Game of Ports

Russia's Strategic Interests in East Africa (and beyond)

By: Ruben Pfeijffer


The quest for strategically located warm water ports has always played an important role in Russia's foreign policy. After consolidating ice-free access to the seas in the country's direct vicinity, it seems Russia has now set its sights on the coast of East Africa.


Warm water ports

The absence of warm water ports has historically been a significant challenge to Russia's maritime ambitions. The largely landlocked country possesses very few ports that remain ice-free throughout the year. Even less are located on the Russian mainland itself.


This has always been a significant strategic disadvantage compared to rivalling military powers like NATO, who have access to warm water ports all around the globe. Therefore, Russia has gone to great lengths to acquire and retain its current three warm-water ports outside of the Russian mainland: Kaliningrad, Sevastopol and Tartus.


Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad is Russia's only ice-free naval base in the Baltic Sea. The port city used to be the capital of Prussia but was acquired from the Germans during the Potsdam Conference. Through Russification of the population, the Russians managed to retain the naval base after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, this turned Kaliningrad into an exclave, cut off from mainland Russia and stuck between NATO members Poland and Lithuania. Nevertheless, the port remains ice-free throughout the year, making it of utmost strategic importance for Russia's maritime ambitions in the Baltic Sea, North Sea and Atlantic Ocean.


Sevastopol

Sevastopol is home to a strategically important naval base that provides the Russians access to the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Sea of Azov and the Caspian Sea. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia leased the base from their newly independent Ukrainian neighbours. This deal lasted until the Ukrainian crisis when Russia took a severe geopolitical risk and annexed the Crimean peninsula in order to safeguard their strategic interests in the region. This action made clear that Russia is willing to take serious steps to retain possession of their warm water ports.


Tartus

Tartus is Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean and is located on the coast of Syria. Tartus initially only functioned as a small naval support facility. However, in return for Russia's military support for Assad's regime during the Syrian Civil War, the port has been allowed to expand further into a fully functioning naval base that can house up to eleven naval vessels. The naval base in Tartus makes the Russian 5th operational squadron in the Mediterranean less dependent on the Bosporus crossing, which is controlled by NATO member Turkey.


The next step

Recently, Russia seems to be no longer satisfied with just its current three warm water ports. In November last year, Russian officials announced a lease agreement with the Sudanese government for a new naval base on the coast of Sudan.1 This would be Russia's first military base in Africa and would position them along major shipping routes in the Red Sea. An estimated 10% of all global trade passes through these waters, making it a strategically valuable region to control. According to the Russians, the base in Sudan will only function as a 'naval logistics facility' that is used to carry out repairs and replenish supplies.2 However, considering the recent expansion of the initially small naval facility in Tartus, it is entirely possible that Russia plans a similar expansion for the Sudanese base in the future.


Secret report

The announcement of the base in Sudan is consistent with the content of a secret report from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs leaked to the media three months earlier.3 The report claimed that Russia had concluded military agreements with up to twenty-one African countries. Six of those countries, the Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan, would allegedly become the location of future Russian military bases. Russian officials have so far only confirmed the future establishment of Red Sea naval facilities in Eritrea and Sudan.


Looking at the map of Africa, the strategic relevance of the alleged future Russian military bases immediately becomes clear. Egypt, Eritrea and Sudan are all perfectly located alongside the Red Sea, while Mozambique and Madagascar are located alongside another major shipping route, the Mozambique Channel. New naval bases in these countries would thus give Russia the strategic capabilities to disrupt trade as a geopolitical instrument and provide some form of counterbalance against the US 5th fleet, who previously had free reign in the region.


Beyond East Africa

There is reason to believe Russia will not stop at East Africa in its quest for additional warm water ports. Before the country was plunged into a constitutional crisis, it was reported that Venezuela and Russia had agreed to station Russian long-range bombers on the island of La Orchila, which is home to a Venezuelan naval base and military airfield.4 The deal is a testament to Russia's renewed strategic interests in the Caribbean, a region they have largely avoided since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Whether a future navy base is on the cards remains to be seen, however, as the Caribbean's close proximity to the US might make it too risky a geopolitical manoeuvre, even for Russia.


This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.


For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the Author:

Ruben Pfeijffer is a graduated anthropologist who currently follows the MA program Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. While working on his bachelor thesis in the Netherlands during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, Ruben gained experience with conducting ethnographic research under the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, and has learned to be adaptable with his research methods.


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