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Russia's Africa Game

Russia's Africa Game

Russia hasn't forgotten about the strategic importance of the Horn of Africa countries. Have we?

Negash T. Tekie

For years, Russia has been destroying and destabilizing its Eastern European neighbors. In 2008, it crushed Chechnya; then, it invaded Georgia and illegally annexed Crimea, provoking only a weak Western response.

Yet when Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the level of the consolidated global response seemed to take the Kremlin by surprise. The United States, the EU, the UK, and other countries united to condemn Russia. Under a resolution by the UN General Assembly, 141 countries condemned the invasion.

Still, some developing nations did not join in; and four of the dissenting countries were from the Horn of Africa. Eritrea backed Moscow, voting against the condemnation of Russia. Ethiopia was among thirteen countries that did not attend the relevant UN meeting; it was marked as absent. Sudan and South Sudan abstained. This pattern marks the outlines of Russian influence in the African Horn.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed to mark out spheres of influence in the Horn, largely because of the region’s geographic significance. Its importance lay in its location, linking the two continents of Asia and Africa. Between them, the Red Sea was seen as a lifeline of global maritime logistics: The contending powers sought to gain commercial footholds and access to military facilities in the region.

In the 1970s and 80s, the Soviet Union had unprecedented influence in the Horn of Africa. There were a number of Soviet interests in the region, but its primary interest had always been to secure the naval base in the Red Sea basin. The Soviet Union first secured a naval base in Somalia’s Port of Berbera, but after the Ogaden War, it shifted its alliance to Ethiopia and built naval bases in Eritrean ports and islands (then part of Ethiopia). The Red Sea basin was a significant element of the Soviet’s offensive strategy, but it also served a defensive purpose, as Gaim Kibreab notes in his book From Ally to Enemy; the Soviet Union and the Horn of Africa, a Failed Intervention, by protecting the Soviet maritime fleet and “monitoring the U.S. ballistic missile submarines, including allied naval forces operating in the waters surrounding the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.”

After the fall of the Soviet empire, the United States forged close diplomatic ties with the newly independent Eritrea and the new administration in Ethiopia. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration worked closely with Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda to fight their common enemy of Islamic extremism in Sudan. And when the United States moved to dismantle the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia in 2006, the United States had been collaborating with Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda. Ethiopia marched with its 14,000 soldiers to Mogadishu, while Kenya and Uganda contributed significant numbers of soldiers to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The alliance played a powerful role in tackling terrorism and protecting maritime trade from pirates.

But the alliance was not without its faults. The United States sacrificed democracy and human rights on the altar of national security and turned a blind eye to rigged elections in the region. For example, when then U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice was asked in a press conference about Ethiopia’s rigged elections, she noted that she had “some concern about the integrity of the electoral process,” yet laughingly responded “a hundred percent” when a journalist asked if she still felt it was a democratic election. She remains infamous in the region for this crass and ill-judged reaction.

In recent years, Russia has been making its comeback and quietly expanding its influence in the region. This February, Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister and special envoy to the Middle East and Africa, met with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in Asmara and stated that the visit “underscores [the] readiness of the Russian Federation for all rounded [sic] cooperation with Eritrea.” We do not know the details of the agreements on economic and security cooperation, but it is highly likely it involved arms sales as Russia uses its weapons supply as leverage in Africa. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia is the biggest arms exporters to Africa, accounting for 49 percent.

On April 29, a senior Eritrean delegation visited Moscow to show support for Russia. And according to Tesfa-Alem Tekle of the East African, Russia announced its plan to build military logistic facilities in the port of Assab. And as Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the deputy head of Sudan’s ruling council, visited Moscow. On the very day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Dagalo to discuss Sudan’s concerns. On his return, General Dagalo said that “we have 730 kilometres along the Red Sea. If any country wants to open a base and it is in our interests we have no problem in dealing with anyone, Russia or otherwise,” affirming plans to establish a naval base in Port Sudan. This outpost on the Red Sea coast will have massive strategic importance for Russia. Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. State Department official and Sudan expert, noted that it’s a substantial advancement of Russia’s strategy to regain relevance across Africa and Middle East.

Given that China and Russia are serial violators of human rights and have never been known to respect democracy, they are not in a position to bolster respect for the human rights of ordinary people in the region. As the advocacy group Eritrean Research Institute for Policy and Strategy said, “in the rapidly deteriorating situation in the region, the Eritrean people, regional and American national interests are at stake.” China and Russia have been taking advantage of America’s waning interest and influence in the region.

There are two contributing factors for the decline of U.S. influence in the Horn of Africa. First, Donald Trump’s isolationist U.S. foreign policy toward the Horn caused damage to relations in the region. During Mr. Trump’s tenure, the United States never engaged successfully with any country in the Horn. When the U.S Treasury facilitated the preparation of an agreement on the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam based on provisions proposed by legal and technical teams in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, many were surprised, because traditionally it was the U.S. State Department who dealt with foreign affairs and mediation. Even worse, the U.S. Treasury was not considered an honest broker and the Ethiopians stepped back from the agreement, claiming that the United States was not an impartial mediator and had favored Egypt. And Mr. Trump’s remark that Egypt might “blow up the dam” made matters worse. The collapsed mediation process was replaced by the African Union. Ever since, U.S.-Ethiopian relations have been strained. And at the end of his tenure Mr. Trump ordered the withdrawal of all U.S troops from Somalia, an ill-advised move given that Al-Shabaab, the Islamic insurgent group, remains active in the region. Mr. Biden has recognized this and reversed the policy, approving in May the redeployment of troops to Somalia.

Domestic political dysfunction has also severely handicapped President Biden’s administration, with huge ramifications for the Horn of Africa. This is evident in the resignation of the U.S. Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa David Satterfield, who resigned just three months after he took the position. Sources indicate that one of the reasons for his resignation was “insufficient White House attention to the region and weakened U.S. hand in Khartoum and Addis Ababa.”

Appointing a special envoy is important because the U.S. ambassadorships to Sudan and Ethiopia are not filled yet, partly due to Sen. Ted Cruz’s delays. The special envoy position, on the other hand, does not require Senate confirmation. However, special envoys and the State Department have always been at odds, with the State Department viewing special envoys as undermining their authority. This was clearly seen in the disagreement between David Satterfield’s predecessor, former U.S. Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman, and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Mary Catherine Phee, on whether to impose sanctions on the plotters of the attempted 2021 coup in Sudan. Feltman supported imposing sanctions and Phee was against it. The disagreement had huge implications for U.S. foreign policy toward Sudan.

Due to its strategic importance, the Horn of Africa has long attracted powers in the region. China, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf States are playing long games. China has made heavy investments in infrastructure projects, including railways and roads in Ethiopia, ports and roads in Djibouti, and the extension of the Belt and Road Initiative to Eritrea. But the United States cannot successfully act as a counterweight to these powers, given that it has failed to forge meaningful relations in the region, and is on the verge of losing its most important ally in the area: Ethiopia.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heralded the return of the Cold War, proving that the value of alliance is critical. This is precisely what the West has been doing: The United States, the EU, the UK, and other countries mounted a united front to isolate and condemn Russia. But to build a global coalition and deliver a long-term vision of containing Russia, the United States needs to engage with the developing nations. The Horn of Africa would be a good starting place.

Negash T. Tekie is an Eritrean writer based in London. His research focuses on the economics and geopolitics of the Horn of Africa. He previously worked as a public policy consultant on the Horn of Africa.