Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Russian Fleet ‘Secretly’ Preparing to Open New Base on Red Sea, Military Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 9 – Over the new year’s holiday, the Russian navy dispatched 70 of its ships on deep-water assignments, the largest number ever since at least Soviet times. But the routes of two of these ships, an oceanographic research vessel and a corvette, suggest Moscow is “secretly” preparing to open a new base in Sudan on the Red Sea, Sergey Ishchenko says.

            Both of them passed through the Red Sea, the military analyst continues, and their ostensible missions don’t justify their presence so far from home. But their routes do make sense if one considers Vladimir Putin’s meeting in Sochi with the Sudanese president at the end of November (svpressa.ru/war21/article/189913/).

            Omar Hasan Ahmed al-Bashir seldom travels abroad because of charges against him in the International Criminal Court, but Russia hasn’t signed the Treaty of Rome and so he could come to Russia without fear.  Moreover, to underscore how important his presence was, Putin dispatched a Russian jet to Khartoum to bring him to Sochi.

             In the course of the talks, as was widely reported, al-Bashir offered Russia the opportunity to open a Russian base in Syria. That would give Russia leverage on a key sea artery, leverage that it lost when it pulled out of the Soviet base that had existed in Sudan between 1977 and 1991.

            Until recently, only four countries had bases on the shores of the Red Sea, the US, France, Britain and Italy. Japan is building a facility there which it doesn’t call a base but which is one in all but name, Ishchenko says; and China has established its very first military base abroad there.

            In 2012, Russia reached an agreement with Djibouti to open a base there, “but in 2014, the Ukrainian crisis broke out. Washington insisted that the Djibouti authorities must not allow Russians” to open a base, the Moscow analyst says. And the government of that country “humbly bowed to that demand.”

            The Russian government didn’t give up on the idea of having a base on the Red Sea and began to focus on Sudan. “Sudan of course is not Djibouti. From the entrance to the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean it is significantly further. On the other hand, it is closer to Suez.” And given present-day weaponry the difference in location is not so significant.

            In Sochi, al-Bashir talked about Port Sudan as the natural site; but another possibility would have been the island of Suaqin had Turkish Presient Redjep Erdogan not secured in December, after the Putin-Bashin talks an agreement with the Sudanese for a Turkish presence there for 99 years. 

            The dispatch of the two Russian ships to the region just before and just after the meeting in Sochi suggests that they were related to the discussions there, especially since no Russian ship of the 23800 class has ever sailed as far away from its base as it did on this occasion.  The defense ministry only said that it was headed toward the Indian Ocean.

            But of course, if that is the case, Ishchenko says, it would have to pass by Port Sudan. And the second ship contained a unit of special forces, an unusual move for the Russian navy, especially if the ship in question was only to be involved in an international exercise.  It too passed by Port Sudan.

            Putting these various clues together, the military commentator says, suggests that Moscow is moving “secretly” to establish a base in Sudan on the Red Sea lest someone else try to block it as happened in 2014. 

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