At the same time, a more insidious strategy was being developed, which included the spread of disinformation on social media, blaming Israel for stirring up unrest and even performing public executions to make an example of "looters".
The author of this strategy was not the Sudanese government. According to documents seen by CNN, it was written by a Russian company linked to an oligarch favored by the Kremlin: Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Many government and military sources in Khartoum confirmed to CNN that Bashir's government received the proposals and started acting on them, before Bashir was deposed in a coup at the beginning of this month. A former regime official said Russian advisors monitored the protests and began to devise a plan to counter them with what he called "minimal but acceptable loss of life".
While the documents do not come from official Russian agencies, they were essentially a project to protect the interests of the Kremlin in Sudan and keep Bashir in power.
The documents seen by CNN, which include letters and internal communications to the company, are among the thousands obtained and investigated by the Dossier Center, based in London, managed by the exiled Russian army Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The Dossier Center receives data, documents and other information from a variety of sources, often anonymous, and shares them with journalists. Khodorkovsky clashed with President Vladimir Putin after denouncing widespread corruption in Russia and spent several years in prison for alleged tax fraud – which he has always denied.
CNN assessed the documents as credible. They are also consistent with witness reports claiming that Russian observers have been seen at recent protests in Sudan.
Sudan was Moscow's model for expanding its influence in Africa and around the world: a hybrid of private and state interests that rewards both the oligarchs and the Kremlin. It is a low-cost strategy that gives Moscow a point of support in strategic places, without the commitment of regular forces or major investments by the Russian government. Instead it uses companies that provide private contractors in exchange for commercial concessions.
In fact, the documents seen by CNN come from a company based in St. Petersburg, M-Invest, which has an office in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. M-Invest lists its core business "mining of minerals and sands of precious metals". As previously reported by CNN, the company has obtained concessions for a gold mine in Sudan.
But his activities seem to have gone well beyond the mines.
What the Dossier Center documents show
President Bashir cultivated a close relationship with the Kremlin, visiting Moscow in 2017. Russia supplied modern Su-35 fighter planes in the same year. Simply put, Russia had placed a big bet on Bashir. When protests against the regime took root, that bet was at risk.
According to documents examined by CNN, M-Invest has drawn up a plan to discredit and suppress such protests.
A paper from early January, reviewed by CNN, proposes spreading statements that protesters were attacking mosques and hospitals. He also suggested creating an image of protesters as "enemies of Islam and traditional values" by planting LGBT flags between them. And he proposed a campaign on social media claiming that "Israel supports the protesters".
The strategy also suggested that the government "simulate a dialogue with the opposition and demonstrate the openness of the government" in order to "isolate the leaders of the protest and buy time".
M-Invest proposed ways to make the government look good – through a widely publicized "free distribution of bread, flour, cereals, food".
But most of his focus was on the protests. He recommended making evidence "of arson by protesters against mosques, hospitals and nurseries, [e] stealing grain from the public store".
He also suggested blaming the West for the protests and using "a wide media coverage of the interrogation on the detainees, where they admit to having arrived to organize a civil war in Sudan". And he even proposed "public executions of looters and other spectacular events to distract the protest audience".
CNN has made great efforts to reach M-Invest. His phone number in St. Petersburg did not work. An Arab speaker responded to a call to his office in Khartoum but hung up. CNN visited the address, but was told that the space was leased to a Russian company called Mir Gold.
Another company document recommends the arrest of protest leaders the day before the demonstrations, and disseminate misinformation saying that the protesters were paid to participate. Also recommended: to show how "the security forces arrested a car with weapons, foreign currency, propaganda material run by foreign citizens".
M-Invest also proposed to create social media teams to attack the protest movement, "initiating disputes with users and giving voice to the alternative agenda … The optimal number of accounts working in parallel – 40- 50. "
Prigozhin – as "Putin's chef" for the catering contracts he held with the Kremlin – was one of the 13 Russians accused as part of the Russian electoral interference investigation by US special adviser Robert Mueller. The United States argues that fictitious social media sites have been created to polarize voters with heated information and, in some cases, false. Prigozhin denied any involvement in the interference of the elections and denied any connection with the Internet search agency. Calls to his main company, Concord Management and Consulting, were not answered.
The documents examined by CNN do not indicate that official Russian security agencies have been directly involved in the attempt to suppress the protests in Sudan.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said at a press conference in January: "We are aware that some employees of Russian private security companies, who have no relationship with the Russian government authorities, actually work in Sudan, but the their functions are limited to staff training ".
Time begins to run out
Khartoum sources told CNN that Bashir's government tried to start implementing some of M-Invest's plans.
For example, he started detaining students from the Darfur region and accused them of trying to stir up the civil war – one of the maneuvers recommended by M-Invest. The sources say that the Russian consultants of a private company have been placed in various ministries and the national intelligence service.
But it was too little, too late.
In a letter to Bashir, written on March 17, Prigozhin complained that the Sudanese government's action had "caused the intensification of the crisis". And he added, with unconscious prescience: "The lack of active measures by the new government to overcome the crisis will probably lead to even more serious political consequences".
Another letter from Prigozhin, dated April 6, praised the Sudanese sovereign for a long time as a "wise and far-sighted leader", but urged immediate economic reforms to resolve the crisis.
The military dimension
Sudan, a resource-rich nation that has borders with seven other countries, has been avoided by the West. Its Red Sea coast was of particular interest to Moscow, due to recent moves by the United States and China to establish a military presence in the region. Moscow has observed the development of a naval base in Port Sudan.
Once again, M-Invest was involved. In June 2018, he drafted a letter on behalf of the Sudan Military Industrial Corporation to push closer military connections. He cited a visit the previous month from the deputy commander of the Russian navy, Lieutenant General Oleg Makarevich, who had discussed "the possibility of creating on the territory of the Republic of Sudan the point of the logistics ships of the Russian Navy".
The letter is addressed to General Valery Gerasimov, head of the Russian armed forces. Gerasimov is credited with promoting the use of alternative measures to military force – including political and economic levers and influencing public opinion through social media – to destabilize opponents.
Potepkin also identifies himself as a project manager for another company, Megaline, which belongs 50% to the Concord holding company in Prigozhin, according to the company's records. In a note on Megaline letterhead at the Sudanese Mineral Ministry in 2017, he states that M-Invest "will enjoy all the necessary support of the Megaline Group".
CNN was unable to contact Potepkin.
M-Invest also signed a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense, seen by CNN, for the use of 223rd transport aircraft. Between August 2018 and February 2019, two 223th aircraft made at least nine flights to Khartoum. One of those planes brought Bashir on his controversial visit to Syria last December, the first by an Arab leader from the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011.
Russia has also strengthened its presence in the neighboring Central African Republic by sending convoys of supplies across the border.
Whether Sudan will remain at the center of Russian ambitions in Africa depends on the situation in Khartoum. Moscow will not give up easily. It has strong links with the Sudanese army, which is now in the driving seat – although Bashir, the man described by Prigozhin as a "wise and balanced politician", is now in a maximum security prison.