Will Russia’s support for Sudan’s army turn the tide in the war?

Will Russia’s support for Sudan’s army turn the tide in the war?

Analysis: Moscow’s policy of supporting both Sudan’s army and the Rapid Support Forces makes a political resolution to the conflict even more complicated.

On a visit to Port Sudan in late April, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, pledged Russia’s support and recognition for Sudan’s military-led government.

Flanked by the Minister of Mineral Resources, Bogdanov, speaking in Arabic, affirmed Russia’s recognition of “the Sudanese Sovereign Council as the official body representing the leadership of Sudan and Sudanese people”.

Russia has maintained neutrality throughout most of Sudan’s nearly 14-month conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

However, a shift became evident in March of this year when Russia’s Deputy Permanent UN Representative, Anna Evstigneeva, acknowledged during Security Council discussions on the war that the Sudanese government was willing to work towards compromise and urged the “other party involved”, implying the RSF, to put national interests over “personal aspirations”.

Russia’s change in stance is particularly confusing considering that the Wagner Group, a private military organisation linked to the Kremlin, has steered Russian policy in Sudan since 2017, where it has cooperated very closely with the leader of the RSF, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti,” on gold extraction.

This collaboration has helped Wagner finance its operations and assisted Russia in shoring up its gold reserves amidst more than 16,000 sanctions imposed against it.

After the outbreak of hostilities between the SAF and RSF in April 2023, the Wagner group has been implicated in supplying the RSF with surface-to-air missiles from its bases in both Libya and the Central African Republic.

Additionally, Lt. General Yasser Al-Atta of the SAF relayed to journalists in the first month of fighting that the army had recovered the body of a dead Wagner sniper fighting alongside the RSF.

"Russia recognises that in the end, neither side will be able to completely destroy the other, and it would want to be able to maintain close ties with whoever is in power when this is all over" 

According to Samuel Ramani, an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and author of ‘Russia in Africa’ and ‘Putin’s War on Ukraine,’ Russia is playing a very careful balancing act between the two generals and has pursued a dual policy in Sudan since the 2018/2019 revolution, which toppled the regime of Omar Al-Bashir.

“There are almost two different Russian policies, with the official Kremlin leaning towards Burhan and Prigozhin’s Wagner leaning towards Hemedti,” Ramani explained to The New Arab.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the late founder of the Wagner Group who also enjoyed close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, spearheaded the expansion of the Wagner Group in Africa and Sudan and played a key role in Russia’s full-scale ground invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022.

Prigozhin would later fall out with Putin and the Kremlin’s top defence officials after he publicly criticised Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces General Valery Gerasimov over their handling of the war in Ukraine. After doing so, Prigozhin launched a mutiny by sending his troops towards Moscow.

The insurrection was quickly brought to an end with the intervention of the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who brokered a deal between Putin and Prigozhin. In a not-so-surprising turn of events, Prigozhin then died in a suspicious plane crash northwest of Moscow just two months after his rebellion.

After Prigozhin’s passing, the Russian state moved to consolidate control over Wagner, bringing its fighters and activities under the purview of the state.

These sweeping changes raised serious questions as to whether Russian policy in Sudan would become more coherent and if Moscow would throw its weight behind Sudan’s Armed Forces and abandon the RSF, which Bogdanov’s recent comments seemed to confirm.

Ramani, however, doubts the prospects of this happening. “They [Russians] don’t want to align themselves too closely with one party. They recognise that in the end, neither side will be able to completely destroy the other, the Russians would want to be able to maintain close ties with whoever is in power when this is all over.”

Similarly, Mugahied Bushra, a Sudanese political analyst who is the Founder and CEO of Mujo Press, told TNA that Russia’s recent announcement of support for the SAF is “unlikely” to change the course of the war, “despite the fanfare surrounding it”.

"Russia's change in stance is particularly confusing considering that Wagner, a paramilitary group linked to the Kremlin, has steered Russian policy in Sudan since 2017, where it has cooperated very closely with the RSF" 

Due to the massive cash reserves available to the RSF and the companies connected to it, such as Al Junaid Multi Activities Co, a company under the control of Hemedti’s brother and deputy, Abdul Rahim Dagalo, the “Rapid Support Forces are financially prepared for a 5-year war” against the SAF, Bushra added.

In addition to hedging its bets on Sudan by maintaining open channels with both warring parties, there are additional reasons why Russia’s support for Sudan’s army is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough in the conflict between the SAF and the RSF.

Russia’s ability to provide large-scale support to Sudan is handicapped by its own war effort in Ukraine, where Russia is struggling with the supply of weapons and ammunition, a major challenge that was pointed out publicly by Prigozhin himself before his march on Moscow.

Furthermore, when Russia intervened in Syria to save Bashar Al-Assad’s regime from total defeat in 2015, it did so without the burden of the comprehensive sanctions regime that it faces today and without a massive war occurring on its borders, as is currently the case following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia also aimed to protect its strongest ally in the Arab world, which had procured billions of dollars worth of military equipment from Russia, hosted approximately 100,000 Russian citizens on its territory at the time of the 2011 uprising, and housed the only remaining military base outside the former Soviet Union – a naval resupply centre in Tartus, serving as Russia’s gateway to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Russia’s appetite to come to the rescue of Sudan’s military in a similar fashion is unlikely given the timing and a differing set of circumstances.

Since the deposed Omar Al-Bashir requested Vladimir Putin’s ‘protection’ on his visit to Sochi in 2017, the prospect of a base on the Red Sea has been dangled in front of Russia in exchange for assistance in propping up Bashir’s regime, which ultimately collapsed, and has also been a tactic since used by both General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan of the SAF and General Hemedti of the RSF, before the fracturing of their alliance.

In a recent interview, the deputy commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces, Lt. Gen. Yasser Al-Atta, said that Russia will provide “vital weapons and munitions” for a “logistics supply point, not a base”.

And like Russia, Sudan’s military leaders have also demonstrated skill in managing foreign affairs by carefully balancing their relationships with various actors. Just days before Bogdanov visited Port Sudan, the Ukrainian ambassador to Egypt presented copies of his credentials to Sudan’s foreign minister as non-resident ambassador to Sudan, with plans for Ukraine to open an embassy in Sudan in the coming months.

Since the outbreak of war in Sudan, Ukrainian-Sudanese ties have also deepened at a rapid pace even though Sudan supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and abstained from voting on a resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

After Burhan met with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky at a stopover in Shannon Airport in Ireland following his speech at the United Nations General Assembly last year, the two leaders found common ground on the security challenges they faced, citing “illegal armed groups financed by Russia”.

"Like Russia, Sudan's military leaders have also demonstrated skill in managing foreign affairs by carefully balancing their relationships with various actors" 

Since that meeting, videos of Ukrainian Special Forces surfaced in Sudan carrying out night raids on RSF-controlled areas in Omdurman, areas which have since been largely recaptured by the SAF.

Despite the extensive media coverage of a global proxy war involving Russia and Ukraine, the scope of Russia’s intervention in Sudan and across Africa is modest and largely exaggerated, according to some analysts.

“In Burkina [Faso], the presence [of Wagner] is far less substantial, maybe less than 100 personnel. Same in Niger. This isn’t control,” Nathanial Powell, an Africa analyst at Oxford Analytica and author of the book ‘France’s Wars in Chad’, told TNA.

“The Russians are being used as both extra muscle, vectors for equipment deliveries/purchases, local political legitimation, propaganda, and to some extent regime security.”

Similarly in Sudan, the number of Wagner operatives was estimated to be 500 total at the zenith of its operations in the country.

Although small in number, the influence of Russia and the Wagner Group is “predatory and violent” according to Powell.

While Russia’s diplomatic manoeuvres look unlikely to deliver game-changing support for the SAF, the creation of alliances predicated on procuring arms and strengthening military cooperation does not bode well for the possibility of a political resolution for Sudan’s conflict in the near term.

Mediation efforts are at a standstill, and the war looks poised to continue, with millions of lives hanging in the balance.