Russia’s fingerprints are on Sudan coup attempt

By Ariel Cohen, The Fletcher School alumnus, Senior Fellow at Atlantic Council

An attempted coup d’état in Sudan has so far left at least 56 dead and up to 600 wounded. Clashes erupted in the capital city Khartoum when the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the military headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan failed to agree on a transition to a civilian government. RSF launched a series of surprise attacks against the Sudanese military, and the resulting wave of instability threatens to unleash a civil war.

The RSF grew out of the Janjaweed Militia, which infamously committed war crimes in the Western Sudanese region of Darfur in the early 2000s. Saudi Arabia and the UAE historically have supported Janjaweed and employed the militia in Libyan and Yemeni conflicts. Led by Vice President Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, the RSF seeks to build enough legitimacy to oppose the Sudanese military; however, prior to the coup, the RSF had mobilized 100,000 troops in support of the junta and to counter guerilla actions and peaceful protests.

Ongoing fighting has created a fog of war.

It appears the RSF first targeted the presidential palace and the residence of General al-Burhan. Clashes then spilled outside the capital. Both sides immediately claimed to control major strategic and urban centers, but it remains unclear who holds the upper hand.

What is apparent is that General al-Burhan was not captured but has made no public statements on the escalating violence.

After the fighting began, a wide range of actors called for a ceasefire. Local civil society, Egypt, South Sudan, the African Union, the European Union, the U.S., China, and Russia all expressed concern and offered to mediate. Of all the foreign actors involved in the tumult of Sudanese politics, Russia has the most direct engagement and incentive to support Hemeti.

The Wagner Group — a notorious private military company owned by close Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s Chef” — began providing high-level training and intelligence sharing to the RSF in 2017. Wagner has been accused of violating human rights in Ukraine, the Central African Republic, and Libya, while helping the RSF consolidate support by launching disinformation campaigns on social media.

In return for its services, Wagner was given control of several gold mines in Darfur, Blue Nile, and other Sudanese regions. The RSF has long controlled gold extraction in Sudan, giving Wagner an easy avenue to precious resources. The Russian-controlled mines are run via front companies that are connected to Prigozhin and various other members of Moscow’s elite. Meroe Gold, an extractor in Sudan, was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury in 2020 for ties to Wagner. The European Union later followed suit and sanctioned Meroe for the same reason.

Wagner’s presence in Sudan is strategically important for Moscow. When the West responded to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with punishing sanctions, the Kremlin’s network of shady operators began tapping resources they control to fuel the war. The scheme to plunder Sudanese gold emerged as a way to bolster the Russian economy and build a war chest.

An investigative report conducted by CNN from February to July 2022 uncovered 16 known Russian gold-smuggling flights out of Sudan. These were allegedly overseen by a senior Wagner commander who had extensive experience operating in both Libya and Syria.

Moscow has a track record of grabbing natural resources in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa. In 2018 the Sudanese government inked an oil refinery deal with Russia while the RSF facilitated the planned construction of a Russian Navy base in the Port of Sudan. The base will help secure oil supplies by serving as a protective bridgehead for Russian oil companies operating in the Red Sea.

It will not only help Russia secure a reliable source of income, but also provide the Russian military with a strategic location. Unlike the 20thcentury Cold War, which was fought between the U.S. and the USSR over ideology and geopolitics, its 21st century sequel is fought over geo-economics, and natural resources in particular: oil, gas, uranium, food, water, as well as gold and diamonds.

Though renewed violence in Sudan may inconvenience Wagner, the group has already made enough inroads to ensure a steady supply of gold and oil in the event of civil war. Even as resources are stretched thin because of Prigozhin’s mercenary war in Ukraine, he will likely continue aiding the RSF, while causing enough chaos to strengthen its grip on Sudan. He needs Hemeti and his RSF to win.

The Russian playbook in Sudan closely mimics operations that are currently taking place in Libya, Syria, and the Central African Republic. All are politically unstable, resource-rich nations that supply Moscow with valuable commodities and help it dodge sanctions.

Russia’s influence in Africa remains purely disruptive and predatory. The Kremlin will use Wagner as a cudgel to secure natural resources across Africa and push the U.S. out, just as they evicted France. To keep up, Washington should expand diplomatic engagement, intelligence operations, and sanctioning of all entities linked to Wagner in Africa.

The U.S. should launch, with its allies, a robust program of military training and arms sales to boost pro-Western governments in the areas where China, Russia, and ISIS are on the prowl.

(This post is republished from The Hill.)

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