Global Perspectives | Ethiopia-Russia Relations
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In 1943, Ethiopia and the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations. Since then, great power competition and evolving political and economic interests have shaped the bilateral relationship between Ethiopia and the Soviet Union, and now Russia. How do the past 78 years affect today's ties? Do Ethiopia and Russia’s objectives in Africa dovetail or diverge, and what effect does the relationship have on the broader region? Abel Abate Demissie, Associate Fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, joined us for a conversation on the state of Ethiopia-Russia relations and their future trajectory.
Abel Abate Demissie
"As you know, Ethiopia is pretty much an outlier in this region. The region is actually dominated by either predominantly Muslim countries and Catholic and Protestantism, which you find when you go down to the horn of Africa, but Ethiopia is an outlier. It is probably the only Orthodox Christian country together with Eritrea. So religion played an important role in the state building and nation building process and Orthodox Christianity had an important role in the state, particularly in 1974. The relationship between [Russian and Ethiopia] also has an element of exchange between the two countries’ patriarchs and the Orthodox Church leadership and the last meeting with the Orthodox Church patriarch has informed meetings with senior government officials and that was also true when Orthodox church officials visited Moscow in 2018. More than half of Russians define themselves as Orthodox Christians and more than 44% of Ethiopians also identify as Orthodox."
"In the last thirty years, Ethiopia has managed to navigate through the [the U.S., China, and Russia], but most importantly between the West and China, without disappointing anyone, but having an excellent relationship with the three countries, but most importantly with China and the West. Ethiopia remained one of China’s many important partners without being a resource-rich country, unlike many African countries that China has a strong relationship with. That comes with the fact that Ethiopia is endowed with a strategic advantage of being situated in an important position within the conflict-prone Horn of Africa region and particularly as it serves as one of the most pacifying factors in the region... This has made it an important ally for many countries in the world, but particularly these three important powers, China, Russia, and the U.S."
"Russia is also reasserting its influence in Africa by enhancing its security presence in multiple ways. In addition to the arms sales, Moscow was concluding security agreements and conducting military training, in particular with a number of unstable autocratic states in Africa, such as the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mozambique. One of Russia’s stated priorities in Africa is to advance regional peace and security and this is a priority it shares with the United States. However, given Moscow’s and Washington’s different histories and different approaches in Africa, it’s unlikely that the U.S. and Russia will significantly collaborate in this regard."
"Whereas Moscow portrays its growing relations with Africa as mutually beneficial for all parties involved, Washington often sees Russia’s presence as a threat to good economic governance and the rule of law in Africa. In fact, the prevailing view from Washington is that Russia is strategically targeting certain areas of Africa to gain a competitive advantage over the United States, particularly in regions where the U.S. has historically been heavily engaged, so for its part Washington has been paying close attention and is working to counterbalance Russia’s growing influence across the African continent."
On February 11, 2021, the Wilson Center Kennan Institute and Africa Program co-hosted a discussion on “Ethiopia-Russia Relations” as a part of the Kennan Institute’s “Global Perspectives” event series. Mr. Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute, offered welcome remarks and moderated the discussion. Mr. Michael Morrow, Senior Diplomatic Fellow with the Africa Program, offered brief introductory remarks before introducing the guest speaker, Mr. Abel Abate Demissie, Associate Fellow with the Chatham House Africa Programme and a researcher whose work focuses on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.
Mr. Abel Abate Demissie opened the discussion by framing the historical context of Russia-Ethiopia relations, which trace their origins as early as 1890. He emphasized four points crucial to understanding the “largely cordial relations” that have endured between the two nations since then. First, Russia and Ethiopia are both “ancient empires” with extremely diverse populations that have emerged as “struggling modern-day federations.” Next, both countries have experienced the influence of Marxism in ways that continue to shape their societies in the present. Third, Russia and Ethiopia are closely linked militarily, dating back to the USSR’s support of Ethiopia’s Derg regime in the 1970s and 80s. A military cooperation agreement between the two countries signed in 2018 underscored the persistence of this relationship. Fourth, Russia and Ethiopia share a common Orthodox Christian religious identity. The Orthodox Church is an influential institution in both countries, and Russian and Ethiopian patriarchs have exchanged visits in recent years.
Several audience questions focused on increased great power competition in Africa. Mr. Morrow remarked that with decreased US engagement in recent years, both Russia and China are playing an increasingly influential role in Africa, as are rising “middle powers” including Turkey, India, and several Persian Gulf countries. He added that African countries with stability and strong governance are able to play these struggles between great and middle powers to their advantage, while less stable countries are more likely to be taken advantage of. Mr. Demissie identified Ethiopia’s strategic location and regional influence as an advantage, making it an important ally for Russia, China, and the US. He noted that Russia’s relationship with Ethiopia and other African countries largely centers on military ties, while China focuses on economic and infrastructure initiatives. Mr. Demissie also emphasized Ethiopia’s perception that it can rely on Russia as an ally “when Ethiopia doesn’t get what it wants from the West.” Mr. Morrow added broader context to this sentiment, noting the trend of global powers developing “lanes of appeal.” For Russia, this lies primarily in the energy and security sectors, but also in cultivating the perception that African countries can turn to Moscow if their relations with Western states cool over issues like human rights, rule of law, and good governance.
Other questions involved the lingering impact of communism, Russian disinformation campaigns, Ethiopia’s civil conflict in Tigray state, and academic cooperation. Another question was how the US could become a preferred ally compared to China or Russia. Mr. Morrow noted that the U.S. needs to engage with African partner governments at the highest levels, which has not been the case in recent years. Mr. Demissie echoed this sentiment, adding that while the US will continue to play a central role in the democracy and governance realms, it needs to engage more with African countries at senior levels. The final question from Mr. Rojansky focused on the state of government-to-government and people-to-people relationships between Russia and Ethiopia. Mr. Demissie concluded by saying that religion, culture, and history all contribute to Russia’s close relationship with Ethiopia. Mr. Morrow closed out the discussion by noting that Ethiopia’s strength as a regional power puts it in a good position to manage its relations with China, the U.S., and Russia, allowing it to benefit from its ability to cooperate with global actors on different issues as it sees fit.
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The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, including our Africa Up Close blog, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations. Read more