In a remote corner of Sudan’s expansive deserts, a lone Soviet flag flutters above an antique locomotive. Gold prospectors travel from afar to exchange their modest finds for cash, provided by what they colloquially call “the Russian company.”

Owned by an investment firm aligned with Russia’s Wagner Group, Meroe Gold’s smuggling operation has become pivotal for Russia’s ability to preserve its financial liquidity amidst sanctions.

As Sudan plunges deeper into a devastating civil war, Russia finds itself navigating a precarious situation. With relations between the Wagner Group mercenaries and the Russian government — the presumed assassin of their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin — already strained, the two now find themselves aligned with opposing factions. The issue reaches a crescendo just as Russia needs to balance its revenue streams, its geopolitical aspirations in the Arab world, and the cohesion between its official and semi-official arms.

The current tumult in Sudan traces back to the Darfur conflict, where Arab militias known as the Janjaweed wreaked havoc on the largely Nilotic native peoples, leading to what is widely considered a genocide. Subsequently absorbed into Khartoum’s intelligence infrastructure, these militias, now called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), played a pivotal role in the 2021 military coup that installed Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, leader of the military, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) as head of state. When the military recently attempted to incorporate the RSF into its fold, the group revolted.

Russia’s approach has been two-fold. The Kremlin seeks to build a Red Sea naval port and expand its influence in the Arab world through its diplomatic ties with the SAF. Concurrently, Wagner Group oversees a sprawling gold mining operation, and its smuggling routes run through RSF’s base of power. A CNN investigation reported that Radimir Kuznetsov, a potential successor to Wagner’s deceased leader and a convicted kidnapper who was later badly wounded in Ukraine, oversaw this gold smuggling via the Central African Republic.

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Russia’s game of playing on both sides worked for as long as the SAF and RSF were in alliance, and likewise the Russian government and Wagner Group. But with the two Sudanese factions engaged in all-out war, coupled with internal Russian divisions, the situation is dangerously fluid.

Sudan’s warring parties appear largely indifferent to Russia’s internal conflicts. The military has explicitly sought Russian intervention and dispatched its second-in-command to Moscow to plead with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Meanwhile, RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo was key to securing the naval base deal but has appealed directly to Wagner Group for support.

Although Russian media has predictably laid the blame for the chaos at the feet of the West, it is Sudan’s Arab neighbors who wield the most influence. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have thrown their support behind the military. Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, who controls the territory bordering Sudan, meanwhile stands accused of backing the RSF with Wagner-supplied arms.

Russia has extended symbolic backing to the military, yet has done little to impede Wagner’s support for the rebels. After the 2021 coup, rumors emerged the armed forces intended to renege on the port deal. The lesson for the Kremlin was clear enough; that if it wanted the port and other favors, it needed to side with the eventual victor, regardless of who it was. The same applies to Wagner’s gold operations, which are vital to Russia’s financial health amidst heavy sanctions.

Isolated in a hostile environment, Wagner finds itself at a crossroads. Its executives and foot soldiers can feel as angry as they like about the grim fate of their commander, but the plain fact is that the group’s operatives in Sudan remain largely beholden to the Russian government as their ultimate guarantor. As the intricate dance of alliances and interests continues, Russia walks a tightrope in Sudan. At some point, sooner rather than later, it will need to make a choice.

Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which tracks authoritarian influence online.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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