Russia’s thwarted return to the Red Sea

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The Red Sea is one of the vital routes for world trade, as nearly 10% of the planet’s goods travel through it. It is the link between the energy producers of the Persian Gulf, the Western markets and the export industries of North-East Asia which is why the points of entry into that sea are seen as strategic by the great powers of the region. It has drawn ever more attention from abroad since its stability has declined because of the proximity of the Yemeni civil war and the increase in Somalia-based piracy. As a result, several countries have deployed their military forces in the area, especially in Djibouti, near the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb.

Ever since the success of the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war, relations between Russia and the countries on the Red Sea have developed with many promising prospects for Moscow to soon be authorised to station troops in the region. In particular Djibouti, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen and Somaliland—a dissident Somalian Republic, unrecognised by the international community—seem most likely to host a Russian military presence by the Red Sea. Shall we soon see Russia’s return to the proximity of the Bab El-Mandeb straits?

No colonial heritage

Russia’s interest in the Red Sea is not new. During the Cold War, Moscow and Washington, as well as London and Paris, were locked in a dispute for hegemony in the Middle East. In this competition, the USSR tried to maintain a permanent military presence in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa in order to supply its naval operations there (in men and materials NDT). But to do so, it had to put down roots in a region where it had never had any influence or traditional allies. Moreover, this strategic objective went counter to one of USSR’s main advantages, its lack of a colonial past in the Middle East. So, by reason of these constraints, Moscow could not gain a foothold in the region until a friendly country, like Ethiopia or Yemen, would lend itself to an alliance.

Such agreements were fragile, they were vulnerable to geopolitical sea-changes likely to occur in that zone of turbulence. For example, there was a time in the seventies, when the Soviet army had at its disposal a base at Berbera, the main harbour of what is now Somaliland. That base was shut down at the start of the Ethiopian war, causing the forced departure of the Soviet troops. Finally, the fall of the Soviet Union brought about a sizeable diminution of Russian presence in Africa and the Middle East, and the closing of their base at Aden in 1994.

In the middle of the years 2000, Moscow had both the means and the will to return to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa and resume its military presence on the Red Sea. According to Samuel Ramani (Oxford), it was the 2008 piracy crisis in Somalia which renewed Russian interest in the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb in particular. This interest was reinforced by diplomatic fallout from the annexation of Crimea, which prompted Moscow to seek out new partners in order to break out of the international isolation which it had to deal with at the time.

In order to make its comeback to the Red Sea, Moscow relied less on its “soft power” than on the appeal of its military capacities and security services. The success of the Russian expedition to protect its Syrian ally boosted Moscow’s credibility as a security provider, even for countries outside the post-Soviet sphere.

Djibouti’s frustrated choice

Like other powers from outside the region, Russia sought to cooperate closely with Djibouti, a country whose geographical location has made it a focal point of interest for the great powers, several of which have based their military forces in Africa there. According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Russia had already expressed, in 2012, an interest in setting up a military base at Djibouti, in particular for its air force. Talks were held on this matter in 2012 and 2013 with specific discussions on the amount of territory to be exclusively reserved for Russian usage, the degree of influence held by US authorities in the management of Djibouti’s airspace, and Russian investments in the country.

In spite of these promising developments, the 2014 Ukrainian crisis put and end to these negotiations. Indeed, the new geopolitical situation around Russia and the resurgence of Russo-US rivalry led Washington to put pressure on Djibouti to prevent its rival from installing bases in their country. Today, there is no prospect of long-term Russian presence in view, but the cooperation between Djibouti and Moscow on piracy matters remains unaffected.

In spite of this setback, Moscow has found other potential hosts on the Red Sea, the most receptive up to now being Sudan. In November 2017, the then President of Sudan, the tyrant Omar Al-Bashir, travelled to Sochi to meet with his Russian counterpart bearing plans aimed at extending the two countries’ cooperation in several areas, including security and defence. Even though the possibility of establishing a military base was not among the documents signed by Putin and Al-Bashir, this subject was discussed by them at that meeting.

Khartoum wanted to see that commitment carried further in view of the collapse of its relations with Washington at the time. Indeed, following the Russian success in preventing the fall of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, Al-Bashir sought to obtain from Russia a potential provider of security against any intervention from the West. The results of these security accords became tangible when an agreement was made public in May 2019 concerning the use by the Russian fleet of the naval installations at Port-Sudan. Until now, that agreement constitutes the greatest Russian success in procuring a military installation on the Red Sea.

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However, the prospect of establishing a permanent Russian military presence in Sudan remains uncertain. The collapse of the Al-Bashir regime in April 2019 and the improvement of diplomatic relations between Khartoum and Washington in October 2020 makes Russian protection less important for that country. Thus, even while cooperation in defence matters continues between Moscow and Khartoum, the plans for a military base in Sudan seem to be in limbo.

Playing the Eritrean card

A certain change has also taken place in Eritrea concerning a possible long-term Russian military presence in that country. Following its independence in 1991, Eritrea became one of the world’s most closed countries as well as one of Africa’s most severe dictatorships. Yet, since the signature of a peace treaty with Ethiopia in June 2018 and the lifting of UN sanctions in November of that same year, it has been looking for opportunities to break out of its isolation and attract foreign investors.

Given this new context, Asmara has approached Russia more actively since 2018. In August of that year, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov officially 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, in July 2019, Moscow lifted its own sanctions against Eritrea which had been in effect for nearly a decade.

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. In January 2020, Asmara announced the reception of two Russian helicopters purchased in 2019 as part of the development of its military cooperation with Moscow.

The other countries to which Russia has made overtures in the pursuit of its ambitions in the Red Sea area are Yemen and Somaliland. Former partners of the Soviet Union in that region, these two countries are once again holding the attention of Russian diplomats. In the case of Yemen, Russia has sought to act as mediator between all the forces involved in the ongoing civil war (with the exception of the jihadists). This would be useful to Moscow’s strategic plans, because as Samuel Ramani has written for the Carnegie Endowment, Russia’s present implication in the Yemen struggle leaves the door open for hopes of a permanent military presence in the future.

These aspirations were already spelled out in 2009 by a Russian naval officer who mentioned Socotra—the Yemeni archipelago where the Soviet fleet weighed anchor in the past—as a possible Russian naval base abroad.

This said, there are no signs that the Russian ambitions in the Red Sea are moving forward. With regard to Socotra, the Russians are stymied, since the archipelago has been occupied by the Emirates since 2019. And like the Russian gas and oil contracts in Yemen, the war has suspended all plans for military cooperation between Moscow and its Yemeni partners, the declarations of Ali Abdallah Saleh notwithstanding.

The dubious choice of Somaliland

Lastly, Somaliland, which belongs de jure 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.

According to certain reports, it was in 2017 that the possibility of a Russian military base in Somaliland was again raised. That year, at the Russian embassy in Djibouti, an emissary from the Somaliland government offered to grant Moscow the right to build installations at Berbera in exchange for his country’s recognition. Then, in January 2020, there were reports of the imminent opening of a Russian military base in Somaliland.

Yet, the following month, the Russian ambassador in Djibouti denied these reports. Moreover, observers wondered whether Russian recognition of a dissident republic would be in the country’s general diplomatic interest, since Russia tends to oppose the idea of great powers intervening openly in favour of regions in secession. Thus, the future of that base remains an unknown factor.

The Russian intervention in Syria has opened up several opportunities for Moscow in the Middle East and East Africa. Since 2015, contacts and cooperation between Russia and those two regions have grown considerably more frequent. However, the limits of its diplomatic influence become fairly evident whenever Russia’s ambitions to establish a permanent base on the Red Sea are on the table. Then Russian diplomacy finds its initiatives baulked by the region’s instability and by the fierce competition offered by the other major powers.

The chances of a Russian military base on the Red Sea are regarded by outside observers as slim indeed and are the object of unreliable reports. Still, Russian ambitions in Africa and in the Middle East continue unabated. Even with the slowdown of diplomatic exchanges due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic consequences, Russian 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.