Russia and Ethiopia have a long history of diplomatic relations. In 1898, the two countries began cooperative relations, interrupted by the Bolshevik Revolution and the Cold War. Relations resumed in 1943 to the extent that 20,000 Ethiopians have degrees from Soviet universities and more have received vocational training. In 2020 when Ethiopia decided to modernize its Army, the countries leader Abi Ahmed turned to Russia. Putin obliged, sending Pantsir-S1 air-defense missal-gun systems. The move was publicly shared as an effort to modernize peacekeeping and counterterrorism capabilities. Russia plans to double its trade with African countries in the coming five years, with a summit scheduled for 2022 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Russia also has plans to build military bases in and around Ethiopia.
In the year 2000, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation began with plans to shore-up Sino-Afrique relations with a grand infrastructure program to connect Asia with Africa and Europe through roads, bridges, and ports for sea trade. In 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) intended to launch in Egypt, but due to the Arab Spring, they launched in Djibouti with a new port and two new airports totaling $596 million in Chinese support. Djibouti sits at the bottom of the Red Sea and a stones-throw from Yemen. Yemen is home to the ongoing civil war that began in 2015 due to power issues among the Shiite and Sunni populations. Winner of the worst humanitarian catastrophe globally, Yemen serves as a pawn that Saudi Arabia aims to keep under Sunni control. Yemen’s proximity to Djibouti leaves for an effortless BRI project connecting the two post-war. BRI has already connected Djibouti to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by rail and by water pipeline. China also boasts a military base in Djibouti and has a naval presence in the new port.
Ethiopia was never colonized and is a symbol of freedom across the continent of Africa. Ethiopia’s former leader, Haile Selassie, brought together the heads of African states in 1963 for the first meeting to discuss the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now called the African Union. Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is akin to Washington, DC, in that both are home to the offices that unify the continent. But just because it stands for freedom does not mean the country provides freedom, particularly economically for citizens to earn a decent living. Since July 2020, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian migrants have been stranded in Yemen en route to see jobs in wealthy Arabian countries. The Chinese invested in a manufacturing hub called the Eastern Industrial Zone (EIZ) outside Addis Ababa. Over 50 companies have begun manufacturing, though economic development has not taken off due to lack of infrastructure for trade with neighboring countries.
When two of America’s chief adversaries, Russia and China, are both working diligently in an Africa country geographically located as a gateway to the Middle East, it signals something to watch. That Ethiopia is the seat of the African Union, Russia and China’s action signals a power shift in the making. However, due to the nature of political and ethnic differences between African states, an “Eastern” power-grab would be greatly limited to Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. Kenya and South Sudan will hold the line of Western democracy. However, the move would signify a Russia/China collaboration. It would usher in the concern of a new hegemonic strategy against the U.S. as the West struggles with an ever-mutating coronavirus and a sliding economy.
Saudi Arabia would likely appreciate such a collaborative move from the East, but not the UAE, Jordan, and Bahrain. Nevertheless, Russian and China would have a foothold in a strategic area that could corner the Western-leaning states with Eastern allies in Turkey and Syria. Further pressure to join Eastern political ideology could come through Russia and China increasing relations with Iran, Sudan, and potentially Egypt. Access to the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Arabian Sea would be in their command.
Magicians are successful in deluding audiences by distracting attention from one thing to gain progress in another. The same strategy works in world politics. A sliding economy and a novel virus have distracted every country, but more so the U.S. because America is still dealing with daily deaths in the thousands. Though the relationship between Russia, Ethiopia, and China began years ago, now is the time for those countries to make it count, lest the U.S. step in and renew a commitment for support.