Even in the worst of times, Russia had been a reliable friend to the Sudan of Omar al-Bashir. It continued selling him weapons during the atrocities his regime carried out in the Darfur region from 2003 to 2007. And when the International Criminal Court indicted al-Bashir in 2009 for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, issuing a warrant for his arrest, Russia went its own way. Instead of detaining al-Bashir when the Sudanese leader landed in Sochi in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin received him at his official residence and put the meeting on state television.
As it turned out, Russia’s enduring friendship was about to pay off. The outlaw President had arrived with an offer: “Sudan,” he told Putin, “can be Russia’s key to Africa.” What he wanted in return was “protection from aggressive U.S. actions” in the region, said al-Bashir. The evidence shows Putin took him up on it. The leaders’ talks opened the gates to a flood of Russian ventures in Sudan, from political consulting to mining and military aid, according to documents obtained by TIME. As Russian geologists began drilling for gold near the banks of the Nile River last year, the Russian armed forces drafted plans to use Sudan’s ports and air bases as military outposts.