By Rugaba John Paul and Allawi Ssemanda.
During Vladimir Putin’s state of nation address in April, he warned the west that there would be severe consequences if the west had crossed Russia’s red line. This statement not only proved the narrative of a new 21st century cold war, but also showed the confidence of the Kremlin as a potential and confident new global power.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s global power dwindled especially in the first decade since soviet collapse (1991-2001). The move from a Communist Style Economy to a somewhat Capitalist economy coupled with a weak drunk leader in Boris Yeltsin, the Russian bear at the dawn of the 21st century was a shadow of its past. Then came Vladimir Putin, who transformed Russia and wanted the fatherland to regain its lost global influence.
In 2007, Times Magazine voted Putin person of the year, crediting him for returning his country from chaos to “the table of world power.” He was also voted World’s Most Powerful person four times between 2013 and 2016 for leading his country into global affairs. He is further credited for revolutionizing Russia’s economy and bringing stability in the country after defeating Chechnya rebels. Arguably, Moscow’s push in World’s affairs portraying Russia as a new Global player has had some positives such as enabling Russia host the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics and 2018 FIFA world cup but also rekindled some old cold war wounds with the western powers.
Russia and Africa: A new frontier?
Unlike Britain, France and Germany and other European powers, imperial Russia didn’t take part in the scramble for Africa nor had any colonial possessions. Fast forward to the cold war, Soviet Russia was a main supporter of revolutionary conflicts on the continent and played a big role in some of the major events on the continent during that period.
But in Putin’s Russia, Moscow is increasingly having a major role on the continent as it tries to compete with other Global Powers such as; China, United Kingdom, France and U.S.A. for the African slice of the cake.
In October 2019, Russia hosted its first ever Russia Africa summit which was attended by 43 African heads of states, and more than 3000 delegates from across Russia and Africa. During the summit, president Putin pledged Russian support to the continent in terms of aid, arms and political support without strings attached. This summit was seen as a statement by the Kremlin to try to restore the old influence the Soviet Union had on the continent. Some analysts argue that Russia is still lagging behind on the continent in terms of influence. Despite this, Moscow’s influence is on rise. For example, Russia has sent mercenaries to Central African Republic to support the U.N backed government and has also backed the Haftar’s faction against UN backed Libyan government in the now slowing Libyan conflict. Also, Russia is playing a key role in the implementation of nuclear energy on the continent having signed deals with about 12 countries to operate their nuclear facilities whilst Russian state owned and private companies are cutting mining deals in countries such as Angola, Ghana, Cameroon etc. this is a clear indication, that with time, Russia aims at having a foothold on the continent.
Russia has also been in talks with a number of African Countries including among others Sudan and Djibouti to establish their military bases. In Djibouti’s case, analyst attribute Russia’s interest in the country to its strategic location which has made it an area of interest for greater powers with many opening their military bases there. Russia’s interests in Djibouti started way back in 2012, and held talks between 2012 and 2013 on same matter. However, after Russian-Ukrainian crisis over Crimea in 2014, the U.S pressured Djibouti to pause Russia’s advancement which many saw as rivalry against Washington’s interests in the region. Though Russia’s military installation base project seem to have lost momentum, the two countries are still working together in containing piracy.
Though Moscow missed out on Djibouti deal, it has found other potential candidates in Africa to host its military base(s) along the Red Sea, with the most receptive being Sudan. Indeed, in 2017, the then Sudan’s dictator and strongman Omar Al-Bashir, travelled to Sochi where he met his Russian counterpart and the two leaders discussed among others growing the two countries’ cooperation in areas like defence and security. Though signed documents did not include establishing a military base, the Putin – Al-Bashir meeting discussed the subject. In 2020, Russian government published information on its website confirming Moscow was in final stages of building a naval base along Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Moscow explained that a “logistical Support Centre” would be set up in Sudan stressing details of an agreement signed between Sudan’s Prime minister Mikhail Mishutin and Russian side.
However, one can argue that the prospect of establishing a permanent Russian military base in Sudan is now uncertain. The collapse of Sudan’s strongman, Al-Bashir regime in April 2019 and now improved diplomatic relations between Khartoum and Washington in October 2020 arguably makes Russian “protection” to Khartoum less important. In this case therefore, though the need for defence cooperation between Sudan and Russia may still be key, one can argue that the plans for a military base in Sudan are now in limbo since Khartoum is steady courting the Western for a more friendly diplomatic relationships – a journey that started with Washington removing Khartoum from its list of countries that sponsor terrorism and consequently removed the country from sanctions.
Analysts and International Affairs strategists have in recent argued that changes taking place in Eritrea point at possibility of long-term Russian military presence in that country. After the country gained independence in 1991, Eritrea became one of the world’s most closed countries and one of worst dictatorship on the continent. Important to note is that since the signing of a peace treaty with Ethiopia in and the lifting of UN sanctions late 2018, the once closed country has been on a somewhat diplomatic charm looking for opportunities to break out of its isolation and attract foreign investors.
Consequently, Asmara approached Russia and has been more actively since 2018. In August of that year, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia and Eritrea were negotiating the opening of a “logistics” base on the Eritrean coast.
Other evolutions followed. In preparation for the lifting of UN sanctions, Russian and Eritrean delegates met in October 2016 to discuss their future bilateral relations. Besides which, July 2019, Moscow announced it was lifting its own sanctions against Eritrea which set a stage for the two countries to relate after nearly a decade of sanctions.
However, as things now stand, there is no proof that the plans for a Russian logistics base on Eritrean territory are still pending. Indeed, the closed nature of Eritrean politics and the strategic nature of this type of negotiation make any interpretation hazardous. But in any case, the exchanges between the two countries on matters military continue as before. Indeed, early 2020 Russian defence officials revealed that Kremlin and Asmara had signed the first defence cooperation for Russia to deliver two Russian Ansat helicopters purchased as part of the development of military cooperation with Russia. “This country is no longer under sanctions. In 2019, a contract was signed with Eritrea on the delivery of two Ansat helicopters in a military modification to transport personnel. The deal is to be fulfilled 2020,” noted Russian defence official.
Somaliland which belongs dejure to Somalia but is de facto independent since 1991, has been referred to on several occasions as a possible Red Sea host for Russian armed forces. For decades now, Somaliland has been seeking recognition as a full-fledged member of the international community. And it is therefore on the lookout for foreign partners, especially among the great powers who could settle the issue of its status.
In 2017, the possibility of a Russian military base in Somaliland resurfaced. In the same year, while at the Russian embassy in Djibouti, an emissary from the Somaliland government offered to grant Moscow the right to build base at Berbera and if Moscow agreed to reorganize Somaliland as an independent country. Then, in January 2020, there were reports of the imminent opening of a Russian military base in Somaliland.
However, a month after these reports, Russia’s ambassador to Djibouti described these reports and false denying Russia had plans of recognizing Somaliland as an independent country. If analysed critically, one can conclude that despite having interest in red sea, Russia which has always shown stance against great powers openly intervening in internal affairs of other countries may not be ready to make a U-turn on this by reorganizing Somaliland which Somalia would consider as Moscow interfering in her internal affairs. With that in mind, a conclusion can be made that the future of a Russian military base at Berbera is uncertain and it remains unknown fact.
Broadly, an argument can be made that Russia’s intervention in Middle East particularly in Syria has opened up other possible opportunities for Moscow to enter the Middle East and East Africa. Indeed, since 2015, Russia has been trying to gain more influence in the region and contacts between Russia and those two regions have grown considerably. However, it is important to observe that the limits of Moscow’s diplomatic influence become fairly evident whenever Russia’s ambitions to establish military base on the Red Sea are on the table. In many ways, Moscow’s diplomacy finds its initiatives somewhat baulked by what they see as region’s instability and by the fierce competition offered by the other major powers such as U.S and China.
Therefore, one can conclude that despite Kremlin’s undying interest to have more military bases in strategic areas like the red sea, the chances of a Russian military base seems to be slim and indeed are arguably the object of what should be termed as unreliable reports. However, important to note is that Russian ambitions in Africa and in the Middle East continue unabated. Even with challenges such as the slowdown of diplomatic exchanges forced by the Covid-19 pandemic and its far-reaching economic consequences, Kremlin hopes for a base near the Straits of Bab El-Manded and the Red Sea will remain a priority on Moscow’s regional agenda over the next few years and as night follows the day, one can safely say president Putin will try to achieve this today or “tomorrow”.
It’s clear that since the rise of Putin in Russia, the country’s global presence has risen to somewhat resemble the global influence of its soviet past. Her rise has risen eyebrows among western powers such as the united states, NATO and even Great Britain. The actions of the Kremlin over the past 20 years such as the annexation of Crimea, alleged poisonings of dissidents in the U.K, alleged cybercrime and election meddling in the U.S have given left rise of the Russia bear a negative outlook in the western world.
Needless to say, Russia has played a major role in global affairs. Through its diplomatic role in major international organizations, it has managed to push through agendas or reject agendas that seem to be pro-western. Russia, being founding member of the BRICS, has used its position to foster development in the developing world. During the ongoing covid 19 pandemic, Russia was the first country to manufacture and distribute its vaccine, Sputnik V Vaccine, which it has shared with other countries and helped in the global fight of the pandemic. Presently, tens of African countries are expected to receive over 300 million doses of Russians Covid-19 vaccine – Sputnik V Vaccine.
As of now, from security to economic and diplomatic perspective, Russia’s match to Africa seems unstoppable – matching towards achieving Moscow’s ideal world Putin dreams of. A world where Russia is seen as a major player in Global affairs. However, what is not clear is whether Moscow can achieve her ambitious goals in a short or long run especially with economic challenges occasioned by Covid-19 pandemic and slow economic growth in Russia. However, no matter the challenges such as mistrust especially from the West and other challenges Moscow may meet along the way, Putin’s Russia has proved to be resilient to emerge victorious in dealing with challenges and criticism from the West.