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SAMUEL RAMANI 1 POLICY BRIEF Russias Growing Ambitions in the Red Sea Region Samuel Ramani Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies SEPTEMBER 2021POLICY BRIEF 2 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS This publication was funded by the Russia Strategic Initiative U.S. European Command, Stuttgart Germany. Opinions, arguments, viewpoints, and conclusions expressed in this work do not represent those of RSI, U.S. EUCOM, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. INTRODUCTION Russias ambitions in the Red Sea region have markedly expanded since Sudans then President Omar Al-Bashir met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi in November 2017. These ambitions extend to the economic, security and diplomatic spheres, as Russia wishes to challenge the US and Europe for influence in this pivotal region and frame itself as a contributor to regional security. Russias expanded presence on the Red Sea is closely intertwined with its goal of strengthening its diplomatic and security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. This linkage can be explained by geography, as the Red Sea serves as a gateway to expanded influence in the Indian Ocean. At the outset, it is essential to clarify the Red Sea regions scope. Geographically, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen border the Red Sea, while Jordan and Israel border the Gulf of Aqaba, which is located on the Red Seas northern tip. However, Russias contemporary engagement with Saudi Arabia is limited on Red Sea-related issues, except for oil price security and the Yemeni civil war, and the Red Sea rarely features in meetings between Russian, Israeli and Jordanian officials. Instead, Russia more regularly engages on Red Sea-related issues with countries that do not border its littoral zone, such as the UAE, Iran, Somalia and Ethiopia. Due to these patterns of engagement, this Policy Brief focuses on Russias bilateral relationships with the six Red Sea countries and extra-regional countries on issues that impact Red Sea security. This Policy Brief will address the following question: why is Russia paying greater attention to the Red Sea? This tilt has received little attention in extant scholarship since the end of the Cold War and deserves more. As the stability of the Red Sea and Bab El-Mandeb Strait is essential for maritime shipping, US and European policymakers should pay close attention to Moscows manoeuvres. Russias policy is not exclusively anti-Western, as it has historically cooperated with Western countries on anti-piracy, but its disruptive tactics such as Wagner Group private military contractor (PMC) deployments in Sudan and indiscriminate arms sales 1 exacerbate the Red Seas existing state of insecurity. Russias rising soft power in 1. Andrew McGregor, Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime, Jamestown Foundation, 6 February 2019; Andrew McGregor, Russias Arms Sales to Sudan a First Step in Return to Africa: Part 1, Jamestown Foundation, 12 February 2009.SAMUEL RAMANI 3 the Red Sea region which is enhanced by its rhetorical commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of states, arms sales to isolated countries, strategic use of debt relief, and the growing traction of its state-owned or aligned companies such as Rosatom poses additional concerns for the Euro-Atlantic foreign policy community. Russias policy towards the Red Sea appears opportunistic. Inconsistent Western engagement with the Red Sea region such as the US military withdrawal from Somalia, the imposition of sanctions against Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, and a fluctuating relationship with Egypt have created a fertile environment for Russian influence. However, it faces substantial obstacles to achieving its goals, emanating from its limited economic footprint and growing external power competition in the Red Sea. But its security presence could potentially reinforce authoritarian consolidation and present a long-term threat to the freedom of navigation of Western countries. To understand the nature of Russias developing Red Sea engagement, this Policy Brief examines the drivers of, and constraints on, Russias commercial, security and diplomatic power projection in the Red Sea and outline its policies to expand its influence in this region. The Policy Brief concludes by highlighting the need for the Euro-Atlantic community to take measures to contain Russias negative influence, and to encourage forms of Russian engagement that can further regional stability, peace and prosperity. RUSSIAS STRATEGIC AND TACTICAL INTERESTS IN THE RED SEA The expansion of Russias attention to the Red Sea can be explained by three factors. First, Russia has associated a Red Sea presence with great power status for nearly a century. Under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union tried to re-enter the region by establishing cordial relations with the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. This plan unravelled with the assassination of Soviet Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Karim Khakimov in 1938 and Moscows subsequent diversion of attention from the Arabian Peninsula. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union expanded its influence on the Red Sea by aligning with Egypt until the 1973 war and emerged as the primary patron of Ethiopia under the Derg (197487) and South Yemen (196790). From 1990 to 2017, Russia was a marginal player in the Red Sea region, while profiting from regional conflicts like the 19982000 Badme War, and acting as a partner of last resort for isolated regimes, such as Omar Al-Bashirs Sudan and Isaias Afwerkis Eritrea. The current effort to restore Russias presence in the region appeals to nostalgia for the Soviet Unions superpower status and resonates strongly with the Russian foreign policy establishment. Second, Russia values the Red Seas geographic proximity to the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, Suez Canal and Eastern Mediterranean. These three waterways are emerging theatres of Russian power projection. For example, Russia has a vested interest in the Bab El-Mandeb Straits security because 6.2 million oil barrels pass through it every day. Although Russia does not POLICY BRIEF 4 rely on this strait for oil exports, its security is nevertheless vital to the stability of global energy markets, which are a key Russian interest. 2 If a non-state actor, such as Yemens Houthi rebels, disrupts shipping in the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, oil prices could increase precipitously and the OPEC+ supply regulation agreement might unravel. 3 While this scenario could benefit Russias economy in the short term, it also risks overheating international oil markets and might lead to an undesirable oil price crash in the long term. 4 Notwithstanding its frequent disagreements with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait on oil production, Russia views the OPEC+ agreement as a key contribution to international economic governance and the fulfilment of its aspirations to regulate global oil prices, which date back to the 1970s. Russian experts contend that improved relations with Red Sea basin countries could expand Russias trade share in the Suez Canal, which contains 10% of the worlds sea traffic, and effectively complement its Mediterranean presence. 5 These predictions might eventually come to fruition, as negotiations between Russia and Egypt in June 2021 resulted in the pledged construction of a Russian industrial zone in the Suez Canal Economic Zone. 6 Russias naval base in Tartous in the Eastern Mediterranean has served as an important resupply facility in recent years and the establishment of a parallel installation in Port Sudan could alleviate Moscows long-term dependence on Syria. 7 Moreover, it also complements Russias rising influence in the Black Sea since the February 2014 annexation of Crimea, which expanded its access to the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Mediterranean and, together with the modernisation of Russias armed forces (notably the Black Sea fleet), laid the foundations for Moscows eventual return to the Red Sea. Third, Russias renewed focus on the Red Sea also reflects its growing interest in Indian Ocean security. This strategic commitment was underscored by Russias listing of the Indian Ocean as a priority area in its 2015 maritime doctrine and reference to piracy in the Indian Ocean in its 2017 naval 2. Xinhua, 6.2 mln b/d Crude Oil, Refined Products Flow Through Bab El-Mandeb Strait in 2018, 28 August 2019, , accessed 6 July 2021. 3. Author telephone interview with US Department of State official, April 2019. 4. Nikolay Kozhanov, Does Russia Benefit from Attack on Saudi Oil Facility?, Al-Monitor, 23 September 2019, , accessed 6 July 2021. 5. RBC, Zachem Rossii voyennyy ob”yekt na Krasnom more Why Does Russia Need a Military Facility on the Red Sea, 19 November 2020, , accessed 7 July 2021. 6. Egypt Independent, SC Zone: Russian Industrial Zone Will Be First of its Kind for Moscow, 11 August 2021, , accessed 13 August 2021. 7. Mk.ru, Poyavleniye rossiyskoy voyennoy bazy v Sudane ob”yasnil ekspert An Expert Explains the Emergence of a Russian Military Base in Sudan, 12 November 2020, , accessed 8 July 2021. SAMUEL RAMANI 5 modernisation plan. 8 A March 2019 Russian International Affairs Council briefing conceded that Russia is often seen as playing only a marginal role or no part at all in the Indian Oceans affairs, but noted the regions growing importance to Russias pivot to the East. 9 Therefore, Russias Red Sea forays should be linked to other developments in Moscows Indian Ocean policy, such as its trilateral drills with China and South Africa, 10 growing maritime cooperation with India 11 and strengthening partnership with Myanmar. 12 RUSSIAS COMMERCIAL FOOTPRINT IN THE RED SEA REGION Despite Russias long history of economic engagement with Red Sea countries, commercial activities are the weakest pillar of Moscows regional strategy. Russias commercial ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia are growing, but only slowly. Last year, Russia and Egypts trade turnover reached $3 billion, and in August 2020, the Russian ambassador to Egypt, Georgiy Borisenko, announced that another $7 billion would be added to Russias $7.4 billion in investments in the Egyptian economy. 13 Yet, Russias efforts to secure a free-trade agreement between Egypt and the Eurasian Economic Union have stagnated. 14 Saudi Arabias target of $10 billion in investments 8. Stephen Blank, Russias Efforts to Play in the Indian Ocean Basin, Newlines Institute, 17 June 2021, , accessed 8 July 2021. Russia Maritime Studies Institute, The 2015 Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation, 2015, p. 29; Garant.ru, Ukaz Prezidenta Rossiyskoy Federatsii ot 20 iyulya 2017 g. 327 “Ob utverzhdenii Osnov gosudarstvennoy politiki Rossiyskoy Federatsii v oblasti voyenno-morskoy deyatelnosti na period do 2030 goda” Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of July 20, 2017 No. 327 “On Approval of the Fundamentals of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Naval Activities for the Period up to 2030”, 25 July 2017, , accessed 8 July 2021. 9. Ksenia Kuzmina, Russia and the Indian Ocean Security and Governance, Russian International Affairs Council, 22 March 2019, , accessed 5 July 2021. 10. Ankit Panda, Chinese, Russian, South African Navies Conduct Trilateral Naval Exercises, The Diplomat, 27 November 2019. 11. Times of India, Putin Thanks India for Maritime Security Initiative, Reaffirms Russias Commitment to Combat Crime at Sea, 10 August 2021. 12. Artyom Lukin and Andrey Gubin, Why Russia Is Betting on Myanmars Military Junta, East Asia Forum, 27 April 2021, , accessed 7 July 2021. 13. Egypt Today, Russias Investments in Egypt Reaches $7.4B, Another $7B to Be Added Soon: Amb. Georgiy Borisenko, 31 August 2020. 14. TASS, Egypt Interested in Signing Free Trade Agreement with Eurasian Economic Union, 28 August 2017.POLICY BRIEF 6 in Russia, which was announced in July 2015, remains in effect as there has been little progress towards reaching this figure. 15 Russias trade volumes with Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia are also marginal and undiversified. Russias commercial interests in the Red Sea region are clustered in the defence, energy and mining sectors. Sudan purchased 50% of its arms from Russia from 2000 to 2016, 16 and in August 2020 was one of two weapons purchasers at Russias Army-2020 exhibition. 17 Egypt agreed to $3.5 billion in arms purchases from Russia in 2014 18 and signed a $2-billion contract for Su-35 fighter jets in 2019. 19 Ethiopia has consistently ranked as one of Russias top five arms clients in Africa, which included $652 million in arms deals from 1998 to 2004. 20 The most recent slate of defence agreements between Russia and Ethiopia, which were signed at the 11 th EthiopiaRussia military technical cooperation joint meeting on 12 July, will allow Moscow to aid the modernisation of the Ethiopian National Defense Force and could result in further arms exports. 21 Yemen purchased Russian equipment prior to Ali Abdullah Salehs overthrow in 2012. 22 Saudi Arabia also signed a provisional deal to purchase Russias S-400 air defence system in October 2017, 23 but this agreement has since stalled. RussiaSaudi Arabia energy cooperation hinged on Lukoils joint exploration efforts with Aramco until October 2019, 24 and Riyadh has also expressed 15. Andrey Ostroukh, Saudi Arabia to Invest up to $10 Billion in Russia, Wall Street Journal, 6 July 2015. 16. Richard Connolly and Cecile Sendstad, Russias Role as an Arms Exporter: The Strategic and Economic Importance of Arms Exports for Russia (London: Chatham House, 2017). 17. Army Technology, Russia to Supply Armaments to Sudan and Laos, 28 August 2020, , accessed 7 July 2021. 18. Reuters, Russia, Egypt Seal Preliminary Arms Deal Worth $3.5 Billion: Agency, 17 September 2014. 19. Moscow Times, Russia Secures $2Bln Fighter Jet Contract with Egypt Reports, 18 March 2019. 20. Evgeny Korendasyov, Rossiya atakuyet rynki vooruzheniy i voyennoy tekhniki v Afrike Russia Attacks Arms and Military Equipment Markets in Africa, Russian International Affairs Council, 11 May 2017, , accessed 7 July 2021. 21. Ethiopian News Agency, Ethiopia, Russia Sign Various Agreements to Enhance Military Cooperation, 12 July 2021. 22. Andrej Kreutz, Russia in the Middle East: Friend or Foe? (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007), p. 145. 23. Stephen Blank, Arms and the King in Saudi-Russian Relations, Jamestown Foundation, 11 October 2017. 24. Interfax, Alekperov ob”yavil o nachale vykhoda LUKOYLa iz saudovskogo proyekta s Saudi Aramco Alekperov Announced the Start of Lukoils Withdrawal from the Saudi Project with Aramco, 23 October 2019, , accessed 6 July 2021. SAMUEL RAMANI 7 interest in investing in Russias Arctic liquefied natural gas reserves. 25 Russian civilian nuclear energy giant Rosatom has also embarked on the El Dabaa nuclear reactor in Egypt. Production licences for El Dabaa will be issued in mid-2022, while its construction will be co
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