Russia seeks naval base in Sudan —and Somaliland?


The Russian government has for the first time weighed in diplomatically on the dispute between Somalia and the separatist enclave of Somaliland on the north coast of the Horn of Africa. Moscow’s UN ambassador Vassiliy Nebenzia last week issued a statement urging both sides to find a compromise solution. “We are concerned about the breakdown…of talks between delegations of Somalia and the self-proclaimed Somaliland. We urge both sides to consider a compromise way of resolving the differences,” Nebenzia said. “It is important to resume talks between the governments of Somalia and Somaliland.”

The two sides have held recent rounds of talks in London, Dubai, Ankara, Istanbul and Addis Ababa—but remain at odds over the fundamental question of Somaliland’s sovereignty. Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi, follwing a meeting with international diplomats in Djibouti to discuss the question earlier this year, said: “The act of recognizing and supporting the independence of Somaliland would go a long way to heal the wounds of the past and enable our two states to embrace each other in our independent but closely interwoven futures.”

Nebenzia’s statement came immediately after Moscow had finalized plans to establish its first Red Sea naval base in Sudan. The timing led some in the region to suspect Russian imperial ambitions  in Moscow’s new interest in the Somaliland dispute. Writing for the Foreign Policy Research Institute this summer when Moscow’s deal with Sudan was being negotiated behind closed doors, Oxford University’s Samuel Ramani stated: “After spending nearly three decades as a marginal player in the Horn of Africa, the Russian Federation has made significant progress towards recapturing its great power status in the region. Russia has engaged with all countries in the Horn of Africa and refused to take sides in the region’s most polarizing conflicts, so Moscow can be best described as an ‘engaged opportunist’ on the Horn of Africa. Russia is principally focused on establishing itself as the region’s leading arms vendor, but prospectively, has one eye on constructing a Red Sea base.”

Somaliland has some 300 miles of coast on the Gulf of Aden, which guards the southern mouth of the Red Sea. On Jan. 28, the New York Times quoted anonymous Pentagon officials who claimed that Russia is seeking to build a military base in Somaliland’s port of Berbera. The base would allow Russia to establish a counter-presence to US, French and Chinese bases in Djibouti, just across the land border to the northwest, as well as Turkish military forces in Somalia proper to the south.

This was denied by the Russian ambassador to Djibouti, Mikhail Golovanov, who stated: “Russia does not consider the port of Berbera to deploy a military base. Negotiations on this issue are not conducted.” (East African Business Week)

In November, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree approving his government’s plan to establish a naval facility on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. The base, which has won approval from the Sudanese government, will house more than 300 military and civilian personnel and host up to four warships, including nuclear-powered vessels. The facility near Port Sudan is to be Russia’s first military base in Africa and only its second naval base outside of the former Soviet Union, after Tartus in Syria. (The New Arab)

Map: Somalia Country Profile