Ethiopia’s nuanced approach to Russia-Africa ties amid Black Sea blockades
The streets of St. Petersburg played host last month to Russia’s attempt at a grand diplomatic return to the African continent. From July 27th-28th, 2023, President Putin likely hoped for a lavish celebration of renewed partnership and influence at the second ever Russia-Africa summit.
But where excited preparations had been made, he instead faced an audibly quieter affair. Originally scheduled for Ethiopia last fall, the high-level meeting was moved north to the halls of power in the Kremlin’s backyard. Citing complications from its war in Ukraine, Moscow postponed and relocated the major meeting.
But the forced relocation and months-long delay appears to have taken a serious toll on RSVPs. While 49 African nations were technically represented in late July, far fewer leaders made the long trek to Russia.
Only 17 heads of state and 10 prime ministers dotted the crowded name tags at this year’s event. A far cry from 2019’s blockbuster summit in Sochi, which saw a stunning 43 presidents and 109 total ministers flock to attend.
President Putin secured participation from South Africa and the Comoros at his comeback party in St. Petersburg last month. But conspicuously missing were powerhouses like Kenya and Nigeria. Experts speculate Moscow’s risky grain games may have been the sour note that spoiled their musical chairs.
It’s no secret the Kremlin’s expanded warfare cut off critical Ukrainian exports, hiking food prices across Africa. So when Russia torpedoed the Turkey-brokered Black Sea grain deal in October, harsh African criticism rang out. Nairobi publicly scolded the move threatening global supplies on the very cusp of famine season.
One outlier in attendance was Ethiopia.
The warm and friendly tone of the conversation between Putin and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gives insight into why Ethiopia has opted to continue attending forums like the Russia-Africa latest summit, despite the concerns of other African nations.
Putin emphasized the long history and “friendly ties” between Russia and Ethiopia, noting they were the first countries to establish diplomatic relations on the African continent 125 years ago. Abiy agreed they have a “very long history” and have weathered “ups and downs together.”
Where other African leaders may see Putin as unreliable following events like withdrawing from the grain deal, Abiy is willing to engage in “fruitful discussion” on strengthening cooperation on issues like technology, cybersecurity, and trade. He expresses “deepest interest” in discussing both bilateral cooperation and “regional issues” as “friends” and “brothers.”
With increasing global power competition, Ethiopia has managed to create a balanced alliance with both Russia and Western powers, skillfully avoiding taking sides and maintaining its strategic autonomy. This delicate balancing act has allowed Ethiopia as the African nation to leverage the benefits of cooperation with both sides, while safeguarding its national interests.
For over 100 years of diplomatic relations with Russia and Western countries, including the United States, Ethiopia’s position has never caused trouble for the country. The 2023 Russia-Africa Summit provided Ethiopia with a platform to strengthen diplomatic ties with Russia, according to former United Nations Senior Political Adviser Costentinios Biruhtesfa.
He noted that Ethiopia’s multilateral diplomatic ties with Russia and the Western world are evident; this is not the first diplomatic relationship of its kind. During the Red Cross era, the Derge government allied with Russia and then the Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), while the United States contributed hundred millions of dollars in aid to Ethiopia.
“A multilateral diplomatic relationship has never been a problem for Ethiopia,” he said.
Ethiopia’s parallel engagement with Russia and the West indicates its strategic understanding of the benefits and pitfalls of aligning too closely with any particular power group. Ethiopia, according to Costentinios, not only follows a multilateral diplomatic technique but so do the United States and Russia, and Ethiopia’s attitude with both is balanced.
Ethiopia’s diplomatic strategy has elicited both acclaim and criticism. Critics contend that maintaining a truly impartial attitude in an increasingly divided geopolitical landscape is difficult.
Samuel Tefera (PhD), an assistant professor at the Asian and African Research Centre at Addis Ababa University, says that there was no clear agenda for Ethiopia while other African countries went to the Russia-Africa summit with purpose. According to him, the Prime Minister and his team of delegates’ interests were not known whereas others stress their purpose.
And because of that, different reports stated different reasons for Ethiopia’s participation in the St. Petersburg, Russia summit. He mentioned Eritrea’s stance as a reference, saying, “The world knows with whom Eritrea formed an alliance.”
As dissent rang out from Eritrea’s President Afwerki towards “Western aspirations for dominance,” Ethiopia took a more diplomatic tact at Russia’s Africa comeback party last month. While others criticized from the sidelines, Addis Ababa parlayed opportunities.
Prime Minister Abiy tabled initiatives to supercharge trade, especially in agriculture and energy. Hopes were high for wheat security as Russia remains a lifeline for food-vulnerable nations. But according to Communication State Minister Selamawit Kasa, Ethiopia’s ambitions extended beyond grains.
In carbo-loaded addresses, she touted Ethiopia’s “successful bilateral and multilateral activities” cementing political and cultural bonds economically.
While Ethiopia took a neutral stance, other African leaders were concerned about grain supplies. The primary issue for attendees from Africa was how the Ukraine war was impacting economies on the continent through rising food prices. They lobbied for an extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and advocated for a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led it to blockade Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea, trapping 20 million tons of grain meant for export. This caused global food costs to soar and risked creating shortages, especially in African nations dependent on imports of food from Ukraine.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative was an agreement reached in July 2022 between Russia and Ukraine — brokered by Turkey and the UN — that allowed cargo ships to travel along a corridor in the Black Sea.
Nearly 33 million tons of grain and other foodstuffs have been exported as a result of this deal. Ethiopia benefited the most from the initiative. However, Russia withdrew from the grain deal on July 17th, dismaying many African leaders. Kenya’s government said that Russia’s exit from the agreement was a “stab in the back” for countries struggling with drought.
The Presidents of Egypt and South Africa were among those most vocal about needing to restore the Black Sea grain deal, but criticism was widespread.
“The issue of grains and fertilizers affects us all,” said Comoros President Azali Assoumani, who currently heads the African Union (AU), while AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat remarked that “the grain deal must be extended for the benefit of all the world’s peoples, Africans especially.”
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, however, took a more subtle approach on the heated issue, as observed by political scientist Atikelt Atenafu.
Though the grain agenda remain hot button for Africans, Atnafu framed Ethiopia’s “deft navigation” as protecting national interests through “multilateral diplomatic approach,” akin to the Horn nation “playing all sides” as regional proxies in broader global superpower tensions, just as Addis Ababa creates “global power order” by carefully considering all perspectives in the negotiations.
“As Horn nations become proxies in superpower jousting, Addis plays all sides,” Atenafu concluded, highlighting Ethiopia’s balanced attempt to represent East African interests amid geopolitical complexities surrounding the crucial Black Sea grain supply.