Russia’s Lavrov visits Sudan on diplomatic push in Africa’s Sahel

Lavrov arrived in Khartoum seeking to bolster the two countries’ economic ties, especially in infrastructure.

Sergei Lavrov and Sudan's acting foreign minister
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Sudan's acting foreign minister, Ali al-Sadiq, hold a joint news conference at the airport in Khartoum [Russian foreign ministry/AFP]

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was due to meet officials in Sudan on Thursday, part of an African tour seeking to expand influence at a time when Western nations have sought to isolate Moscow with sanctions over the war in Ukraine.

Lavrov arrived in Khartoum late on Wednesday, seeking to bolster the two countries’ economic ties, especially in infrastructure, state news agency SUNA said. Lavrov’s tour has also included Iraq, Mauritania and Mali, and last week he visited South Africa.

Sudan was cut off from billions of dollars in international financing after military leaders overthrew a Western-backed transitional government in 2021.

At the same time as receiving Lavrov, Sudanese authorities were this week hosting envoys from the United States, United Kingdom and France, who are supporting talks to form a new democratic civilian government in Sudan.

Sudan’s governing military council has previously considered allowing Russia to open a naval base on the Red Sea coast, a strategic region where Gulf countries and Turkey also vie for influence.

Al Jazeera could not immediately establish if the base was on Lavrov’s agenda during the visit.

Western countries are concerned about Russia’s expanding influence in Africa’s Sahel and its border regions.

Reporting from Khartoum, Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan said that the planned visit was part of growing ties between Sudan and Russia over the past few years.

“With Russia expressing interest and signing a memorandum of understanding with Sudan’s previous transitional government to build a naval base along its eastern coast and its desire to invest,” she said.

Morgan pointed out that many analysts and watch groups have been critical of the move, saying that Russia is interested in developing its own interests rather than expanding Sudan’s economic power.

Wagner Group

Western diplomats and official sources have said that Russia’s Wagner Group private military contractor has worked in Sudan to expand gold mining, among other activities.

Sudan’s foreign ministry has previously denied the presence of Wagner, which is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In Khartoum, Lavrov was due to meet Foreign Minister-designate Ali al-Sadeq, as well as other officials, SUNA said.

Speaking from Moscow, Dmitry Trenin, a member of the Russia Foreign and Defence Policy Council, said Russia’s Africa tour reflects its interest in forging stronger military, security, and economic ties in the region.

“The Soviet Union had a very wide range of contacts in Africa. For the first time since the end of the SU, there has been an appreciation in Moscow that Africa has been neglected for far too long and it deserves so much more attention than it has been getting.

“Russia is trying to promote security assistance … and economic and educational projects,” he said.

“The main reason [for Russia’s interest in Africa] is the earthquake that destroyed Russia’s relations with Europe and wider West. With the hybrid war between the West and Russia, it is countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia that are considered to be Russia’s most important and only Russian partners,” said Trenin.

Sudan courted Russian support in the final years before former President Omar al-Bashir was toppled in a 2019 uprising.

Before the coup 15 months ago, civilian Sudanese parties that shared power with the army after al-Bashir’s overthrow formed closer ties with the West.

The deputy leader of Sudan’s governing council and head of its powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, visited Russia the day before the February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine and expressed openness to hosting a Russian base.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies