In the last few days, two news reports with a significant strategic import have emerged from the Western Indian Ocean, a region that spans the area from the Suez Canal to the Seychelles. Russia announced that it will open a military base on the Red Sea coast in Sudan. The deal for the base is for 25 years and the Russian navy is expected to deploy four warships and 300 troops at the base. While Russia is stepping up its presence in the Western Indian Ocean, the United States announced that it will withdraw its 700 troops from Somalia. The troop withdrawal is ordered by the outgoing President Donald Trump and is likely to adversely affect the effectiveness of the counter-terror operations in Somalia. As the geopolitics in and around the Western Indian Ocean is in a state of flux; both of these developments warrant greater scrutiny.
Russia has long been interested in acquiring a foothold in the Indian Ocean region and access to its warmer ports. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which brought Soviet power within the striking distance of the Persian Gulf, was considered as a step towards that strategic objective. During the Cold War, the Soviet navy had managed to gain access to a network of bases in the Indian Ocean including those in the Red Sea due to the friendly regimes in countries like Ethiopia, Yemen and Somalia (such as the port of Berbera).
In the post-Cold War years, the primary strategic focus of Russia has been on its periphery in Asia as well as in Europe and it no longer possessed the ability and willingness to hold bases in the Indian Ocean region. However, since the successful intervention in Syria in 2015, Russia has been expanding its influence in the Western Indian Ocean and the base in Sudan is a major step in this strategy. Apart from Sudan, the Russian navy already possesses a base in Syria on the Mediterranean coast. These two bases will allow Russia to project its influence in Africa, the Middle East and the Western Indian Ocean. It will also enable Russia to monitor international maritime traffic, especially energy trade, passing through the Red Sea.
In 2019, Russia had held military exercises with the navies of China, South Africa and Iran in the Western Indian Ocean. Moreover, Russia had organised the first Russia-Africa summit last year and Russian fighter jets had paid a visit to South Africa. Besides, Russian mercenaries are also spotted in gas-rich, terror-affected Mozambique. Sudan is a key state in the evolving geopolitics of the Red Sea and North-Central Africa and it is well-known that since 2017, Russia has been present in Sudan’s resource-rich neighbour, the Central African Republic, fighting insurgents. All of these developments point towards greater Russian activity in the Western Indian Ocean and Africa.
Interestingly, while the Russian (and Chinese) presence is growing in the Western Indian Ocean, American withdrawal from Somalia is likely to shrink Western military presence in this part of the world. Somalia has been a controversial topic in the American domestic politics since the disastrous military intervention in 1992-93. The incident, known as the ‘Black Hawk Down’, in which its 18 soldiers were killed in Somalia, has influenced American decision-making towards Somalia. However the US re-established presence in Eastern Africa, including in Somalia, in the wake of the ‘Global War on Terror’ and stepped up its military-intelligence efforts to eliminate terrorists from the country.
Somalia is crucial in the geopolitics of the Western Indian Ocean as the double threat of terrorism and maritime piracy radiate from this unstable country. US presence in Somalia was primarily focused to fight terrorism but in the context of seriousness of the threat of maritime piracy, the US navy has been operating an international naval coalition around Somalia to deter piracy. In the context of the US military withdrawal from Somalia, its base in Djibouti assumes greater strategic significance.
The Western Indian Ocean is strategically important not just owing to the energy and resource potential of the region but also because of the ongoing geopolitical contest. Western Indian Ocean is part of the Indo-Pacific region and major global powers have demonstrated interest in this region. Military forces of France, China, Japan, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and South Korea enjoy some sort of permanent or semi-permanent presence in the Western Indian Ocean. Russia has now joined these powers. Indian Navy is a major player in this region as well.
Therefore, the African coastline and littoral states between the Suez Canal and South Africa are assuming growing geopolitical weight. They will be in a position to leverage their location as well as resource potential and extract maximum benefits from the interested players. Russia’s upcoming military base in Sudan and American withdrawal from Somalia indicates the fluidity of the geopolitical competition in this region. Following China and Russia, India would do well to acquire permanent military facilities in this part of the world.
(Sankalp Gurjar is a Research Fellow with the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Views are personal)
The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.