By Nada A. Fadul & David L. Phillips
Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Competition during the Cold War gave countries a stark choice. Join reform movements or align with authoritarian kleptocratic governments. Today, Sudan is a new frontline for Great Power competition. Russia backed the military coup of October 25, 2021, that killed scores of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators. Alternatively, the US supports the forces of freedom and change. Other African countries are gauging events in Sudan to determine whether they will align with US-backed reforms or the Russian-inspired military dictatorship.

The Kremlin plays a nefarious role, running political interference for Sudan’s junta and providing diplomatic cover. After the coup, Russia released a statement questioning whether the events even qualified as a coup. Russia also uses its veto at the UN Security Council (UNSC) to block meaningful sanctions on the junta.
Russia shields Sudan’s military from accountability. It opposes the referral of cases to the International Criminal Court, which requires approval by the UNSC. It discourages the ICC from prosecuting former President Omar al- Bashir for genocide in Darfur, as well as crimes against humanity in Kordofan and Blue Nile. In return, Russia expects Sudan to oppose condemnation of Russian aggression towards Ukraine. 
Hundreds of civilians were gunned down by Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in June 2019 for demonstrating outside the Army headquarters. Bodies of the victims were dumped in the Nile River and washed up on its shores. Once again, scores of Sudanese were killed in October 2021 for opposing the junta’s power grab. Sudan’s Resistance Committees demand accountability.
Security cooperation between Russia and Sudan has gone on for decades. Russia provided weapons to the Bashir regime that it used in Darfur and other hot spots around the country. Weapons transfers included MIG fighters, T-72 tanks, artillery, small arms, and ammunition. In addition, Russian military contractors trained the security forces to crackdown against anti-government protests.
Russia operates a naval logistics center near Port Sudan, on land that the government provides free of charge. The 25-year lease is a carte blanche, allowing Russia to transfer “any kind of military equipment or munition, equipment or material” through Sudanese ports. The Russian naval base is equipped to host nuclear-powered vessels and up to 300 Russian military personnel. 
Members of the Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries, recently deployed to Sudan to defend the coup leader, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hamedti), head of the notorious Janjaweed and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), also benefitted from collaboration with the Wagner Group. On February 23, in the middle of the Ukraine crisis, Hamedti traveled to Moscow – further evidence of his close cooperation with Putin.
Hamedti and Burhan have been transparent about their cooperation with Russia. They traveled to Moscow several times to proclaim their fealty to Putin and gratitude for Russia’s support 
Russia’s involvement in Sudan is part of Putin’s broader strategy to challenge the US and China in Africa. Sudan’s leaders have tuned out US concerns about human rights. They prefer a patron with no strings attached.
Russia also benefits from the exploitation of Sudan’s natural resources. The RSF has supervised the shipment of gold stolen from Sudan’s conflict areas. Gum Arabica, a natural product for food processing harvested from Acacia trees in Darfur, is prized by Russians for export.
Ideology also contributes to polarization. Sudan’s junta is aligned with Russia’s model of government, which exercises heavy-handed central authority to repress opposition. In contrast, the Resistance Committees subscribe to a westernized model that emphasizes transparency and collaborative decision-making. 
The struggle between autocracy and personal freedoms is playing out in Sudan. Russia can support political transition or, by sticking with the junta, Russia will be on the wrong side of history.
US support for the pro-democracy movement in Sudan will have the added benefit of marginalizing Russia’s role. The Cold War is back; Washington needs Sudan and other countries in Africa on its side. The Horn of Africa is the new front line for contestation between Russia and the West.
Nada A. Fadul is a Sudanese-American physician in Nebraska and an active member of Sudanese civil society organizations. David Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University and a former US official, advising the Sudanese civil society members.