

Bashir may have initially assumed that US President Donald Trump, who appears to have little interest in human rights and democracy, would help him to escape the ICC charges and allow him to run for office in the 2020 elections, in return for cooperation on issues such as counterterrorism efforts.

However, it seems that the US has recently signalled to Bashir’s foreign minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, that the Sudanese president would have to leave office before the remaining sanctions are lifted and Sudan removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Bashir was further disappointed when John Sullivan, the US Deputy Secretary of State did not meet him in person during his visit to Sudan in mid-November. Moreover, Sullivan indicated that Washington would expect the regime to accept far-reaching reforms, including the repealing of the apostasy punishment, and improvements in its human rights record in return for removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In light of these developments, it is likely that Bashir gave up on any future US support and decided to cosy up to Russia for his own survival. The Sudanese public and even members of his own government have responded with astonishment to this unexpected shift, which could cause serious diplomatic harm to Sudan at a time when the country’s relations with the world finally seem to be improving.

Ghandour immediately attempted damage control by downplaying Bashir’s accusations. He argued unconvincingly that Bashir’s request for Russian protection against aggressive US actions were made in the narrow context of US attempt to use the UN Security Council to ban Sudan’s gold exports.

Abandoning Gulf alliances

The US was not the only country the Sudanese president appeared to turn his back to during his visit to Russia. In Sochi, Bashir told Russia Today TV channel that he would oppose any Arab war against Iran, thus distancing himself from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Bashir is said to be disappointed that he has not received the financial rewards he thought he would from his Gulf allies after moving quickly to cut diplomatic ties with Iran in early 2016, and sending thousands of Sudanese soldiers to fight with the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen. Bashir previously signalled his dissatisfaction with Riyadh when he refused to back the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar. So far, Sudan has tried to remain neutral in the ongoing crisis and has claimed to be supporting Kuwaiti attempts to mediate.

Now, it looks like Bashir has finally concluded that he would be better off openly siding with Russia and Iran, rather than the US and Saudi Arabia, as they seem to be winning on many fronts in the Middle East. Having witnessed Russia’s success in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, Bashir may also be under the impression that Putin can protect him too, if he plays his cards right.

Some observers, on the other hand, think that Bashir’s recent rapprochement with the Russian-Iranian axis is nothing more than a tactical manoeuvre to blackmail the US and Saudi Arabia into providing political and financial support to his presidency. It is indeed possible that he is using the Russian-Iranian card merely as a way to pressure the US to support his regime and his Gulf allies to loosen their purse strings. If so, it is certainly a very high-risk gamble. His offer of a Red Sea military base to the Russians will certainly not be well received in Washington.

Also, it is too early to tell how seriously the Russians will react to Bashir’s overtures. In terms of geopolitics, Sudan is nowhere near as strategically important as Syria, so Russia may well choose not to put its weight behind a controversial figure like Bashir, as it did with Assad. Russia is likely to continue to support Sudan in the UN Security Council and other international forums and may be willing to supply Sudan with more advanced weaponry. But it is unlikely to be ready to intervene militarily as in Syria to protect Bashir from the US "aggressive" actions.

Whatever Putin’s response may be, Sudan should not be a battlefield for the rival regional and international powers and Bashir should not be allowed to exploit such rivalries to stay in power.

After 28 years in power, Bashir does not have much to offer to his allies or the Sudanese people. Even after the lifting of the US sanctions, the country’s economy is on the verge of collapse. The National Dialogue Bashir initiated in 2014 failed to convince the main opposition forces and virtually none of its 800 or so recommendations, including those on basic freedoms, have been implemented. Even some members of his own government view Bashir as a liability rather than a strong leader that can bring stability to Sudan.

Now that Bashir seems to be ready to risk everything to stay in power, Sudanese political forces should work harder than ever to push for a meaningful democratic transition in the country.

Ahmed H Adam is a Research Associate at SOAS’ School of Law, University of London.