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Russia’s First Military Base in Africa

Russia’s President Vladmir Putin continued his efforts to increase Russian geopolitical power by signing a deal in November, 2020 with Sudan for a naval base in the African country.  The deal includes a lease on port facilities at Port Sudan for four warships and space for 300 personnel. This is the third major move made by Russia related to naval port facilities outside her sovereign borders since 2014, the first being the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, which secured naval bases already leased to Russia by Ukraine.  The second move was building out the Russian port facility in Tartus, Syria, where the Soviet Union leased a small waystation since 1971.   

The naval facilities in Crimea have been, since the time of the Russian Empire, the only reliable warm water port available to Russia.  Russia’s annexation of Crimea was condemned by the international community and punished by international sanctions but it is unlikely to be reversed.  By securing Crimean naval bases in perpetuity, President Putin achieved a major national security goal on what may have been a convenient target of opportunity, given the strife underway in Ukraine at the time. 

Russia’s expansion of the Tartus waypoint into a larger facility occurred after Putin sent Russian forces into Syria to aid beleaguered dictator Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War in 2015.  Russian naval vessels now patrol the Mediterranean Sea from the Tartus base.  Having a Mediterranean base is a strategic imperative for Russia to operate in the crowded seas nearby, as NATO member Turkey controls the strategic Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits leading out of the Black Sea.  In the event of armed conflict with NATO or Turkey, the Soviet Union or Russia could be locked into the Black Sea and unable to resupply forces already in the Mediterranean.  Additionally, with a supply station nearby, dwell time on station is increased for Russian vessels stationed at Tartus.  By securing a small naval station able to accommodate nuclear powered vessels in the Red Sea, Russia is again enabling vessels to remain on patrol stations far from home.   

Russia’s historical struggle against competitors blessed with convenient maritime frontage goes back hundreds of years.  The Rimland of Eurasia is ringed with mountains and opposing forces such as NATO or Japan.  These natural and human forces hemmed in first the Soviet Union, and now the Russian Federation.  Look for Russia to continue to develop small expeditionary bases in poorly governed territories flanking NATO countries or their allies.   

Regardless of other developments, Russia will probably seek additional facilities near or south of the Horn of Africa, further extending her reach into the Indian Ocean.  If the Libyan Civil War plays in Russia’s favor with a Libyan National Army victory, or metastasizes into a frozen conflict, look for a small Russian naval station on the Libyan coast.  Small bases, leased for free, as is the case at Port Sudan, staffed by efficiently sized guard and maintenance forces, offer Putin a way to expand Russia’s geopolitical footprint at minimal cost.    

By Chris Crawford

The author’s views are his own and not those of the Department of Defense, United States Navy, or any other entity.  The appearance of any external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the Department of Defense to any linked website, product, or service.