February 22, 2022
Mere weeks after the January 05, 2022, engagement that took place with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who commiserated with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki about international sanction against his government, on February 07, 2022, Isais has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Middle East and African countries, Mikhail Bogdanov, who is also Deputy Foreign Minister. There were few details concerning the substance of this Eritrea-Russia meeting, but it was reported that the parties decried “external interferences and illicit sanctions,”. The Eritrean Research Institute for Policy and Strategy (ERIPS) believes these alliances with China and now Russia will not benefit the Eritrean people, countries in the region or American interests.
In an executive order issued in September 2021, President Biden warned of sanctions against parties involved in the fighting in Ethiopia and the Treasury Department has levied sanctions against the Eritrean Defense Forces and the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) stating “Eritrea’s destabilizing presence in Ethiopia is prolonging the conflict, posing a significant obstacle to a cessation of hostilities, and threatening the integrity of the Ethiopian state,”. The Eritrean regime’s attempt to evade the sanctions seems to be taking a sharp turn for the worse.
It is well known that the regime of Isaias Afwerki has consistently sought the friendship and support of authoritarian regimes, such as the Middle Eastern countries to hold onto power and to extend his influence with military adventures in neighboring countries. President Afwerki has now signed a new strategic but uneven relationship with the People’s Republic of China, and is working on one with Russia as well, undoubtedly as leverage to evade the sanctions and to take advantage of the rapidly deteriorating situation in the region where the Eritrean people’s, regional and American national interests are at stake.
With the potential of establishing political and military relationship with Russia, it appears that the Eritrean government is intent on expanding its military adventurism in Tigray and elsewhere in East Africa. This regime is known for instigating conflicts with neighboring countries (Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Yemen) since the early 1990s. The Isaias regime has regularly supported armed opposition groups against governments with disputes, including the militant Islamist al-Shabaab in Somalia, and these wars have led to the unnecessary loss of lives and instability of the region. The addition of heavy Russian weaponry will only exacerbate an already tense relationship between Eritrea and its neighbors. Absent an arms embargo on Eritrea and Ethiopia, the situation will only worsen, incurring an even greater humanitarian crisis and political instability in the region.
As part of Russia’s grand strategy of establishing political, economic, and military relationships with many African nations, Moscow has increased its activities in the African arms market. “Arms sales are a central element of Russia’s foreign policy and are closely controlled by the government to advance economic and strategic objectives. Russian arms sales provide an important source of hard currency, promote Russia’s defense and political relations with other countries, and support important domestic industries,” stated a 2021 report by the Congressional Research Service. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), as of 2020, Russia accounts for 49% of arms imports to Africa. The National Interest magazine also reported that Russia has sold arms to at least twenty-one African states, including such weapons as T-90SA main battle tanks (MBT’s), modernized BMPT-72 Terminator 2 infantry fighting vehicles, Su-34 strike fighters and Su-35 air superiority jets. As of July 2021, Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-tun arms exporting company, had signed over a dozen deals worth billions of dollars for the supply of Russian military products.
According to Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, through Russian support of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar with snipers, Mig-29 and Su-24 fighter jets, SA-22 surface-to-air missile, anti-aircraft systems, hundreds of flights delivering military logistics since 2019 and an estimated 1,200 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, Russia is managing to carve out a region bordering NATO’s southern flank. This could well be a preview of what is in store for the Greater Horn of Africa through the Eritrea-Russia alliance.
“Libya provides a vignette of how Russia pursues its strategic goals in Africa: expanding geopolitical influence through low-cost ventures that hold economic windfalls for Moscow and President Vladimir Putin’s close associates. In this way, Russia’s strategy in Africa is both opportunistic and calculating. It is opportunistic in that it is willing to take risks and quickly deploy mercenary forces to crisis contexts when the opening presents itself, similar to what Moscow did in Syria. It is calculating in that it aims to expand Russia’s power projection including over strategic chokeholds in the eastern Mediterranean and Suez Canal that could affect NATO force deployments in times of crisis,” stated an article by the George C. Marshall Center.
As ERIPS has stated earlier, it is critical for the U.S. administration and policymakers across the political spectrum to give particular attention to China’s economic, political, and military influence in Africa and particularly to the strategic nations in the Red Sea trade route. Eritrea has two ports: Massawa and Assab. China has a strategy seeking control of ports around the world, and these Red Sea ports are especially critical for the world economy. However, Russian interest in Africa also includes expanding geopolitical influences, weakening global democracies, holding strategic maritime chokeholds, and meeting its dire need for hard currency.
Despite claims to uphold and respect democracy, freedom, justice, and fairness, countries such as China, Russia and Eritrea are among world’s worst human rights violators. Having China and now Russia as strategic partners enables the Afwerki regime to access not only Russia’s voluminous supplies of military hardware and equipment, but also Chinese IT for intelligence and security, military technology, and weaponry. Thus, in ERIPS’ view, these alliances are solely aimed to strengthen the regime’s grip onto power and continue to cause pain and suffering on the Eritrean people. Moreover, these agreements are designed to allow the Eritrean regime to withstand sanctions and carry on with impunity its belligerence in the ongoing Ethiopian civil war that is destabilizing the Horn of Africa.
Eritrean Research Institute for Policy and Strategy