Abiy Ahmed’s Risky Friendship with Putin
By Elias Dawit 03-30-21
In an alarming speech made in English at the Russia-Africa: Reviving Traditions Conference last week, Abiy Ahmed told the U.S. in the strongest terms that Ethiopia considers its former ally to be interfering in its sovereignty. Recent efforts by the U.S. to encourage the Ethiopian leader to put an end to the war against Tigray and allow humanitarian access have alienated the Ethiopian leader so much so that he has made an abrupt turn to Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation.
The Ethiopian leader has tried a variety of tactics to, in the words of Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Dina Mulfti, “[explain] its position so the friendly United States government would better understand it and study the issue.” Said Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, Abiy Ahmed, in his meetings with Senator Chris Coons, tried “to shed light on the confusions that the U.S. Government previously had about the military operation in the region.”
Abiy Ahmed is playing a risky game with the U.S. His sudden rise to power was a direct consequence of U.S. interference in Ethiopian affairs. The outsized role played by Ambassador Yamamoto, Senator James Inhofe and other U.S. officials in supporting Abiy Ahmed is well known. Ethiopia’s sovereignty only became an issue when the U.S., in the face of Abiy’s monstrous actions against the Tigrayan people and under a new administration, began to voice its concerns.
Hence, the defense of protecting Ethiopia’s sovereignty became Abiy’s loud and consistent message to the U.S. government. Abiy Ahmed cannot reasonably defend his genocidal actions against Tigrayans, his invitation to Eritrea and the U.A.E. to commit atrocities against Tigrayans, his border dispute with Sudan, or any of the myriad foreign and domestic policy decisions that have brought Ethiopia to the brink of becoming a failed state.
Russian ambitions in Africa are clearly ramping up and the COVID-19 pandemic has been an important weapon in its arsenal of partnership incentives. Thirty Africa countries have requested assistance from Russia in fighting the pandemic--test systems, laboratory supplies, personal protective equipment, mobile laboratories and medical devices, as well as the Sputnik V vaccine. Institutionally, Russia has organized the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum and the Association of Economic Cooperation with African States (AECAS) and next year will hold its Russia-Africa Summit in Addis Ababa.
Most concerning for the West is Russia’s alliance with Sudan and its naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. With this base, Russia has a strategic foothold in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, widening the reach of its significant naval forces. The Port Sudan naval base has a lease for twenty-five years.
Sudan is also Russia’s third largest arms market.
Russia’s growing military ties to Eritrea and eyes on the Berbera port in Somaliland are clear warnings about Russian ambitions to control the Horn of Africa and the strategically vital Red Sea. Abiy Ahmed may just be testing the waters by hyping his new-found friendship with Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation. After all, says Abiy, “[the] Russian Federation and African countries have a rich tradition of pushing back against counter-productive interference [read U.S.].”
The U.S. political landscape following the November 2020 election, however, has changed. The Biden administration will not roll over for Vladimir Putin as did the Trump administration. Abiy’s government is cash poor, and the economy is tanking quickly—not the least because of an expensive and unwinnable war that is eating a hole in the pocket of the treasury. Neither the E.U nor the U.S. will bail Abiy out of this economic debacle in the face of widespread human rights abuses and crimes of war.
Vladimir Putin, however, will not ask Abiy to stop committing atrocities against the Tigrayan people. Putin will not ask him to expel foreign troops from Ethiopia or stop using drones to slaughter civilians. Putin will not ask Abiy to hold elections or stop imprisoning journalists. For Abiy, allying with another autocrat can extract him from the pressure being out on him by a new administration representing the U.S. government.
The real question, then, is what the U.S. will do with such an unreliable ally. Can the Biden administration, given the new reality of Abiy’s Ethiopia, continue to support the increasingly autocratic and brutal regime it put in power under the Trump administration? Will the Biden administration call Abiy’s bluff and cut ties with its former proxy—leaving him to sway in the wind of an uncertain and dangerous liminal state of political limbo preceding an election no one really wants to hold?
And what about Isayas Afewerki, the architect of Ethiopia’s new political reality? How tight is his grip on Abiy Ahmed given the crucial role Eritrean troops are playing to prop up Abiy’s losing war against the Tigrayan people and their government? Is talk about some sort of federation between Ethiopia and Eritrea a mere distraction or will Isayas finally rule Ethiopia? What will this Ethiopia look like as regions begin to collapse under the weight of misrule, misappropriation and lawlessness?
As Ethiopia goes, so goes the Horn of Africa. How far is the U.S. going to go in continuing to support Abiy Ahmed?