Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2019

Less noticed but no less important than the reported arrival of Russian mercenaries in Venezuela has been the influx of Russia Wagner Group “private military contractors” (PMC) in Khartoum to help local security forces shore up the embattled regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The leader of this northeast African state is clinging to power in the face of nation-wide protests against his rule.

Russian Mercenaries in Syria

The demonstrations started on December 19, 2018, over a three-fold increase in bread prices after a shortage of foreign currency forced the government to cancel foreign wheat purchases. Accusations are rampant that some of the hundreds of arrested protesters have been tortured and compelled to confess membership in terrorist groups (Middle East Monitor, January 14; Sudan Tribune, February 3).

Over forty protesters have been killed in the demonstrations, with the president blaming the deaths on “infiltrators” from the Sudan Liberation Movement of ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (SLM/A-AW), a Darfur rebel movement active since 2003. National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) chief General Salah ‘Abdallah Gosh accused Israel of recruiting the Darfuris to disrupt the Sudanese state (Sudan Tribune, January 21).

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity related to his repression of the revolt in Darfur. Russia was a signatory to the treaty that created the ICC but never ratified the agreement. In November 2016, Russia withdrew its signature, ending its involvement with the court (TASS, November 16, 2016). Ignoring the ICC travel ban on al-Bashir, Russia has hosted the Sudanese head of state twice: once in November 2017 and again in July 2018. When al-Bashir made an unannounced visit to Damascus last December, he travelled by a Russian military aircraft (RT—Arabic service, December 18, 2018). Russia is interested in the oil, mineral and financial sectors of the Sudanese economy and the establishment of a naval facility on Sudan’s Red Sea coast (see EDM, December 6, 2017).

Photos of alleged Russian mercenaries in Khartoum (The Times)

In January 2019, The Times published photos of men alleged to be Russian mercenaries being transported through Khartoum in a Ural-4320 utility truck, widely used by the Russian military and Russian PMCs. The report also cited witnesses who claimed Russians forcibly dispersed protesters (The Times, Newsru.com, January 10). Local sources state that the Russian contractors are training the special operations forces of the NISS, Sudan’s powerful secret police organization (Sudan Tribune, January 8).

Vasyl Hrytsak, the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), claimed that his agency had obtained the travel documents and passport data of 149 Wagner Group personnel who “directly partook in suppressing democratic protests in Sudan in early 2019.” The SSU alleged that Wagner mercenaries had been transported to Sudan on Tu-154M airliners belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense (Unian.info, Gordonua.com, January 28). The deployment was arranged by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s M Invest LLC, which obtained gold mining concessions in Sudan during al-Bashir’s 2017 visit to Sochi (Government.ru, November 24, 2017; The National, December 17, 2018).

A spokesperson from the Russian embassy in Khartoum declared that the Russian “experts from non-government structures” were not involved in suppressing the protests, adding that reports to the contrary in Western media were “outright fakes seeking to demonize our country and its foreign policies” (Reuters, January 15).

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, on January 23, that Russian military contractors “who have nothing to do with Russian state bodies” were operating in Sudan. According to the foreign ministry, their work was confined to “training staff for the military and law enforcement agencies of the Republic of Sudan” (Reuters, January 23). The statement contradicted an earlier one by Sudanese Interior Minister Ahmad Bilal Osman, who described reports of Russian mercenaries in Khartoum as “completely false… a mere fabrication intended to offend the government” (Middle East Monitor, January 14).

In late July 2018, there were reports of a group of 500 Russian mercenaries operating in a camp some 15 kilometers south of the Darfur town of Um Dafug, close to the border with the Central African Republic (CAR) (Radio Dabanga, July 31, 2018). Russian mercenaries were reported to have spent five months in the area training both Muslim Séléka rebels from the CAR and Sudanese troops. The bulk of these forces were said to have departed from the region in late July 2018 (Radio Dabanga, August 1, 2018).

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (BBC)

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur, the veteran leader of Darfur’s SLM/A-AW, expressed his concern with the Donald Trump administration’s “decoupling” of human rights issues from foreign policy and the opening this is providing to Russia in Sudan at the expense of the United States:

What is most astonishing in the context of the Kremlin’s hostile action against the U.S. and deliberate sabotage of your electoral process… is the soft pedaling towards al-Bashir’s overtures to Moscow… When Russian mercenaries fresh from Syria and Ukraine now have a foothold in both Darfur and the Central African Republic, with a mission agenda entirely contrary to that of U.S. Africa Command… your ill-considered policy towards Sudan is self-evidently not serving you well (Sudanjem.com, December 19, 2018).

Major General Al-Hadi Adam Musa, the head of Sudan’s parliamentary defense committee, said that a draft military agreement made with Russia in early January “will pave the way for more agreements and greater cooperation… possibly a Russian base on the Red Sea” (Sputnik, January 12; Sudan Tribune, January 13). The general noted that Russian naval visits could provide the sailors of Sudan’s tiny navy of Iranian and Yugoslavian-built patrol boats with training and “first-hand experience of Russia’s cutting-edge military equipment…” The agreement will allow for shore leave by unarmed naval personnel, but it forbids visits by ships carrying nuclear fuel, radioactive substances, toxic material, drugs, biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction (Sputnik, January 12).

Since its 1971 show trial of German mercenary Rolf Steiner, Sudan has maintained strong opposition to the presence of European mercenaries in Africa. While al-Bashir appears to have reversed Sudan’s position, it seems unlikely that the regime would squander what is left of its political capital by deploying white mercenaries against unarmed Sudanese on the streets of Khartoum. Such direct intervention could set back Moscow’s growing role in Africa, though Russia will likely do all it can behind the scenes to preserve a regime that has proved highly accommodating to Russian interests.

This article was first published in the February 6, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Italy and Russia: Rivals or Partners in the ‘Enlarged Mediterranean’?

Andrew McGregor

Integrity Initiative, Institute for Statecraft (UK), November 12, 2018

The approach of the Italian-hosted November 12-13 Palermo Conference on Libya has seen dire but largely unsubstantiated reports of Russian Special Forces, mercenaries and intelligence officers arriving in eastern Libya, together with advanced weapons systems aimed at NATO’s soft southern underbelly. Their alleged intention is to control the flow of migrants, oil and gas to Europe as a means of undermining European security. The full accuracy of these reports is questionable, but there is little question that Russia is deeply engaged in reasserting its influence in Libya, as well as other North African nations that once had close ties to Soviet Moscow.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Algeriepatriotique)

The task is far from simple; in Libya, Russian emissaries must deal with Libya’s competing governments, the Tripoli-based and internationally-recognized Presidency Council and Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR). In practice, Moscow has dealt most closely with a third party, the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar. Though nominally at the service of the HoR, the LNA is actually a coalition of former revolutionaries, mercenaries and Salafist militias under the independent command of Haftar and his family. The LNA controls eastern Libya (Cyrenaïca) and much of the resource-rich south.

While the Trump administration has indicated its disinterest in Libya in particular and Africa in general, Italy is also trying to reassert influence in its former Libyan colony, a project that is made more difficult by the contradictions created by the pro-Russian sympathies of the Italian government.

Russian Interests in Libya

Russia’s point man in Libya is Lev Dengov, a Chechen businessman and head of the Russian Contact Group for intra-Libyan settlement. According to Dengov, Moscow’s interaction with Libyan leaders is only part of an effort to restore economic ties with Libya. He denies that Russia supports any one side in the ongoing conflict.

Lev Dengoov (Russarabbc.ru)

Moscow does not deny the presence in Libya of Russian private military contractors (a modern euphemism for organized mercenary groups), but insists their presence is for legitimate security reasons unrelated to Russian foreign policy objectives.

Russia’s Tatneft oil and gas company is in talks with the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) to resume operations within Libya that were brought to a halt by the 2011 revolution. The NOC operates independently of Libya’s rival governments but its facilities are often targeted by a broad variety of armed groups. Russia is also in talks to resume construction of the Sirte-Benghazi railway, a $2.5 billion project that was brought to an abrupt halt by the 2011 revolution.

A potential means for Russia to wield influence in Europe could come through domination of the Greenstream natural gas pipeline that carries 11 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Libya to Europe. Russia is already the largest exporter of oil and natural gas to the European Union; further influence over energy flows to Europe would place Moscow in a strong position in its dealings with Europe.

According to LNA spokesman Ahmad al-Mismari, Libyans admire Russia as a “tough ally.”  Al-Mismari also noted that most senior officers in Libya were trained in Russia and that Moscow was providing medical treatment for at least 30 injured LNA fighters.

Haftar has visited Moscow three times and was welcomed off Libya’s coast for talks with the Russian Defense Minister aboard Russia’s sole aircraft carrier in January 2017. Haftar is eager to have the 2011 UN arms embargo removed in order to resume shipments of Russian arms as part of a $4.4 billion contract signed before the revolution.

Italian Relations with Russia

Italy is increasingly at odds with its EU partners over sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 after the Russian annexation of the Crimea and its support for ethnic-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The partners in Italy’s governing coalition are the League (Lega) Party and the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle). Both are broadly pro-Russian and Euro-skeptic.

In a mid-October visit to Moscow, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini denounced the sanctions as “social, cultural and economic madness.” Prime Minister Giusseppe Conte is in agreement, calling the sanctions “an instrument that would be better left behind.” Salvini’s League Party is close to Moscow, having signed a cooperation deal last year with United Russia, Russia’s ruling party.

However, the Italian government is not blindly pro-Moscow or oblivious to its own interests; on October 26, Prime Minister Conte gave the long disputed go-ahead to the Italian portion of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, a $5 billion project designed to relieve Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas.

Italian Forces on the Libyan Border

Il Mediterraneo Allargato (Riccardo Piroddi)

Italy’s January decision to reassign troops from its missions in Iraq and Afghanistan to Niger and Libya is, in part, a reflection of a new emphasis on what Rome calls il Mediterraneo allargato, “the enlarged Mediterranean.” According to Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti, in this reshaping of strategic interests, “the heart of our interventions is the enlarged Mediterranean, from the Balkans to the Sahel, to the Horn of Africa.”

Italian Troops in Niger (RSI)

Italy has a small military presence in Libya, consisting of support elements for the Libyan Coast Guard (at least the part under the authority of the PC/GNA) and a military hospital in Misrata also acts as a military observation post. The Italian military presence in Italy was the subject of protests in several Libyan cities in July 2017.

After an eight-month delay, Italian defense minister Elizabetta Trenta announced the Italian mission to Niger, Operation Deserto Rosso, was ready to implement its mandate of stemming illegal migrant flows to Europe by providing training to Nigérien security forces patrolling the routes used by human traffickers and terrorists. Trenta added that, “for the first time, we in Italy begin to calibrate our own missions according to our own interests.”

Colonial Era Fort at Madama, Niger (Defense.gouv.fr)

At full strength, the Italian mission will consist of 470 troops, 130 vehicles and two aircraft. The mission is intended to be divided between Niger’s capital of Niamey and Madama, site of a colonial-era French Foreign Legion fort close to major smuggling routes near the Libyan border. There is no combat element to the Italian mission, which will focus on training Nigérien personnel rather than acting as “sentinels on the borders.”

Does Russia Intend to Control Migration Flows through Libya to Europe?

Rumors of Russian intention of building a naval base at the LNA-controlled deep-water ports of Tobruk or Benghazi began to circulate in January. Russian experts were reported to have visited the port several times to check conditions there. Initial Russian denials were followed in February by Lev Dengov’s claim that documented evidence existed at the Russian Defense Ministry proving Haftar had asked Russia to construct a military base in eastern Libya.

On October 8, the Sun, a UK tabloid better known for its “page 3” girls than cutting edge coverage of international issues, published an article claiming British Prime Minister Elizabeth May had been warned by British intelligence chiefs that Russia intended to make Libya a “new Syria.” Without revealing its source, the tabloid further claimed that members of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), Spetznaz Special Forces and private military contractors from the Russian Wagner Group were already on the ground in eastern Libya, where they were alleged to have set up two military bases. The Sun claimed their primary goal was “seizing control of the biggest illegal immigration route to Europe.”

Arriving with the military personnel were Russian-made Kalibr anti-ship missiles and S-300 air defense missile systems. The Russians were said to be providing training and “heavy equipment” to Haftar’s LNA.  An unnamed senior Whitehall source warned that the UK was “extremely vulnerable to both immigration flows and oil shock from Libya,” calling the alleged Russian deployment “a potentially catastrophic move to allow [Vladimir Putin] to undermine Western democracy.”

The Sun report emerged only three days after the UK’s Sunday Times revealed that the British military was war-gaming a cyber-attack on Russia based on a scenario in which Russia seizes Libya’s oil reserves and launches waves of African migrants towards Europe.

The deployment of advanced weapons systems in Libya in defiance of the UN arms embargo and in full knowledge that such a deployment would be regarded by NATO as a major provocation makes that part of the Sun story unlikely. Such systems would only have value as protection for a Russian base that, as of yet, does not exist. Haftar’s LNA is not under threat from either the sea or the air and has little need for such weapons.

Some of the Sun’s account appears to follow from an earlier but unverified report that dozens of mercenaries from the Russian RBC Group had been operating in eastern Libya since March 2017. This account appeared (without sources) in the Washington Times, a daily owned by Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. The article claimed the mercenaries were doing advance work for the establishment of a Russian military base in either Tobruk or Benghazi.

Lev Dengov suggested the Sun’s report could be an attempt to undermine the Palermo Conference, noting that “all reports about the Russian military presence in Libya, without exception, come from non-Libyan sources. How can it happen that no Libyan has ever noticed their presence?”

The deputy chair of the defense committee of the Russian Federal Assembly’s upper house described the Sun’s report as an attempt to discredit Russia’s war on terrorism: “There are no [Russian] military servicemen [in Libya] and their presence is not planned. How could they be there without official request by the country’s authorities?” Asharq al-Awsat, a prominent London-based Arabic daily, said that a number of Libyan deputies had told them there were no Russian bases in Benghazi or Tobruk.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the Sun’s article was “written in a glaringly alarmist style, with the aim to intimidate the common British reader [with] a mythical Russian military threat.” Nonetheless, Russia’s RBC Media said a source within the Defense Ministry had confirmed the presence in eastern Libya of troops from elite Russian airborne units, though their numbers and mission was unclear.

Conclusion

Manipulating migration flows would require a continuous state of insecurity in Libya. A unified Libyan state could not possibly benefit (as militias and armed gangs do) from allowing mass migration from sub-Saharan states into Europe via Libya. As noted in the HoR agenda for the Palermo conference, illegal migration has led only to “the spread of organized crime, terrorism, looting and the smuggling overseas of the country’s assets.”

The 75-year-old Haftar, a US citizen, long-time CIA asset and alleged war-criminal who has spent much of his life outside of Libya, has had major health issues in the last year and is far from a secure bet to take power in Libya. Haftar has tried to devolve power onto his sons, but they enjoy little popular support. The LNA, a loose coalition or militias rather than an army, is likely to dissolve upon Haftar’s death into battling factions. This is factored into Moscow’s cautious approach in Libya, which is carried out simultaneous with probes (possibly including disinformation) to determine what activities the Western Alliance will tolerate there. Russia’s affinity for strongman types suggests that Moscow may have quietly thrown its support behind the aging Haftar while still keeping channels open with the ineffective but internationally recognized PC/GNA government in Tripoli.Italian and Eritrean colonial troops celebrate a victory in the conquest of Libya

Sovereignty is, and will remain, a sensitive issue in Libya, which suffered through brutal and exploitative occupation by Italian imperialists and later by Italian fascists. Even the Soviet Union was unable to get Mu’amar Qaddafi to agree to allow a Soviet naval base in Libya. Any perception that Haftar is willing to sacrifice Libyan sovereignty without legal authority for the benefit of himself and his family will do little to broaden his support in Libya.

Italy’s decision to work counter to the sanctions applied against Russia by the West will in turn encourage greater Russian expansion into Italy’s strategically defined “Enlarged Mediterranean.” Russia intends to build a sphere of influence extending through Libya, Egypt and Sudan, a strategic feat that is being accomplished through the disinterest of the United States and the acquiescence of NATO partners like Italy, which continues to struggle to reconcile Russian interests with its own.

Defense or Domination? Building Algerian Power with Russian Arms

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor 13(122), September 5, 2018

Algeria is undertaking a major arms acquisition program designed to enhance its regional standing and make it difficult for terrorists or insurgent forces to operate on Algerian territory. To this end, it has become a major purchaser of Russian arms that are often battle-proven in Syria.

When it was initially formed in 1962 from anti-colonial guerrilla units, Algeria’s Armée nationale populaire (ANP) possessed only captured or abandoned French arms as well as some Chinese and Egyptian equipment. Within a year, the Soviet Union began offering arms on credit at very favorable terms. By the time of the Soviet collapse, some 90 per cent of the ANP arsenal was Soviet in origin. [1]  With the military gear came thousands of Soviet advisors, but, still wary of encroachments on its hard-won independence, the Algerians declined to allow the establishment of a Soviet naval base at the port of Mers al-Kabir, a strategically vital former French naval base close to the Strait of Gibraltar.

To re-establish Russia’s role as Algeria’s main arms supplier, President Vladimir Putin cancelled a Soviet-era Algerian military debt of $4.7 billion dollars in 2006 in return for an Algerian commitment to buy $7.5 billion worth of Russian arms (BBC, March 11, 2006). Aided by an upsurge in energy prices that helped fund the purchases, Algeria became Russia’s third largest customer for military goods (Sputnik, February 19).

A quick look at some of Algeria’s most recent Russian arms purchases illustrates how Algeria is building a modern and capable army:

  • Two hundred modernized Russian T-90SA “Tagil” main battle tanks (MBTs) were delivered to Algeria in 2016 (Defence-Blog, July 15, 2016; Interfax, July 18, 2016). This year, Algeria is taking delivery of roughly 300 BMPT Terminator II armored fighting vehicles intended for protection of MBTs, particularly in urban warfare situations. Carrying both anti-armor and anti-personnel weapons, the BMPT can engage multiple targets at once (DefenceWeb, September 11, 2017).

The TOS-1 Buratino Heavy Flamethrower System (RIA.Ru)

  • In May, Algeria became the fifth known purchaser of Russia’s TOS-1A Buratino “Blazing Sun” multi-barrel mobile rocket launcher, consisting of 24 rockets armed with thermobaric warheads fired from a modified T-72 tank chassis (Jane’s.com, May 14). Battle-tested in Afghanistan, Russian thermobaric weapons were successfully used against Chechen positions in the 1999 battle for Grozny and have since been used in combat by Iraq, Azerbaijan and Syria. The TOS-1A’s fuel-air explosives are especially effective against fortified positions (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, August 26, 2017).

The Iskander-E Short-Range Mobile Ballistic Missile Launcher (Army Recognition)

  • Earlier this year, Russia began delivery of four regiments of the Iskander-E (SS-26 Stone) short-range mobile ballistic missile system. Each regiment consists of 12 launchers and about 30 support vehicles. The Iskander system was used against Georgian forces in 2008 (Kommersant, March 5; net, March 5).

The Pantsir-SM Mobile Anti-Aircraft System (Army Recognition)

  • In a sign of the enhanced defense cooperation between Russia and Algeria, the latter field-tested the new Russian Pantsir-SM mobile anti-aircraft system in June. The system is a greatly improved version of the Pantsir-S1 system, using phased-array radars for target acquisition and tracking. Algeria is expected to be a major purchaser (ru, April 7).

The Rezonans-NE Radar System

Precision targeting of Algerian weapons will be much improved by June’s ten-year agreement to allow Algeria military use of the GLONASS satellite navigation system. [2] India is the only other nation to be granted use of the system, and Algeria agreed not to pass the technology on to third nations or try to reverse-engineer the system (Le Monde, June 30). Algeria also acquired the Russian-made Rezonans-NE “over-the-horizon” radar system capable of long-range aerial surveillance and response coordination at a distance of up to 1,100 km (MenaDefense.net, April 3).

Military helicopters, first widely used by French forces during the Russian-supported Algerian independence struggle (1954-62), continue to be the most useful tool in combating militants in the forests, mountains and deserts of Algeria. With this in mind, Algeria has obtained 14 Russian-made Mil Mi-26T2 heavy-lift transport helicopters since 2016. Capable of carrying tanks and artillery as well as personnel, this new type incorporates electronics that enable the craft to operate 24 hours a day in a variety of inclement conditions (El-Khabar [Algiers], February 21, 2016, via BBC monitoring). [3]

This summer, Algeria is receiving the last of its 42 Russian Mi-28NE “Night Hunter” attack helicopters, an all-weather, two-seat attack helicopter designed to target armor, but also useful for reconnaissance and operations against ground forces. [4]

The ANP is also taking delivery of 39 upgraded Mi-171Sh “SuperHip” military transport helicopters, refurbished in Russia with the addition of an optronic ball, the Shturm-V precision guided-missile system and Ataka supersonic missiles. In addition to its transport role, it can also provide fire support to infantry forces and med-evac for wounded personnel (MenaDefense.net, May 17, 2018; Army-technology.com, 2018).

In September, Algeria will take delivery of its first Russian-made Project 22160 patrol vessel. Three more of the 1300 ton ships will be built in Algeria. Armed with “Klub-K” anti-ship missiles, Igla SAMs and cruise missiles, the ships were purchased based on their successful use against Syrian rebels (DefenceWeb, May 29). Other naval acquisitions include:

  • Four Russian-made Project 636 Varshavyanka Kilo-class submarines, with one already delivered and another undergoing sea trials. These new submarines are an improvement on the two Project 636M Kilo-class submarines already in Algerian service and are largely intended for coastal defence, particularly of Algeria’s rich offshore oil and gas deposits.

Project 22160 Patrol Ship (World Naval News)

  • In May, Algeria purchased one new Russian-made Project 22160 patrol ship and placed an order for three more to be built in Algeria under a technology-transfer agreement (ShephardMedia, May 22; Sputnik, June 15). The ships will incorporate stealth technology and be fitted with modern communications and jamming equipment (Algérie Monde Infos, April 24).

Moscow hopes that arms sales and military cooperation agreements will bolster their position in Algeria, but its goal of establishing a naval base at the port of Mers al-Kabir still appears distant. Algeria continues to try to establish some balance in its international arms purchases, but has let it be known that it is increasingly interested in technology-transfer agreements to permit the development of its own arms industry.

Algeria maintains its constitutional prohibition on military deployment outside Algeria and a strict policy of regional non-interference. While some of the Russian equipment is useful for counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism work, the rest seems better suited for defensive use against Moroccan, Libyan or European opponents. With Russian assistance, the ANP is now the second-most powerful military in Africa.

Notes

  1. US Library of Congress Country Studies – “Algeria – Foreign Military Assistance,” 1994, http://countrystudies.us/algeria/172.htm
  2. Globalnaya navigatsionnaya sputnikovaya sistema – GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System).
  3. See also: “Algeria reveals new MI 26T2 Transport and Multi role Helicopter,” Algeria Today, YouTube, June 27, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkIEO7Twg2c
  4. Algeria’s efforts to secure the Mi-28NE for use against AQIM were described in: “Algeria Seeks New Russian Attack Helicopters for its Campaign against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” Terrorism Monitor, June 17, 2011, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=879

     

How Russia is Displacing the French in the Struggle for Influence in the Central African Republic

Andrew McGregor

May 15, 2018

Sudden Russian interest in the resource-rich Central African Republic (CAR – the former French colony of Oubangui-Chari) has raised questions regarding Moscow’s intentions in the violence-plagued nation.

French Patrol in Bangui, CAR (AFP/Getty)

As much as 80% of the CAR is not under government control. A new burst of violence earlier this month included attacks on churches and mosques that resulted in 19 deaths and left over 100 wounded (AP, May 2). Thousands have been killed and nearly half a million people displaced since 2013.

Fighting has escalated since the French ended a three-year military mission (Operation Sangaris) in October 2016. The operation, the seventh French military intervention in the CAR, ended amidst accusations of sexual violence by French troops, though Paris pledged to keep 350 troops inside the CAR as a “tactical reserve” while remaining ready to intervene with a larger force “at very short notice” (Deutsche Welle, October 31, 2016). Responsibility for security was turned over to the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique (MINUSCA), a 13,000 man UN peacekeeping mission which has struggled to restore order while being accused of large-scale sexual abuse of local women.

Deeply impoverished, the CAR has endured massive exploitation by Chadian Muslims in the 19th century, French imperialists in the 19th century and neo-colonialists working with corrupt CAR politicians since independence in 1960.

Russia appears ready to join this game, exchanging arms and cash for access to oil, minerals, strategic bases and rare earths, materials vital to modern electronics but a market almost entirely dominated by China. Moscow is trying to trade on Russia’s lack of colonial history in Africa (overlooking failed attempts to establish Russian colonies in the 19th century), its Cold War assistance to various bastions of Marxism in Africa and its military performance in Syria.

The CAR has been under a UN arms embargo since civil war broke out in 2013. Pleas from CAR president Faustin Archange Touadéra for arms and training to reinvigorate the shattered CAR military found a sympathetic ear in Moscow last year. An exemption to the embargo was granted only after Russia agreed to supply secure storage and serial numbers for the weapons. The US, UK and France were concerned the arms could disappear soon after delivery; in 2013 the armories were looted and weapons belonging to the Forces armées centrafricaines (FACA) have a habit of turning up on the black market. Aside from the Russian arms supplies, the UN embargo has been renewed through to February 2019. The exemption allowed CAR chief-of-staff Firmin Ngrebada and special adviser Fidèle Gouandjika to arrange an agreement for arms and training with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, signed in Sochi on October 9, 2017.

Firman Ngrebada

Ngrebada, nicknamed “Foccart,” after Jacques Foccart (1913-1997), the French special advisor on African affairs in the 1960s and 70s, insists it was French president Emmanuel Macron who sent the CAR delegates to Russia after a French attempt to supply FACA with arms seized off Somalia failed following Russian objections (Jeune Afrique, May 3; CorbeauNews [Bangui], January 16).

Among the weapons delivered in this year are 900 Makarov pistols, 5,200 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 140 sniper rifles, 840 Kalashnikov PK 7.62 mm machine guns, 270 RPGs, 20 man-portable anti-air defense systems, hand grenades, mortars and millions of round of ammunition (The Nation [Nairobi), December 14, 2017). Russian arms and parts are compatible with what Soviet-era arms remain in the CAR armories.

While the Russian arms are a donation rather than a sale, the Sochi agreement contains provisions for Russian exploitation of minerals, resources and energy sources as well as the development of infrastructure and enhanced commercial relations (Defenceweb, February 19; Russia Today, April 3). Though French Ambassador to the CAR Christian Bader has stated France does not perceive a problem with the Russian military agreement, France has traditionally resented the intrusion of other nations into its African “backyard” (CorbeauNews [Bangui], April 21, 2018). One French diplomat has complained of the “shameless” bribes paid by the Russians for access to CAR governing bodies (Le Monde, April 23). Russians in civilian garb have also appeared in poor neighborhoods of Bangui, handing out various essentials (RFI, April 25). Local reports suggest that among the newly arrived Russians are disinformation experts who have started an anti-French media campaign (MondeAfrique.com, May 9).

The arms are intended for use by two battalions (1300 men) of FACA trained by the European Training Mission (EUTM RCA), beginning in mid-2016. Training was initially inhibited by a shortage of arms. EUTM’s mandate is expected to be renewed in September.

The Russians are reported to have had talks with the Russian-educated former Séléka rebel leader and CAR president Michael Djotodia (2013-2014), though Ngrebada says he has no reason to doubt the sincerity of his new Russian friends (Jeune Afrique, May 3). Witnesses also described a Russian Cesna aircraft with three or four Russian soldiers visiting the compounds of Muslim rebel leaders Nourredine Adam and Abdoulaye Hissene in the northern CAR (Monde Afrique, May 4; RFI, May 1).  During Operation Sangaris, the French made similar efforts to contact rebel leaders to persuade them to refrain from attacking Bangui; Russian intentions are still unknown, but may have something to do with threats of a rebel “march on Bangui” in response to the military cooperation with Russia (L’Obs, May 5). Russian interest in the rebel-occupied goldfields of northeastern CAR may provide another reason.

Russian Mercenaries and CAR Troops at Béréngo Palace (Le Monde)

The 175 Russian trainers have established a base at Béréngo palace, the abandoned home of psychopathic CAR “emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa (1966-1979). Only five of this group are members of the Russian Army; most of the others are mercenaries working for private Russian military contractors (Le Monde, April 23). The palace’s 100 acres are only 35 miles from Bangui and include a firing range and airstrip that can easily be expanded and modernized to handle large Russian aircraft, enabling the Russians to avoid using the French-controlled airport in Bangui. One estimate suggests that there are now 1400 armed Russians in the CAR, most of them employees of private military contractor Sewa Security Services (Le Tchadantrhropus Tribune [N’Djamena], May 14).

Grave of Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa at Béréngo Palace. Bokassa’s family objects to the Russian presence there, claiming it is still family property. (AFP)

Some 40 members of the Russian Special Forces have been assigned as a security detail for President Touadéra, work that used to be done by Libyans, Chadian mercenaries or, most recently, Rwandans attached to MINUSCA. Valeri Zakarov, a Kremlin insider, is the new presidential security adviser. The CAR presidency is now concerned that the military agreement with Russia will encourage Western attempts to overthrow Touadéra, prompting even greater reliance on Russian security personnel.

This article first appeared in the May 15, 2018 issue of Eurasia Daily Monitor.

How Does Russia Fit into Egypt’s Strategic Plan?

Andrew McGregor

February 15, 2018

As Russian-Egyptian military and economic cooperation increases, there have been many comparisons made with Egypt’s early post-independence era (1956-1971), when Cairo grew close to Moscow. Egypt’s current strategic position, however, bears closer similarities to the foreign policy of the first decades of rule by the founder of modern Egypt, Ottoman Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali (1805-1848). Like Egypt’s post-independence leaders, Muhammad ‘Ali sought to simultaneously modernize Egypt with foreign assistance while increasing its political independence. This was no easy feat, as it involved balancing allegiance to his suzerain, the Ottoman Sultan, while using (unofficial) French military assistance and training to strengthen his own hand without falling under French control. Current Egyptian president Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi now uses Russian military aid in much the same way to gain leverage in a deteriorating relationship with the United States.

Building an Egyptian Empire: Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha with his new navy and army

Some of the objectives shared by Muhammad ‘Ali and President al-Sisi include:

  • Intensifying the purchase and manufacture of arms
  • Expanding naval capacity
  • Conducting military operations abroad to project Egyptian power
  • Consolidating Egypt’s control of the Red Sea region
  • Securing the supply of Nile waters from the south
  • Diversifying international military suppliers and trainers
  • Exterminating the previous regime, and
  • Repressing Islamic extremists

The question for Moscow is whether their objectives meld with those of Cairo. The Kremlin is seeking enhanced military and economic relations with Egypt but has no desire to be used merely as leverage against Washington. Moscow will seek to obtain their own regional objectives by exploiting differences between Washington and Cairo and filling any void left by diminishing American military aid and engagement with the Sisi regime. For their part, Egypt’s leaders remain wary of getting too close to the Russians – the last period of close cooperation ended badly. Nonetheless, Egypt may be seeking external military support in their failing campaign against Islamist extremists in Sinai and Russia’s military track record in Syria makes it an enticing partner. Whether this can be achieved without paying a high price (such as the establishment of permanent Russian bases in Egypt) is Cairo’s dilemma.

Egyptian and Russian Paratroopers on the 2016 “Defenders of Friendship” Exercise (Egypt Independent)

Russia and Egypt have now conducted two joint airborne exercises; one in Egypt in 2016, the second in Russia in 2017. The third “Defenders of Friendship” exercise will be held in Egypt later this year. Egypt has never conducted a combat air-drop, while Russia has not carried out a combat drop since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989). However, the Russian Defense Ministry reported a successful drop of Syrian paratroopers behind Islamic State lines near the border of Raqqa and Homs governorates last August, with Syrian rocket fire directed by Russian Ka-52 combat helicopters (Sputnik, August 14, 2017). The ministry’s report could not be verified independently, but it could point to future Russian-assisted counter-terrorism para-drops in Egypt, possibly in Sinai or along Egypt’s remote western frontier.

Russia negotiated a deal last year that will allow Russian Air Force jets to use Egyptian airbases and airspace (Al-Monitor, December 18, 2017). The agreement could be the first step in allowing Russian airstrikes on terrorist targets in the Sinai or Libya. It would also preclude the necessity of further deployments of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean; its performance in Syria was unimpressive and two Russian fighters were lost attempting to land on the ship’s deck.

In mid-January, Russian naval commander-in-chief Admiral Vladimir Korolyov declared that the Russian Navy would focus on improving its system of naval bases, particularly to accommodate “strategic non-nuclear deterrence groups” (TASS, January 16, 2018). Egypt has suitable ports on both its Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts, but Egyptian policy forbids the establishment of foreign military bases on its soil. Russia has engaged in talks with both Sudan and Libyan factional leader Khalifa Haftar regarding the construction of naval facilities in both those nations, but Egypt would provide a more stable long-term partner. However, a Russian base on Egypt’s Red Sea coast would conflict with Egyptian efforts to increase its own influence in the region, as seen in its establishment of a new Egyptian Red Sea squadron.

In furthering its own objectives, Cairo was able to take advantage of the cancellation of the French sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Egypt not only obtained the ships but was able to purchase Russian Kamov Ka-52K ship-based helicopters originally designed for the vessels (Tass, July 18, 2017). One ship, the Gamal Abdel Nasser, will be deployed with Egypt’s Alexandria-based Mediterranean fleet, while the Anwar El Sadat will join the Red Sea squadron.

(Southfront.org)

With the help of financing from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt has stepped up Russian arms purchases. Russia began delivery of 50 MiG-29 fighter jets last year, a process scheduled for completion in 2020 (Egypt Independent, September 17, 2017; TASS, September 11, 2017). Russia supplied the S300VM mobile long-range air defence system to Egypt in 2017 and 46 Russian-made Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” reconnaissance and combat helicopters are in the process of being delivered.

However, Cairo has avoided over-reliance on Russian arms (as in the Sadat era) by turning to other suppliers, such as France.  Twenty-four Dassault Rafale twin-engine multi-role fighter aircraft were ordered in 2015, some of which have already flown combat missions over Libya. Egypt took delivery of one French-made Gowind 2500 corvette (the El Fateh) last year and is building another three at its Alexandria shipyard (Defence Web, November 7, 2017). It has also purchased a South Korean corvette (the Shabab Misr) and four German-made Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarines to replace its ancient Chinese and Soviet-made Romeo-class diesel-electric submarines.

Al-Sisi, like Muhammad ‘Ali, is eager to modernize and increase the capacity of Egypt’s military but appears determined to avoid reliance on either the U.S. or Russia. While Russian approaches will not be rebuffed outright, Cairo is making it clear that enhanced cooperation must be consistent with Egypt’s strategic objectives.

This article first appeared in the February 15, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Will Khartoum’s Appeal to Putin for Arms and Protection Bring Russian Naval Bases to the Red Sea?

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor 14(158)

December 6, 2017

Though Sudan’s national economy is near collapse, the November 23 visit of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir to Russia’s top leadership in Sochi was dominated by expensive arms purchases and Sudan’s appeal to Russia for “protection from aggressive actions by the United States” (TASS, November 23; see EDM, November 29). A suggestion that Khartoum was ready to host Russian military bases took most Sudanese by surprise, given that Washington lifted 20-year-old economic sanctions against Sudan in October and relations with the US finally seemed to be improving.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (AFP/Ashraf Shazly)

Al-Bashir expressed Sudan’s interest in purchasing the highly maneuverable Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets during the Sochi visit. And in fact, an unknown number of Su-35s were reportedly delivered days ahead of al-Bashir’s visit, making Sudan the first Arab country to have the aircraft (RIA Novosti, November 25; al-Arabiya, November 20).

Khartoum announced its intention to replace its Chinese and Soviet-era aircraft in March, when Air Force chief Salahuddin Abd al-Khaliq Said declared Sudan would henceforth be “fully dependent on Russia for its air armament” (Defenceweb, November 29).

Sudan’s Red Sea Coast

The Su-35, deployed in Syria by the Russian Air Force, is one of the best non-stealth fighters and missile-delivery platforms available, but at an export price of as much as $80 million each, cash-strapped Khartoum may have to provide other forms of compensation. It may have been no surprise then that Sudan’s delegation in Sochi expressed willingness to host Russian naval bases along its 420-mile Red Sea coastline (Sputnik News, November 28). However, there are few suitable places for such bases on the coast, where transportation infrastructure is poor.

The Old Coral City of Suakin

Suakin, the coast’s historic port, was replaced in 1909 by the newly built Port Sudan, able to accommodate the large steamers Suakin could not. Otherwise the coastline has only a handful of small harbors (sharm-s) suitable only for dhows and fishing boats. Sailors must cope with coral reefs, shoals and numerous islets. Gaps in the large reef that runs parallel to the coast determined the location of both Suakin and Port Sudan. The entire coast is notoriously short of fresh water, a problem that must be accounted for before the construction of any large facilities. Though Egypt’s own military ties with Russia are growing, Cairo is unlikely to welcome a Russian naval base on the Red Sea coast, where Egypt currently contests possession of the Hala’ib Triangle with Sudan. [1]

Djibouti, with its vast harbor and strategic location on the Bab al-Mandab strait would make a far better base for Russian naval operations in the Red Sea. Russian Cossacks first tried to seize the region in 1889, but now existing US, French and Chinese military bases there (along with an incoming Saudi base) make such a proposition unlikely. Russian naval ships on anti-piracy operations in the Red Sea have used Djibouti for resupply and maintenance.

Moscow is also providing Khartoum with 170 T-72 main battle tanks under a 2016 deal; and the latter has expressed interest in buying the Russian S-300 air-defense system as well as minesweepers and missile boats (Xinhua, November 25). Though Sudan still uses a great deal of military equipment of Chinese and Iranian origin, al-Bashir opened the possibility of hosting Russian military personnel when he claimed, “All of our equipment is Russian, so we need advisors in this area” (RIA Novosti, November 25). The BBC’s Russian service has reported unconfirmed rumors of Russian mercenaries operating in Sudan or South Sudan (BBC News—Russian service, December 4).

Two other factors weigh in on Khartoum’s improving relations with Russia:

Gold: President Putin was reported to have confirmed Russia’s continuing support in preventing US- and British-backed United Nations Security Council sanctions on exports of Sudanese gold due to irregularities in Sudan’s mostly artisanal gold industry in Darfur (SUNA, November 23). Since Sudan’s loss of oil revenues with the 2011 separation of South Sudan, gold has become Sudan’s largest source of hard currency, but Khartoum’s inability to control extraction has led to huge losses in tax revenues and has helped fund regime opponents in Darfur (Aberfoylesecurity.com, October 15). Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour explained that it was in this context that al-Bashir’s remarks regarding “Russian protection” were made (Sudan Tribune, November 25).

War Crimes: Al-Bashir recently learned that Washington does not want to see him seek another term as president in the 2020 elections (Sudan Tribune, November 27). The 73-year-old has ruled Sudan since 1989, but retirement seems elusive—al-Bashir’s best defense against being tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes in Darfur is to remain president. Russia withdrew from the ICC in November 2016, calling it “one-sided and inefficient” (BBC News, November 16, 2016).

Khartoum’s request for Russian “protection” was best explained by Sudanese Deputy Prime Minister Mubarak Fadl al-Mahdi, who said the outreach to Moscow was intended to create a new balance: “We can at least limit American pressure, which cannot be confronted without international support… But with Russia’s support at international forums and the Security Council, American demands will be reasonable and help in accelerating normalization of ties” (Asharq al-Awsat, December 3).

However, the Sudanese regime’s nervousness over how this abrupt turn in foreign policy will be received at home was reflected in a wave of confiscations by the security services of Sudanese newspapers that had covered al-Bashir’s discussions in Sochi (Radio Dabanga, November 30).

Jibril Ibrahim, the leader of Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), insisted that al-Bashir’s request for Russian protection and willingness to accommodate Russian military bases had destroyed attempts to normalize relations with the US and was an opening to bring down the Khartoum regime (Sudan Tribune, November 27).

Is Sudan playing a double game here? Foreign Minister Ghandour claims “there is nothing to prevent Sudan from cooperating with the United States while at the same time pursuing strategic relations with China and Russia” (Sudan Tribune, November 25). Nonetheless, al-Bashir has so far avoided becoming anyone’s client and is likely aware that pursuing this new relationship with Russia to the point of welcoming Russian military bases could be his undoing as he seeks to reaffirm his rule over a restless nation in 2020. For this reason, Russian military bases on the barren and furnace-like Sudanese Red Sea coast seem unlikely for now.

Note

  1. For a detailed map of Sudan’s Red Sea coast, see: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/map_2990.pdf

Russia’s Counter-Insurgency Armored Trains Enter the Electronics Age

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, February 28, 2017

Strelnikov’s Red Army Armored Train in Doctor Zhivago

Armored trains have a place in the popular imagination, having been featured in films such as Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Train (1964) and the James Bond thriller Goldeneye (1995). More fantastic armored trains are now encountered in popular video games and Japanese anime. Hundreds of these menacing iron giants armed with formidable naval guns once roamed the expanses of Eastern Europe and Asia, but today there are only four left in service; the Russian Defense Ministry’s armored trains Terek, Baikal, Amur and Don (like the cruisers of the sea, these cruisers of the rails are given individual names). The Terek is the Russian Army’s sole factory-made, purpose-designed armored train, the others having been converted from various civilian rail cars.

A Weapon Built for Russian Expanses

Russia has an extensive history of armored train use, largely due to the difficulty of moving large numbers of troops across the vast road-less regions of early 20th century Russia. Large numbers of armored trains were deployed on the mobile battlefields of World War One’s Eastern Front, but the Russian Civil War of 1917-22 saw a virtual explosion in their use, with over 200 in operation at one point.

Many of the White Russian trains passed into the service of northern Chinese warlords before falling into the hands of the Japanese after their 1931 invasion of Manchuria. Both Russia and Germany deployed armored trains on the Eastern Front in World War Two. Russian armored trains patrolled the wild east Siberian frontier during the Sino-Soviet border conflict of the 1960s and appeared again during the 1990 Nagorno-Karabakh War. During the most intensive phases of the Chechen-Russian War armored trains were successful in performing reconnaissance missions, de-mining operations and the escort of military trains carrying troops and equipment.

The defensive weaknesses of armored trains (vulnerability to ambush, derailment, capture etc.) were recognized early and by 1919 it was common for each Russian armored train to carry a desantniy ortryad (raiding team) that could be quickly deployed alongside train-borne tanks or other armored vehicles. With fire called in by forward observers deployed from the train, the armored train can provide powerful fire-support to drive away or destroy enemy forces. In modern times these raiding teams include BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles and T-62 or T-72 tanks. While mounted on flatcars, the more vulnerable sides of these vehicles are protected by timber and sandbags. The tanks have a secondary role as tractors in the event of a derailment.

Armored trains may also use small railed reconnaissance vehicles known as draisines to scout the track ahead of the main train.  The trains typically carry the material and trained men necessary to quickly repair damaged track as immobility places a train in danger of ambush or capture.

French Armored Train on Counter-Insurgency Operations in Indo-China

Use in Counter-Insurgency

Modern armored trains are vulnerable to air raids or artillery strikes, making them suitable only for counter-insurgency operations where such capabilities are typically unavailable to insurgents. Armored trains were first used for counter-insurgency work by the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1848. Later armored trains were used on counter-insurgency missions by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against Partisans on the Eastern Front in World War Two and by the French against the Viet Minh in Indo-China. Their use enabled railway troops to secure important transportation links from sabotage and provide fire support to infantry and armor.

Though armored trains have become vulnerable to modern tank tactics and armor-piercing munitions, their rail support allows the trains to carry a weight in weapons and armor that would crush paved roads or have mobility difficulties on certain types of ground. Expendable flatcars (often loaded with sandbags) are typically deployed ahead of the train to absorb the initial impact of explosives or derailment.

Antiaircraft gun of the Armored Train Terek. The Baikal is to the left. This photo was likely taken at the Russian Armored Train base at Khankala, Chechnya. © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

Modernizing Russia’s Armored Train Fleet

The return of the Russian Defense Ministry’s four armored trains to service after a brief retirement is part of an expensive program to modernize and expand Russia’s armed forces by 2020, though sanctions and economic difficulties have hindered implementation.  The trains were operated by Russian Railway Troops (Zheleznodorozhniki -ZhDk) in the North Caucasus from 2002 to 2009, at which point Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov decided the trains had outlived their usefulness as the Chechen insurgency wound down. Serdyukov was sacked over corruption allegations in 2012 and his order to dismantle the trains was never carried out. His replacement, Sergey Shoigu, had seen the trains in action and decided to bring them back into service (International Business Times, August 28, 2015).

Armored train Terek © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

The four corps of ZhDk railway troops are under the authority of the Defense Ministry and are responsible for securing and repairing Russia’s railway network during military operations or natural disasters.

There is no sign yet that the Defense Ministry trains will be re-joined by the Russian Interior Ministry’s sole armored train, the largely improvised Kozma Minin, which served in the Caucasus in the periods 1994-2002 and 2011-2012 before being sent for a technological overhaul in 2013. The Kozma Minin operated separately from the Army’s trains, carrying out missions for Interior Ministry forces.

Diagram of the Baikal and Amur armored trains: The Baikal (top) features 1) cover platform 2) anti-aircraft gun 3) locomotive 4) kitchen and dining car 5) sleeper car 6) radio station 7) headquarters 8) jammer; the Amur (bottom) features 1) freight car 2) anti-aircraft gun 3) locomotive 4) kitchen and dining car 5) sleeper car 6) sleeper car 7) radio station 8) jammer 9) headquarters 10) freight car 11) freight car, 12) crane 13) cover platform© Politrussia.com

The Defense Ministry’s overhauled armored trains now include an electronic warfare wagon capable of jamming enemy communications and radar. New tactical protocols now allow the trains to operate in tandem with helicopter support, a potentially lethal combination for insurgents operating anywhere close to the railway system (Sputnik News.com, August 15, 2016). Russia’s armored trains have also been fitted out with anti-mine technology, including the Kamysh M4K system, which uses white noise to interfere with radio-controlled IEDs at a distance of up to 20 meters. Firepower is now provided, not by naval guns, but by powerful, rapid-firing twin 23 mm ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns (MK.RU, August 12, 2016). These guns are protected by shields and their crews have access to armored shelters on both ends of the gun-car. Heavy use of camouflage nets helps reduce the visibility of the armored trains as targets.

Armored Train Baikal © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

Amur and Baikal undertook intensive drills in Volgograd, Krasnodar, North Ossetia and Crimea in August 2016. One of the high points of the exercise was the construction by railroad troops of a 1300-foot long pontoon bridge over the Volga capable of supporting the armored trains (Russia Today, August 17, 2016; Video of the operation at Vesti.Ru, August 17, 2016).

Russia is also re-introducing military trains equipped with the new MS-26 Rubezh light intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), armed with multiple nuclear warheads (the whole system is known as “Barguzin”). An earlier version of these missile trains was deployed from 1984 to 1994, but the enormous weight of these missiles damaged the rail system and the entire project was shut down in 2005, partly due to strategic weapons treaties (Russian Beyond the Headlines, May 17, 2016).  The new, much lighter missile trains will be disguised by the inclusion of normal freight cars and wagons in the train to prevent their easy detection from space (Independent, November 23, 2016).

 

Update: Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War on the Islamic State

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Commentary, February 15, 2016

The Western-led military coalition operating against the Islamic State organization in Syria and Iraq continues to wrestle with the implications posed by having Hezbollah as an active but entirely unwanted ally in the campaign. (1)

Hezbollah in SyriaHezbollah Position in Syria

Some indication of how the West intends to deal with the movement considering its designation as a terrorist group by many NATO partners was given in the text of the International Syria Support Group’s (ISSG) agreement to “cease hostilities” in Syria.(2)

Intended to be implemented within days, the agreement, which falls well short of a monitored ceasefire, allows for continued attacks on the Islamic State, al-Qaeda-backed Jabhat al-Nusra “or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council.” (3) Hezbollah is clearly excluded as a continuing target as it is not a UNSC designated terrorist organization. This carefully worded document indicates the West and its ISSG partners will continue to ignore the presence of Hezbollah in the ground war against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra rather than address the diplomatically difficult but nevertheless essential formation of a policy to deal with the Sunni extremists’ leading opponent on the battlefield. The continued absence of such a policy only invites uncontrolled military interaction that could easily and quickly expand the conflict.

In the meantime, Jordan is leading an ISSG effort to identify terrorist organizations active in Syria, but given the incredible variance among ISSG partners as to who or what actually constitutes a terrorist organization, these efforts are not likely to bear fruit.

Canada is the only coalition state so far to declare a policy on military interactions with Hezbollah in the region, simply stating that there will be no cooperation under a “no contact” policy. Ottawa has withdrawn its CF-18 fighter-bombers from the anti-Islamic State coalition as the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau backs away from meaningful military commitments alongside Canada’s allies in favor of a “sunny ways” policy that does not involve killing terrorists or even depriving them of Canadian citizenship. Ottawa has announced plans to deploy 100 Canadian troops in Lebanon to act as advisers in the fight against the Islamic State organization. These behind-the-lines advisers in Lebanon and others in Iraq are intended to replace the Canadian bombing mission.

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan was adamant that the advisers will work only with “the legitimate government of Lebanon,” but not with Hezbollah. Sajjan appeared to be unaware that Hezbollah parliamentarians and two cabinet ministers are part of “the legitimate government of Lebanon.” Although his statement is consistent with Canada’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, it remains that it is Hezbollah and not the Lebanese Army that is doing the vast bulk of Lebanese fighting against Islamic State forces, meaning the new advisory mission will have little impact and be an ineffective replacement for bombing runs on Islamic State targets. Those Lebanese Army units that are involved in anti-Islamic State activity along the Lebanese-Syrian border tend to operate joint patrols with Hezbollah, suggesting Canadian troops operating under Canada’s “no-contact” policy with Hezbollah will be restricted to advising rear-echelon formations.

Hezbollah’s campaign against Sunni extremists in Syria has received an important statement of support from Lebanese Christian presidential candidate Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army commander who noted that the Lebanese Army was simply not strong enough to defend Lebanon without Hezbollah’s assistance (Gulf News, February 7, 2016). Aoun is relying in some degree on Hezbollah support for his presidential candidacy (by constitutional requirement, Lebanon’s president must come from the nation’s Maronite Christian community), but is growing frustrated with Hezbollah’s somewhat leisurely promotion of his candidacy amidst suspicions in some quarters that Hezbollah would prefer to have no president at all.

Recent musings by Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, on the possibility of a formal alliance between Iran, Russia, Syria and Hezbollah were dampened by Russian officials, though the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan conceded: “In the hypothetical sense, [Velayati] is correct: if Hezbollah is doing what we’re doing, then we are principally allies” (Sputnik News [Moscow], February 3, 2016). Russia is still attempting to assure Israel (with whom it signed a defense agreement in September when the Russian intervention in Syria began) that it has no intention of strengthening Hezbollah with heavy weapons, but it clear that it is Russian-Hezbollah-Iranian ground-air coordination on the battlefield that has enabled the Syrian regime to make major strides against both extremists and Western-backed “moderate” rebels in recent weeks.

If the Saudis decide to intervene in Syria militarily in favor of the Sunni rebel groups supported financially by the Kingdom (as they are threatening to do, possibly with military support from Turkey and a number of Arab nations), clashes with Hezbollah and Syria’s Iranian advisers will be inevitable, finally transforming the simmering Sunni-Shiite feud into a full-blown battlefield confrontation. If the “cessation of hostilities” agreement fails, as it seems it must, the potential for massive escalation in Syria holds dire consequences for the entire Middle East.

Notes

1. See original article, “Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War on the Islamic State,” Terrorism Monitor, January 22, 2016, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=988
2. ISSG members include the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States.
3. “Statement of the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich on February 11 & 12, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/12/syria-cessation-of-hostilities-full-text-of-the-support-groups-communique.

Russian Interior Ministry Revives its Armored Train in the North Caucasus

Andrew McGregor

May 14, 2013

In an effort to control “banditry” and rebel activity in the North Caucasus region, Russia’s Interior Ministry is returning its sole armored train to service on the often dangerous rail lines of southern Russia. The main mission of the armored train Kozma Minin, which has spent some years sitting in a rail-yard, will be to counter the insurgents’ mine attacks on Russian rail lines. The Kozma Minin is expected to join several other Ministry of Defense armored trains returned to service in the North Caucasus in 2010 (see EDM, February 23, 2010).

Armored Train Kozma MininWW II’s Armored Train Kozma Minin

The original Kozma Minin was a World War II armored train named for a Russian merchant who helped Prince Dmitri Pozharsky defend Russia against a Polish invasion in the early 17th century. Completed in February 1942, the original Kozma Minin was a formidable fire platform, with two covered wagons each having two T-34 tank turrets and six 7.62mm machine guns. Two open armored wagons each contained one M-8 rocket launcher and two 37mm anti-aircraft guns. An armored locomotive and several flat-bed cars completed the train.

Unlike its namesake, which might be described as a battleship on rails, the modern Kozma Minin is the battle cruiser of military trains – lightly shielded but highly mobile. While Russia’s other armored trains have been used to provide fire support for military operations in the Caucasus as well as rail security operations,  the armament of the Kozma Minin is intended for a defensive role that will allow the train to conduct mine-clearing operations, line maintenance and other defensive roles.

The Interior Ministry’s version of the Kozma Minin was built by a Volga-Vyatka OMON unit in 1994 from old railway platforms, railway ties, scrap metal and whatever other suitable materials might be found. The covered wagon of the train was painted in a brown and green camouflage pattern and most of the train was covered in well-worn camouflage netting, giving the entire train the appearance of a relic from a much earlier war. Despite its improvised and ramshackle construction, the Kozma Minin soon became the pride of Interior Ministry troops based in the North Caucasus, continuing its important work in the North Caucasus until it was retired to a rail-yard in 2002. Several cars of the train were marked with the acronym “OMOH,” the Cyrillic version of OMON (Otryad Mobilniy Osobogo Naznacheniya or Special Purpose Mobile Unit), the common term used for Interior Ministry units.

Before undertaking its new tasks, the Kozma Minin is being fitted with modern anti-mine technology, including the Kamysh (Cane) M4K system, made public in 2009. The mine-disabling system uses white noise to interfere with radio-controlled explosive devices, operating effectively at a distance of up to 20 meters.

Providing the new system works, it will be a vast improvement over the train’s old mine-prevention procedures, which involved the train moving at a walking pace in suspect areas behind combat engineers with mine-sniffing canines.  Measures are also being taken in the reconstruction to improve the safety of train personnel, which was usually provided for in the old train not so much by “armor,” but by an improvised mixture of sand-bags and timbers.

For armament, the Kozma Minin relies on two quad-barrel ZPU-4 air defense machine guns and ten hard-mounted AGS-17 automatic grenade launchers and machine guns.The ZPU-4 is a modification of the original ZPU, brought into Soviet service in 1949 and one of Russia’s most popular arms exports since. Mounted on a pick-up truck, the weapon was widely used by both sides in the Libyan Rebellion.

Additional firepower is provided by a BMP-2 (an amphibious infantry combat vehicle) chained to a flat-bed car with sand-bags to protect the wheels. The BMP02 is equipped with a 30mm 2A42 autocannon, a 9P135M anti-tank guided-missile launcher capable of firing a variety of anti-tank missiles and a 7.62mm machine gun. Ministry of Defense armored trains usually include one BMP-2, but also mount one to two T-62 tanks with a more powerful 115mm cannon.

The rebuilt Interior Ministry train is expected to be based either at Mozdok in North Ossetia or, more likely, at Khankala, a rail station east of Grozny in Chechnya where armored trains belonging to the Ministry of Defense are stationed. Khankala is also home to a Russian military base hosting the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division.

When finished, the train will transport Interior Ministry supplies and personnel in addition to providing rail security, much as it did in its earlier incarnation. The overhaul of the Kozma Minin is expected to be finished by December 1, 2013 and will cost an estimated $635,000.

Sources:

Izvestia, April 10, 2013; Gennady Zhilin, “Baikal, Terek and Co.” http://sovietoutpost.revdisk.org/?p=61; Dkvartal.ru, April 11, 2013, http://ekb.dkvartal.ru/news/bronepoezd-kozma-minin-v-chechne-budet-proveryat-zhd-puti-236716848

This article first appeared in the May 14, 2013 issue of Eurasia Daily Monitor

Is Russia Sending a Detachment of the Black Sea Fleet to Syria?

Andrew McGregor

June 28, 2012

Despite a recent flurry of contradictory reports, it appears that a detachment composed of ships from the Russian Black Sea Fleet and possibly the Baltic Fleet is preparing for deployment to the Russian naval port at Tartus, Syria. The date for their departure has not been finalized and appears to be dependent on developments in the Syrian insurgency, but the ships are reported to be ready to leave on four hours’ notice (Nezavisimaya Gazeta Online, June 20). Preparations appeared to intensify following an unannounced visit to Moscow on June 14 by the Syrian Defense Minister, Brigadier Dawud Rajihah (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 19).

The Russian Defense Ministry had earlier described American reports that the large amphibious warfare ship (LAWS) Kaliningrad of the Baltic Fleet was being sent to Syria as “disinformation… aimed at further escalating the situation in Syria…” adding that “the only true piece of information in these reports is that the LAWS Kaliningrad is indeed part of the Baltic Fleet” (RIA Novosti, June 19). Nevertheless, a source in the Russian Navy headquarters told Interfax-AVN the same day that the Kaliningrad would depart for Tartus “in a few days” (Interfax-AVN, June 19). The Russian Defense Ministry had also denied reports carried by American media sources to the effect that Russian ships had already departed for Syria by June 15 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta Online, June 18). Pentagon reports that U.S. satellite imagery revealed the BDK (Bolshoy Desantny Korabl – large amphibious landing ship) Nikolay Filchenkov was heading for Tartus earlier this month appear to have been incorrect, at least so far as timing is concerned. Loaded with military hardware, the ship left the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol (on lease to Russia) on June 21 bound for the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk rather than Tartus, but was due back in Sevastopol on June 25 (CNN, June 16; RIA-Novosti, June 21).

BDK Nikolay Filchenkov

Despite the denials, a Russian media source specializing in defense issues claimed its sources had confirmed that the large landing ships Nikolai Filchenkov and Tzar Kunikov and the SB-15 rescue tugboat of the Black Sea Fleet together with units of a Russian Marine brigade were prepared to leave for Tartus once the Nikolai Filchenkov returned to Sevastopol (Interfax-AVN, June 20; June 19). Aerial protection of the ships has been guaranteed by Major General Vladimir Gradusov, deputy commander of the Russian Air Force (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, June 19).

The Tartus facility was established in 1971 at a time when the Soviet Union had similar facilities in the Syrian port of Latakia and the Egyptian ports of Alexandria and Mersa Matruh. Today, only the facility at Tartus remains. Officially, Russia does not call the Tartus a naval base, but rather a “Navy Sustainment Center” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, June 19). Under the official name of the Russian Federation Navy 720th Logistic-Support Station, the strategically important Tartus facility provides repair, refueling and re-provisioning services for Russian naval vessels operating in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Following a dredging program that began in 2009, the floating maintenance station (the PM-138), floating docks and workshops at Tartus can handle even the Russian Fleet’s largest ships, such as the Soviet-era aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which visited Tartus in January. [1] The station is leased from Syria at a cost of $2 million per year, with payments made in both cash and arms (Komsomolskaya Pravda Online, June 15). Tartus is also said to act as the receiving port for Russian arms shipments, like that allegedly delivered by the MV Professor Katsman in sealed containers on May 26 (Interfax, June 4).

If Moscow remains committed to its opposition to foreign military intervention in the Syrian crisis, any Russian military mission would likely be limited to a primary task of evacuating Russian citizens and personnel, with the option of a secondary task of defending Russian installations at Tartus. The floating PM-138 can actually be moved offshore if threatened.

The Kaliningrad

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has estimated there are approximately 100,000 Russian citizens in Syria, many with Syrian wives and families (Vedomosti Online, June 22). With such numbers, it is certain that a naval evacuation would prioritize diplomatic and military personnel in its calculations. The number of Russian stationed at the Tartus naval facility is estimated at no more than 100 (Vedomosti Online, June 22).

Though a website sympathetic to the Syrian insurrection had announced the Free Syrian Army (FSA – the main armed opposition group) intended to attack Tartus and had already infiltrated troops for this purpose, the FSA’s Colonel Malik al-Kurdi described such speculation as “irresponsible talk” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 18).

Units of Russia’s Naval Infantry (Morskoy Pekhoty – colloquially known as “Marines”) under the command of Hero of Russia Colonel Vladimir Belyavskiy are reported to be ready to board all three Baltic Fleet ships on the receipt of orders (Interfax-AVN, June 19).  Colonel Belyavskiy received his award for commanding Russian Marines of the Black Sea Fleet in a desperate engagement with Chechen mujahidin at the Tezen-Kale Gorge in February, 1995. [2]

The Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship, the missile cruiser Moskva, was scheduled to visit Tartus earlier this month, but its voyage was cancelled for reasons apparently related to the Syrian crisis (Interfax-AVN, May 23). The Soviet-era destroyer Smetlivy, which was to be relieved by the Moskva, was instead ordered to extend its cruise in the Mediterranean (Interfax, May 18). A Black Sea Fleet spokesman reported that security for the Smetlivy was provided in Tartus by a counterterrorism unit of Russian marines (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, June 19).

While a unilateral intervention by Russia in Syria appears to be out of the question for now, the possibility of Russian participation in a UN-authorized multinational force remains open. There is also speculation that a peacekeeping force under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO – a military alliance of seven former Soviet states, including Russia) might have a role in Syria. Various elite Russian military formations are reported to be receiving training for such an eventuality, including the 15th Combined Arms Brigade in Samara and the Pskov 75th Air Assault Division, which has previous experience with peacekeeping in Kosovo and in combat operations in Chechnya and Georgia. Also mentioned as likely participants in such a force are the Chechen Vostok and Zapad battalions of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), which participated in peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and more active operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, June 15). [3]

The view of Tartus as strategically vital to Russia’s defense is not unanimous, however. A new report from the Russian Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (described as having close ties to the Russian defense community) downplayed the strategic importance of the Syrian naval facility, suggesting that Tartus was “more of a symbolic rather than practical value to the Russian navy,” whose loss “would have no significant effect on Russia’s naval capabilities” (Financial Times, June 26).

Notes

1. The Russian designation for ships of this type is Tyazholyy avianesushchiy raketnyy kreyser, “heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser.” 

2. See http://rusnavy.com/history/branches/bv/belyavskiy.htm.

3. For Vostok and Zapad activities outside Chechnya, see Andrew McGregor, “Chechen Troops Accompany Russian Soldiers in Lebanon,” Chechnya Weekly, October 26, 2006, http://www.jamestown.org/publications_details.php?volume_id=416&issue_id=3902&article_id=2371588, and “Peacekeepers or Provocateurs? Kremlin-Backed Chechen Troops Raise Tensions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” North Caucasus Weekly, December 6, 2007, http://www.jamestown.org/chechnya_weekly/article.php?articleid=2373839.

This article first appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.