Russia’s Balancing Act In The Horn Of Africa Is Challenged By The Region’s Security Dilemma

Any attempt that Russia might make to peacefully resolve the port dimension of the Horn’s security dilemma for the purpose of averting a future conflict over this sensitive issue could be misinterpreted by Eritrea as a means for Ethiopia to gain an edge at its expense. Eritrea might then distance itself from Russia to a degree if it formulates policy under this false perception should Russia make any moves in that direction, which can’t be ruled out since Ethiopia is now its fellow BRICS partner.

Russia’s “Return to Africa” envisages the cultivation of mutually beneficial partnerships with the continent’s several dozen countries, which in some cases requires this Great Power to carefully balance between pairs of rivals like new BRICS members Egypt and Ethiopia. Peaceful cooperation with one might be viewed by the other as driven by their rival’s ulterior motives, which risks catalyzing a self-sustaining cycle of escalations per the security dilemma concept of International Relations theory.

The Egyptian-Russian-Ethiopian triangle has thus far remained impervious to these dynamics because Moscow’s two African partners in this example sincerely trust it as a result of decades-long strategic partnerships, though this isn’t the case as regards other countries in such dilemmas. The Eritrean-Russian-Ethiopian triangle is arguably much more sensitive than the aforementioned one since Russian-Eritrean relations have only recently begun to blossom and lack the deep basis that the other two have.

This wouldn’t be an issue if Eritrean-Ethiopian relations remained on the positive trajectory that President Isaias Afwerki (PIA) and Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed jointly charted in summer 2018, but their prior security dilemma regrettably returned over the past year. As explained in this analysis here, PM Abiy’s Cessation Of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) with the TPLF was likely considered by PIA to be a betrayal after he was caught off guard by this deal with what had hitherto been their shared nemeses.

The renewed distrust between those two countries set into motion the previously mentioned self-sustaining cycle of escalations characteristic of this International Relations concept, which most observers outside the region were unaware of until recently. Although relations officially remain cordial, the return of mutual suspicions is undeniable if one monitors the latest chatter from their respective communities on social media.

Some Eritreans have begun to suspect that PM Abiy’s prioritization of his country’s peaceful port plans implies territorial claims to their country, while some Ethiopians have begun to suspect that Eritrea might have secretly resumed its former policy of backing their country’s armed anti-government groups. These accusations have served to worsen trust between their societies and reopen the wounds that their leaders tried to heal through their historic rapprochement in summer 2018.

It’s unimportant in this context which side any reader might blame for catalyzing the sequence of events that was just described since the purpose in mentioning them is solely to point out that the region’s security dilemma has returned and is once again a factor shaping dynamics in the Horn of Africa. This presents a challenge to Russia’s careful balancing act between Eritrea and Ethiopia since it can’t be taken for granted that the first won’t overreact to the Kremlin’s peaceful cooperation with the second.

After all, Eritrea is a non-traditional partner with whom ties have only recently begun to blossom this past year, while Ethiopia is a traditional partner with whom ties are over a century old. The security dilemma concept of International Relations theory therefore suggests that Eritrea might be susceptible to mistaking Russia’s mutually beneficial ties with Ethiopia as being driven by the latter’s ulterior motives due to Asmara’s ties with Moscow not having anywhere near as deep of a basis as Addis’.

Here are some background briefings for those who haven’t been following Russian policy in the Horn:

* 28 July 2022: “Russian-Ethiopian Relations Are The Perfect Model Of Multipolar Partnership

* 30 January 2023: “Lavrov’s Trip To Eritrea Advances Russia’s Multipolar Strategy For The Horn Of Africa

* 15 April 2023: “Russia’s Grand Strategy in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea Countries

* 2 June 2023: “The Eritrean President Deserves Appreciation For Being A Multipolar Pioneer

* 8 June 2023: “China & Russia Shattered The West’s Media Blockade Against Eritrean President Afwerki

* 19 July 2023: “Insight into the Russia-Africa Summit and its Geopolitical Significance

* 30 July 2023: “Everyone Should Read Eritrean President Afwerki’s Explanation Of The New Cold War

The insight contained therein will now be summarized for the reader’s convenience.

In short, Russia envisages Eritrea functioning as a politically reliable partner in the strategic Red Sea region, with bilateral ties being anchored through potential military (naval) and mineral cooperation. Supplementarily, Eritrea could also in theory facilitate Russian-Ethiopian trade, though only if the regional security dilemma is first resolved. The latest exacerbation of their aforesaid tensions, which Russia might have been unaware of till recently, presents an unexpected challenge to its policies.

Any attempt that Russia might make to peacefully resolve the port dimension of the Horn’s security dilemma for the purpose of averting a future conflict over this sensitive issue could be misinterpreted by Eritrea as a means for Ethiopia to gain an edge at its expense. Observers should remember that Russia’s ties with feuding pairs of countries like Armenia-Azerbaijan, China-India, China-Vietnam, Egypt-Ethiopia, Iran-Israel, and Syria-Turkiye, et al. always take each of their objective interests into account.

Never has Russia done anything that could credibly be interpreted as being at the expense of one or the other feuding countries’ such interests even though its careful balancing acts between them is always smeared by the West as falsely being driven by zero-sum motives instead of mutually beneficial ones. Considering Russia’s over 120-year-old relations with Ethiopia, which also just became a fellow BRICS member, it should naturally be expected that Moscow will informally float such proposals to help Addis.

For instance, the informally proposed Russian-led series of Djiboutian-Ethiopian-South Sudanese deals that were explained at length in the hyperlinked analyses at the end of these “Frequently Asked Questions About Ethiopia’s Quest For Its Own Red Sea Port” serves precisely that purpose. Readers will see that they explicitly rule out the political viability of Eritrean-Ethiopian talks on this sensitive issue, focus exclusively on Djibouti and South Sudan instead, and don’t in any way warmonger against Eritrea.

Even so, the online Eritrean community erupted in fury after the sharing of this informal proposal aimed at alleviating related pressure on their country and thus responsibly managing the security dilemma that’s once again shaping dynamics in the Horn, with this thread here documenting the worst examples. This lent credence to concerns that Eritrea’s newly worsened security dilemma with Ethiopia has affected it society’s perceptions of Russia’s peaceful and mutually beneficial ties with that country.

What’s unique about this society is that it usually channels the state’s unofficial sentiment on sensitive issues due to the special relationship between those two. Popular discourse is limited inside Eritrea for national security reasons, while the diaspora is obligated to pay a tax otherwise they risk denial of consulate services, among other reported consequences. These ties between society and the state explain why this community’s public sentiments on sensitive issues often reflect the government’s.

Accordingly, the furor that resulted from this informally proposed Russian-led series of deals for resolving the regional security dilemma suggests that the Eritrean state might also irrationally regard that scenario as unfriendly. They could therefore distance themselves from Russia if it makes any such moves in this direction, which is possible since Ethiopia is now a fellow BRICS partner. Russian policymakers would thus do well to keep the insight gleaned from this example in mind going forward.

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