Encapsulated between the Mediterranean and the northwestern Indian Ocean, the Red Sea has struggled to emerge as a geopolitical space in its own right. However, the region has recorded increased engagement during the past decade. Considering the mounting strategic importance of the Red Sea to seaborn global trade and the growing shipping volumes transiting through this critical waterway, littoral and non-littoral countries are implementing several projects to develop coastal infrastructures—such as multi-purpose terminals, logistics and storage hubs, and shipyards—instrumental to sustaining the growing needs of a fast-expanding shipping industry. Moreover, as the prospect of lucrative business opportunities draws an increasing number of actors to establish a commercial presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, the region’s relevance also grows from a strategic perspective.
While guaranteeing the security of sea lanes of communication continues to be held in high regard by many actors, the simmering tensions between major world powers and regional players have fueled a geostrategic competition for establishing overseas bases in the region. With economic competition dovetailing with strategic rivalry, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden might also become a flashpoint for geopolitical frictions. Among the countries that have sought to redraw the Red Sea’s geopolitical map, Russia stands out as one of the most assertive. Although Moscow’s efforts to tilt the regional balance of power in its favor have delivered mixed results so far and major constraints hinder the Kremlin’s capacity to reap the benefits of its regional moves in the future, Russia’s persistence in pursuing its national interests in the Red Sea waters calls for deeper scrutiny.
Thrust of Warm Waters: Moscow’s Ever-Green Quest
Since Tzar Nicholas II’s time, Russia has perceived the capacity to project power in maritime regions beyond its immediate neighborhood as synonymous with geopolitical grandeur. The Red Sea is no exception to this logic. While long off its radar, Moscow developed a strategic interest in establishing zones of influence in the sub-region during the Cold War era.
The Kremlin made remarkable strides in its quest for maritime relevance in this critical waterway by cultivating friendly diplomatic ties and close military relations with several littoral countries, such as Nasser’s Egypt (until 1971), Menghistu’s Ethiopia, Siad Barre’s Somalia (until 1977), and the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). The Soviet influence grew large due to a mixed strategy based on generous arms transfers to regimes gravitating around the Communist orbit and providing technical support to friendly nations developing domestic naval facilities, such as the Somalian port of Berbera. However, after reaching a zenith between the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet footprint in the Red Sea entered a relentless downward spiral. The swinging political loyalties of regional regimes, swift changes in the Kremlin’s choice of partners, and the USSR’s collapse in 1991 delivered a massive blow to Moscow’s regional maritime ambitions.
After more than two decades of geopolitical quietism in the maritime realm, Russia renewed its resolve to achieve naval relevance in the mid-2010s. In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a new version of the Russian Federation’s Maritime Doctrine, the first to be issued since 2001. While polishing off some anti-Western rhetorical repertoires typical of the Soviet era and openly advocating for a revamping of Russia’s great power status, the strategic planning document also emphasized the critical role of multilateral cooperation in open oceans to preserve global maritime commons, such as free and secure access to navigation routes in the high seas.
However, as tensions between Russia and Western countries rapidly flared up in the aftermath of Moscow’s military aggression in Ukraine, a more assertive language replaced the previous lukewarm tones in the 2022 Maritime Strategy. Released on the Russian Navy Day memorial (July 31, 2022), the latest naval doctrine reflects Russia’s heightened hostility toward the West. Contrary to earlier iterations of Russian naval policy, the most recent strategic planning document displays Russia’s abrupt shift toward a strongly militaristic and confrontational approach to secure its national goals in international waters, a marked southern vector (Pacific region) in Moscow’s naval interests, and a greater emphasis on the role of material-technical support facilities (punkt material’no-tekhnicheskogo obezpechenya, PMTO) in the long-term success of the Russian push to great maritime power status. As a maritime buffer region connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Indo-Pacific Ocean, the Red Sea is where Russia can combine all the elements of its strategic naval thinking into a single equation.
Getting a Foothold: Painful, but Worth the Effort
Short of forward-operating naval infrastructures capable of meaningfully supporting its pivot to the Pacific Ocean, Russia has sought to offset this strategic imbalance by securing a naval foothold on the Red Sea.
First, Moscow channeled its attention and energies on Djibouti. Strategically positioned at the Red Sea’s southern gateway, the country’s ports have direct access to the Indian Ocean and, therefore, are less vulnerable to the occasional disruption episodes that alter the regular shipping traffic through the Red Sea’s chokepoints, as happened in March 2021 when a container ship ran aground in the Suez Canal. Besides, Russian warships were already familiar with Djibouti’s naval facilities as they used them for port calls while deployed to these waters as part of the UN counter-piracy efforts. Nevertheless, the U.S. and France, which boast a decades-long military presence in the country, looked with suspicion at the idea of a Russian military foothold close to their naval installations and nipped Moscow’s ambitions for an outpost in Djibouti in the bud.
Then, due to the close military ties and warm diplomatic relations between the two countries, Russia shifted its focus to Eritrea. At first, the Kremlin’s efforts seemed to yield positive outcomes, with Moscow and Asmara entering a deal to realize a Russian logistics base at the port city of Assab in 2018. Nevertheless, the plan for a Russian naval installation in the southern Red Sea remained a dead letter as no party followed through with the deal.
Finally, as previous endeavors had fallen short of the mark, Russia reached out to Sudan, which had already started negotiations for a naval base in 2017. In early 2019, Moscow and Khartoum inked an agreement giving Russian Navy warships access to Sudanese ports. At the same time, the two countries negotiated a deal to construct a permanent Russian naval facility in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. However, a popular uprising ousted Sudan’s decades-long ruler Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. This forced the Kremlin to put its naval ambitions on hold until a minimal level of stability was restored in the country. With the transitional government in Khartoum struggling to steer the country toward less troubled waters, Russia attempted to force the Sudanese civilian leadership’s hand for a rapid resolution of the impasse by unilaterally ratifying the naval base agreement in late 2020. Yet, the Kremlin’s move did not yield any meaningful results.
The balance started to tilt in Moscow’s favor when a military coup ended the transitional government experience and sidelined the civilian leadership in October 2021. Then, the Sudanese army elite leveraged the fact that Russia had held talks with the by-then ousted al-Bashir to renegotiate the deal and push Moscow to make more concessions. Finally, after an almost year-long intense shuttle diplomacy between senior Russian and Sudanese officials, the parties smoothed out the harder edges and paved the way for the Sudanese ruling military to greenlight the naval base deal in February 2023. In return, Moscow promised arms sales to upgrade and expand the Sudanese Army’s weapon stockpile, a finely tuned tactic extrapolated from the Soviet playbook. However, the positive atmosphere did not last long as the sudden outbreak of violent armed clashes between the country’s strongmen, Sudan’s de-facto leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Rapid Support Forces commander Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, plummeted Sudan again into profound political instability.
While the future of Russia’s naval foothold on the Red Sea remains uncertain amid Sudan’s growing political turmoil, focusing on the PMTO’s technical features allows observers to better understand the rationale informing the Russian Navy’s military planning and Moscow’s long-term strategic goals in a maritime space once close to the Soviet geopolitical influence. Based on a 25-year lease that automatically extends for 10-year periods if neither party objects to it, the deal aims to ensure a durable Russian naval presence at the entry points to the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The naval base would accommodate up to 300 Russian troops and four warships, including nuclear-powered naval assets such as Ushakov-class battle cruisers and multirole submarines. However, as the number of personnel and warships potentially deployable to the military facility remains far below the levels of a fully-fledged forward-operating base, the naval installation is expected to operate primarily as a military logistics center. This means supporting Russian ships and crews conducting transoceanic deployments and carrying out repairs and replenishment supplies duties. Yet, berthing nuclear-armed combat platforms allows the PMTO to retain a non-negligible strategic potential.
Broadening the Economic Horizon
In addition to deepening its penetration into the Red Sea’s geopolitical architecture, Russia has also sought to strengthen its regional economic presence. Keen to expand its commercial outreach to new markets in Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean, Moscow has aimed to build a trade entrepot close to the Red Sea that would serve as a launchpad for Russian exports.
In 2015, Moscow entered talks with Cairo to establish a mega-industrial complex in the East Port Said region. In May 2018, Russian and Egyptian parties finalized an agreement to realize the Russian Industrial Zone (RIZ) project. Stretching over an area of 5.25 million square meters (1,297 acres) in the new Suez Canal Economic Zone, the RIZ will house manufacturing and processing companies specialized in a vast array of sectors—from household appliances to medical supplies and plastic products—and offer a friendly tax regime for its resident companies. Last, but not least, the RIZ will include residential units and commercial facilities. Once completed, it is expected to partially ease demographic pressures on Egypt’s fast-expanding labor market and positively impact the country’s ailing economy by providing around 35,000 direct and indirect job opportunities for Egyptians and enhancing the country’s industrial fabric.
Initially expected to be completed by 2031, the development project has faced repeated delays and funding shortages over the past few years. First, the COVID-19 pandemic heavily slowed down the mega-industrial complex’s implementation. Then, Moscow’s capacity to mobilize investments toward abroad initiatives has been severely undermined by the West’s sanctions architecture and the soaring costs of the war effort. As Russia continues to squander its state budget on the aggression war on Ukraine, the RIZ is bound to register higher realization costs and lengthy delivery times, which will cause financial and reputational damages to Russia. At the same time, with its economic ties with Western countries hitting rock bottom, Moscow needs the RIZ to deliver the economic growth and financial returns it promised to provide some relief to the battered Russian economy and lure new countries to join its sphere of influence.
Doubling Down on the Anti-Western Axis
As envisaged in the 2022 Maritime Strategy, the Kremlin’s push to secure a naval foothold in the Red Sea waters should also be seen through Russia’s heightened anti-Western posture. Indeed, with the U.S. and European countries acknowledging the close interdependence between their national priorities and the Indo-Pacific Ocean’s geopolitical dynamics, Russia increasingly considers these waters a space of confrontation with the West. Therefore, from Russia’s standpoint, securing a strategic outpost in Sudan is crucial not only to its power projection ambitions in the regions bordering the Red Sea waterway, but also to challenge the West-backed political order in the broader Indo-Pacific Ocean.
Although Moscow rarely dispatches warships to these waters due to the Russian Navy’s shortage of blue-water vessels and the lack of a proper logistics infrastructure capable of sustaining long-term deployments far from home ports, Russia has sought to back words with deeds by increasing its regional naval presence and taking part into joint naval drills with like-minded countries sharing its anti-Western posture: namely, Iran and China. In mid-March, the Russian frigate Admiral Gorsh, the Chinese guided-missile destroyer Nanning, and the Iranian destroyer Jamaran conducted a four-day maritime exercise in the Gulf of Oman. The naval drill included a full spectrum of at-sea activities, from practicing coordinated maneuvers to search-and-rescue simulations and live-fire shooting. While a naval war game between the three countries is all but a new thing (they also held similar drills in 2019 and 2022), this third iteration is important because it underscores Russia’s steadfastness in showing its flag in the region even at a time when its military forces struggle for the upper hand on the Ukrainian front.
Although Russia is cultivating deeper military links with Iran, as also evidenced by the visit of Russian Navy’s commander-in-chief Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov to the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy’s commander Shahram Irani on May 16, it is crucial to highlight that Moscow has carefully framed its naval entente with Tehran as a show of force speaking primarily to Western audiences, and not as a power move aimed at threatening the Arab Gulf monarchies. In this regard, while on course to Russia’s naval facility in Tartus, Syria, the same Russian warship that took part in the March drill with Iranian and Chinese vessels paid a historic port call at Jeddah Islamic Port, Saudi Arabia, on April 6. The two-day stop was an absolute first for Moscow, as no Russian Navy ship had previously docked at a Saudi port. It was also an opportunity for talks between diplomatic and military officials from the two countries.
In recent years, Russia has made significant strides in building maritime relevance in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. From the RIZ in East Port Said to the PMTO in Port Sudan and the joint naval drills with its longtime strategic partners in the northwestern Indian Ocean, Moscow has shown to have both the willpower and the means to play a more visible and assertive role in the region’s geopolitical affairs. However, despite its growing shows of force, the Russian push to great naval power status has suffered repeated setbacks. It remains significantly vulnerable to major complications in the years to come.
Among the main threats looming over the long-term success of Moscow’s ambitions for overseas basing in the Red Sea waters, the lack of modern blue-water naval assets, the limited financial resources at its disposal, and the domestic instability of its regional partners. The armed confrontation outbreak between Sudan’s two strongmen, which plunged the country into steep security chaos, is a case in point of the inherent risks and costs Moscow has to cope with when engaging in a highly volatile political environment. While Russia might have to readjust its maritime ambitions downwards to match its navy’s structural constraints, as long as the Kremlin’s push for overseas basing in the Red Sea waters is closely linked to its quest to return Russia to world power status, Moscow’s regional penetration is bound to proceed at a slow but persistent pace.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.