by Nat South for the Saker Blog

Not the trendiest of breaking news, swamped by the turmoil of the U.S. Elections, but the Russian government announced (1) work under progress on a draft agreement (2) for setting up of a naval logistics hub (in Russian – see map) in Port Sudan.

This announcement is bound to make Western Russia ‘watchers’ twitch, others laugh at the location, (not exactly Havana’s bustle of the Soviet era), and some pundits may have another severe bout of futile angst. This piece of news will not make waves and certainly will not make a difference to either the U.S. or NATO member countries, particularly as the U.S. has an overwhelming number of military bases dotted around the world. Essentially, the one Russian naval base will be a drop in the ocean. Having said that, it will be highly significant incremental increase in Russian naval power, to have a warm water base to call in, a bit closer to the Indian Ocean, which will free the Russian Navy of a number of constraints:

  1. limited scope and length of dedicated maritime missions (e.g. Horn of Africa anti-piracy, Indian Ocean);
  2. limited inter-fleet missions across the board, (Northern, Black and Baltic Fleets)
  3. need or wish to call into Cyprus, Malta or Ceuta if the political situation doesn’t allow it;
  4. making unnecessary transit passages across the Mediterranean Sea to home ports.

The issue of a Russian warm water naval base has been mooted both by the Russian government and also other governments many times before for two decades, from discussions in 2002 for a presence in Djibouti, to an offer by the Somaliland government earlier in 2020.

The quest for a presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden region has regularly featured in news articles. After many years of rumours, tentative discussions & clickbait type of articles suggesting that Russia was going to create a naval base in various countries, (Lebanon, Libya, Mozambique, Egypt, Cuba and Venezuela) finally some preliminary confirmation that the first candidate is in fact set to be Sudan.

The need for naval bases overseas started in earnest with the arrival of coal powered ships, with the development of strategic coaling stations for navies such as the UK, Germany and France. This then transformed into oil depots, logistics and maintenance bases. All of which ensures a wider footprint of naval power.

The Soviet Union was no exception to this rule, with a whole host of overseas bases in which to call in: from Cienfuegos, (Cuba), Egypt, Libya, Tartus (Syria), and also took over Cam Ranh from the U.S., 1979 – 2002 (Vietnam), amongst others. Some historical insights are given in this RT article. In particular, the Soviet Navy had a presence, in the Red Sea region for several decades, under the remit of the 8th Squadron:

Logistics bases: Berbera:1964 -1977 (Somalia); Dahlak:1977-1991 (Ethiopia)

Port or mooring locations: Al Hudaydah & Socotra (Yemen).

Other than Tartus, the Russian Navy does not currently have dedicated overseas bases. The creation of the Sudanese bases will thus the first new Russian base situated in Africa after the fall of the Soviet Union. By re-establishing a presence regionally, Russia will nevertheless have a tiny footprint compared to that of the U.S. Navy or even the PLA(N).

So why the Red Sea, firstly it is an internationally important transit for commercial traffic, notably oil and gas shipments (to Europe & the U.S.). To put this into context, according to the U.S. EIA: “In 2018, an estimated 6.2 million barrels per day (b/d) of crude oil, condensate, and refined petroleum products flowed through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait toward Europe, the United States, and Asia”

https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=41073

Although the Russian LNG exports to Asia mostly to go through the Northern Sea Route, there are certain shipments of Russian oil and LNG that also transits through the Red Sea, especially in winter. Secondly, a significant amount of international container volumes passes through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Similarly, the Russian Navy in 2020 has escorted several ships connected to the Nord Stream 2 project. Although the pipe-laying vessel Akademik Cherskiy went round the cape of Good Hope (due the height of the crane), a Baltic Fleet based the Neustrashimyy-class frigate, the ‘Yaroslav Mudry’ was tasked with escorting it. Later, the SCF supply vessels Ostap Sheremet and Ivan Osipenko sailed via the Red Sea from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad, with apparently a Russian Navy escort too.

Thirdly, the Red Sea is also important for the likes of the US Navy, as a vital transit route to the Indian Ocean, (every aircraft carrier transit takes the Suez Canal).

On the whole I am not going to dwell more on why the Yemen, the Bab-el-Mandeb strait is of significance geopolitically, other to note that this has been extensively written about back in August.

Much in the same way as to why China stepped up their naval base footprint in Djibouti, this ensures that there is naval visibility close to the chokepoint of Bab el Mandeb, (given the significant Chinese maritime exports that also transit the Red Sea). Intriguingly, Djibouti is also home to the US Navy and French Navy.

With this global geopolitical tussle taking place, it is worth mentioning that at the end of October, the US Navy Secretary, Kenneth Braithwaite, suggested creating another “fleet closer to the border of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The proposed 1st Fleet could likely be based out of Singapore, to alleviate the operations of the 7th Fleet.

If the modest Russian naval base becomes operational, the Russian military will have better means of monitoring the ongoing conflict in Yemen and the as well enhance anti-piracy patrols in the north western part of the Indian Ocean. A military presence will somewhat also provide a potential counterbalance to Chinese military presence in the region. A Russian navy presence will potentially stymie further moves by Turkey to establish a presence in the Red Sea region. Turkey had signed an agreement in 2017 with Sudan to boost Turkish military and economic presence in Sudan, (principally in relation to Suakin island). The creation of a military base was subsequently rejected by the Sudanese government in 2019, largely due to positions taken in the Libyan conflict.

The hub will not only serve in practical terms the Russian Navy but also act as a diplomatic showcase in Africa, an area of growing interest to Russia, in deploying limited incremental power projection, military and trade ties.

Russia maintains historical ties with a number of African countries, so this base is the result of longstanding diplomatic (thorny at times) efforts and discussions. It is reported that 28 African governments have signed military agreements with Russia. Of course, this has alarmed the U.S and has been duly picked up by the Western media.  Nevertheless, it fits into a wider context of timid steps to assert some influence in Africa, as the U.S has done (militarily relations mostly) and China (mostly trade).  It will be interesting to see how this additional base will have a trickle down effect in Africa and in the Indian Ocean regions.

The base and ships

The plans for a naval base are still at a very initial stage and could go the same way as the 2017 Sudanese-Turkish military agreement, if the Sudanese government should scrap it. If the plans for the base do get achieved, it will need to be built from scratch and it will be capped to just 4 ships and 300 personnel. Of particular interest is that the likely base will be also capable of having nuclear-powered (surface?) vessels. Regardless of the eventual size of the port infrastructure, the importance rests with the fact that it is a first step in securing a logistics foothold in a busy sea route. The Port Sudan will be set up and operated in the same way as Tartus has been, with anti-sabotage boats (Raptors), air defence unit and repair workshops, (initially a floating ‘PM’ repair ship, but with time, better to have land-based workshops, given the limit of 4 ships).

Frequent visitors will be likely the auxiliary ships, in particular fleet tankers and ocean-going tugs that accompany the long-distance deployments. By having a resupply and logistics base in the Red Sea, the Russian Navy will be able to operate in the region and across the Indian Ocean more often. This latest move by Russia ties into a previous article written on Russian Navy presence in the Indian Ocean.

1.Enhance scope and length of dedicated maritime missions (e.g. Horn of Africa anti-piracy, Indian Ocean):

Crew exchanges can take place, routine maintenance can be done without having a ship returning to the Black or Baltic Sea for instance. Essentially, the Russian Navy will be able to do what the US Navy and Royal Navy have done for decades, but only to a limited extent.

2.Increase in inter-fleet missions across the board, (Northern, Black and Baltic Fleets) and thus the overall maturity of the Russian Navy:

Various units and ships will be able to operate jointly, without the need of having to call into Tartus or Sevastopol, thus breaking up the tempo of long-distance missions.

According to the agreement Russia will operate the base lease-free for an initial 25 years, however there will be infrastructure costs to pay. Additionally, Russia will undertake to provide military equipment at no cost and also provide training to the Sudanese military and help develop further the Sudanese navy. The Sudanese navy recently received a training ship from Russia, as part of 2019 bilateral defence agreements.

Likely infrequent visitors could be Moskva (Project 1164); anti-submarine destroyers, such as the Vice-Admiral Kulakov or Admiral Tributs, (Project 1155) as they have been the mainstay of anti-piracy & Indian Ocean missions in the recent past. Calling into a base for resupply would make Indian Ocean deployments much easier overall and also in a small measure extend the operational life of older ships. Nuclear powered missile cruisers such as ‘Pyotr Veliky’ and the ‘Admiral Nakhimov’ may also call in. Another aspect is that the latest Karakurt (or even at a push the Buyan class) ship could forward deploy from such a base, to potentially carry out anti-piracy missions, which is what they (the Karakurt class) were originally developed for. Naval commentors in the Wes have derided the transformation and modernisation of the Russian Navy into a small-ship fleet, yet the use of small bases such as Tartus and eventually port Sudan have amply demonstrated the wider and greater use of the smaller class of ships, especially the Kalibr carrying combat ships.

Deployment of such class of ships would not be as far-fetched as it seems, because this would enable the larger combat ships to go for longer periods farther away. Additionally, auxiliary ships such as intelligence gathering ships will be able to redeploy quickly and for longer in important areas such as the Arabian Sea or the Gulf for instance.

The development and active use of a base in the Red Sea is also a reflection of the growing maturity of the Russian Navy, still a tiny shadow of the Soviet Navy. The precedence has been set by the sustained activities of the 5th Mediterranean Squadron based out of Tartus. Although its remit and composition are actually quite small and localised in influence, the continued operations demonstrate quiet assertion of focused regional naval projection.

To summarise, the creation of a naval base in the Red Sea is another visible result from the re-establishment and operation of the 5th Squadron, as well as the trickle-down effect of long-distance missions that has been taking place in the last 5 years. The Russian Navy is modestly gaining confidence in increasing by a notch, single or double combat ship deployments further afield as well as their duration.

 

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