The Red Sea Geopolitical Battleground

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The Red Sea Geopolitical Battleground

Dr. Muhammad Akram Zaheer

Recent reports say that the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Russian government might sign a military and economic agreement soon. This deal shows that Russia wants to gain access to ports on the Red Sea, which would help its navy and increase its influence in the region. Russia also wants to build stronger political and military relationships across Africa. By working with countries like Sudan, Russia hopes to increase its power, challenge Western influence and find new economic opportunities. This situation shows how global power is changing in Africa. Lt. Gen. Yasir al-Atta confirmed in late May that the Sudanese Armed Forces and Russia are close to signing this important agreement.

The deal would let Russia set up a naval support facility on the Red Sea. In return, Russia would give weapons and ammunition to Sudan. This agreement is a strategic move by the Sudanese Armed Forces, showing they are unhappy with the West for not stopping outside support to their enemy, the Rapid Support Forces, in Sudan’s civil war.The deal, which has been in the works since February 2023, has been delayed because of Sudan’s civil war. Russia wants to strengthen ties with African nations facing sanctions from the EU and the US. However, tensions in the region, especially between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar regarding Sudan’s conflict, and the ongoing Red Sea crisis, have made things more complicated.

These tensions have made it hard for these nations to effectively respond to attacks by the Houthis, showing the geopolitical challenges affecting the deal and regional stability.

          Russia and China are working to strengthen their positions in the Red Sea area. Russia is teaming up with Eritrea to build a naval facility at Massawa port, confirmed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his visit to Eritrea in January 2023. A Russian naval ship also visited Massawa in March 2024, suggesting Russia wants another port in the Red Sea besides Sudan. China is increasing its activities near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a key route between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. With its military base in Djibouti, China has expanded its naval presence, allowing an Iranian spy ship to dock nearby.

This shows China’s deeper military involvement in the area.These actions by Russia and China show their growing influence, challenging the Biden administration’s policy in Africa. Critics, like Senator James Risch, say the current U.S. approach isn’t working. He suggests stronger ties with Somaliland to counter China and Iran’s influence.Russia and China’s moves highlight the Red Sea’s importance for military and economic control. Russia is using attacks by Houthis on commercial ships to increase its influence, offering safe passage to ships under the Russian flag. Russia might also support Houthis in placing sea mines, disrupting shipping and potentially forcing vessels to fly the Russian flag for safety.Russia might collaborate with various groups in the Horn of Africa to bypass sanctions and boost illegal oil and grain sales, which could help with energy and food challenges due to U.S. sanctions over Ukraine. Russia has used grain diplomacy, providing grain to African nations, including 25,000 tons to Somalia and forgiving $684 million in debt.

Somalia, struggling with finances due to fighting al-Shabaab, might seek Russian military help. With rising tensions between Somalia and Somaliland, especially before Somaliland’s November election, Somalia could turn to Russia and China for support. AbdirahmanIrro, an opposition leader and former ambassador to Russia, supports China and could play a role in this. Russia might interfere in Somaliland’s elections or disrupt its port agreement with Ethiopia to gain access to Berbera port.

Africa is likely to see more of Russia because of the United States’ weak policies in the region. This is especially concerning because the Horn of Africa, which includes the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, is very important for global shipping and trade. Whoever controls this area gains a big geopolitical advantage, making it a target for military and economic power.Russia is getting more involved in Africa, taking advantage of the gaps left by the US. This includes military cooperation, selling weapons, and economic investments. The possibility of Russia militarizing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden is worrying.

It could increase regional tensions and disrupt the stability of a key maritime corridor. Russia’s military presence could affect security far beyond Africa, including the Middle East and globally. This could lead to an arms race and more conflicts in an already unstable region. The US needs to respond strongly to maintain balance and prevent any one power from dominating this area.To reduce this risk, the Biden administration should look at the Somaliland Partnership Act again. This proposal suggests officially recognizing and supporting Somaliland, which has stable governance and a strategic location. Partnering with Somaliland could counter Russian and Chinese influence. The US can secure an important ally in the Horn of Africa, ensuring a cooperative presence in the region. Additionally, working more closely with the Department of Defense is essential. A better military strategy, including joint exercises, security assistance, and infrastructure development, would improve regional security and deter adversaries.