Russia has quietly built a network of influence among tyrants and failed states
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his state of the nation address in Moscow on Feb. 20

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.

Sudan is just the start. Over the past few years, the Kremlin has once again been scouring the world in search of influence. In troubled countries overlooked since the Cold War, Russia has been forging new alliances, rekindling old ones and, wherever possible, filling the void left by an inward-looking West. Across Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, TIME tracked the Kremlin effort through months of interviews with local officials, Russian operatives and other players, as well as by vetting documents provided by the Dossier Center, a private investigative unit funded by Mikhail Khodorvsky, an exiled Russian businessman and critic of Putin.

The Russian campaign reaches from major conflict zones such as Venezuela, Libya and Syria to the more obscure corners of Africa and, as al-Bashir hoped, to Sudan. What comes through is a newfound Russian willingness, even an eagerness, to involve itself in wars and cultivate regimes anywhere Moscow sees a chance to assert itself.

But unlike the Cold War, when the communist East competed with the capitalist West as equals, the new contest is being waged in an altered world. Trump’s America no longer projects interest in foreign affairs, democratic ideals or even alliances. And China, with an economy eight times the size of Russia’s, has replaced it as the major alternative

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