Russia Possibly Courting Eritrea for Red Sea Naval Base

Massawa harbour

“The [Russian and Eritrean] leaders plan to discuss the prospects for the development of Russian-Eritrean relations in various fields, as well as topics of regional and international concern.”

On 31 May, the Russian government-affiliated TASS news agency, published the excerpted article about Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s visit to Moscow to meet with Russian President Putin. According to the article, the leaders discussed Russia’s war in Ukraine and other issues, such as academic exchanges and trade. Russia is interested in Eritrea because of its location adjacent to the Red Sea and its demonstrations of loyalty to the Kremlin, according to a second article from the Ukrainian publication This article notes that Eritrea was the only African country to vote against a UN General Assembly decision for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine in March 2022.[i] Russia had previously signed an agreement with Sudan to base four Russian ships and 300 soldiers in Port Sudan, seeking a foothold on the Red Sea, according to the article. The article notes that Sudan has not ratified the agreement, and the country’s ongoing conflict and Western pressure may cause the country’s authorities to reverse the deal. Eritrea, which borders Sudan, would provide Russia with an alternate base location near the Red Sea should the Sudan agreement not materialize. The Red Sea has strategic importance for Russia. Not only does 10 percent of global maritime traffic pass through it, but Russia’s competitors and other major powers, such as the United States and China, have naval bases along the Red Sea in Djibouti, which borders Eritrea to the south.[ii] However, Russia’s naval presence near one of the world’s major trade arteries represents expansionist intentions from the Ukrainian perspective represented in the article.

“Путин начал переговоры с президентом Эритреи (Putin Begins Discussions with the President of Eritrea),” (Russian government-affiliated publication), 31 May 2023.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the head of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, who is in Russia on an official visit. The leaders plan to discuss the prospects for the development of Russian-Eritrean relations in various fields, as well as topics of regional and international concern. The current talks were the first meeting between the leaders of the two countries. 

According to data for 2022, the trade turnover between Russia and Eritrea amounted to $13.5 million, while exports from Russia to Eritrea accounted for $12.7 million. Since 2015, Eritreans have been provided with scholarships to study at Russian universities.

“Завоевание Африки. Зачем Кремлю военная база в Красном море (Why a Russian Base on the Red Sea?), (Russian and Ukrainian language Ukrainian magazine focusing on global economics), 16 February 2023.

Russia does not abandon attempts to expand control over African states.

Wherever there are “Wagners”, companies associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin gain access to the natural resources of these countries and a certain political influence on them (usually they are authoritarian regimes). There is information about the presence of this group of mercenaries in Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Madagascar, Libya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and possibly Eritrea. 

Most likely, the military authorities of Sudan intend to receive weapons from the Russian Federation for their army, and also consider Russia’s military presence as one of the factors guaranteeing the preservation of the political processes in the country after the presidential and parliamentary elections. For Russia, hosting a base carries a wide range of political benefits. First of all, it is a presence in a region that is strategically important for the entire planet. The Red Sea has played an important role in world trade since the beginning of navigation. Now 10% of all maritime trade passes through it.We are mentioning that at a hypothetical military base (most likely it will be in Port Sudan) no more than four ships and 300 soldiers can be located at the same time. Time will tell how Sudan behaves in such circumstances. However, the growing influence of Russia in Africa, especially in the area of important trade routes, should be a wake-up call for the democratic part of the world.


[i] In March 2023, five countries, including Belarus, North Korea, Syria, Eritrea, and Russia itself, voted against the UN General Assembly resolution that “demand[ed] that Russia “immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” Sudan, in contrast, was one of 35 countries that abstained from the vote. See UNGA, “General Assembly resolution demands end to Russian offensive in Ukraine,” 2 March 2022.

[ii] The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) opened a “logistical support facility” in Djibouti in 2017 with the potential to support China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and protect Chinese interests and nationals in Africa and the Middle East more broadly. Chinese ambitions in Djibouti were also reflected in China’s desire to compete with Russia, which itself had strengthened its base in Tartus, Syria during the Syrian civil war. Jean-Pierre Cabestan (2020), “China’s Military Base in Djibouti: A Microcosm of China’s Growing Competition with the United States and New Bipolarity,” Journal of Contemporary China, 29:125, 731-747.

Image Information:

Image: Massawa harbour
Source: Reinhard Dietrich,
Attribution: CC x 2.0