Is There A Russian Interest Hiding In The Current Ethiopian Conflict With Tigray?

Right now as the world turns and people ponder over Biden and Trump, or while conflicts rage in other nations, there is a major one going on right now that, like the Nagorno-Karabakh situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan, few are discussing. This is a horrible conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia that is threatening instability in both Eritrea and Sudan as well as a possible civil war in Ethiopia herself and a possibility of almost a quarter-of-a-million refugees.

Government forces captured two towns from rebel forces in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the government said on Friday, and Tigrayan fighters fired rockets at an airport in a neighbouring region.

The rocket attack on Bahir Dar, capital of Asmara region, raised concerns that the two-week-old conflict between the Tigrayan rebels and the central government could spiral into a wider war.

The United Nations meanwhile said it was making plans for as many as 200,000 refugees fleeing into neighbouring Sudan.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have been killed and tens of thousands of refugees have already fled from fighting in Tigray as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tries to hold his ethnically diverse nation together.

Ethiopian government forces are fighting their way towards Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, from several directions.

Aid agencies fear a humanitarian emergency in Tigray, where hundreds of thousands of people depended on relief aid even before the conflict. Refugees have crowded into boats to cross a river to Sudan, overwhelming aid groups on the other side.

Axel Bisschop of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR told a briefing in Geneva that 31,000 refugees had already reached Sudan, surpassing a contingency plan for 20,000. “The new planning figure is around 200,000.” (source)

Now, a question to ask here might surprise some people, but it is, are the Russians involved with the conflict on the Ethiopian side? I note this because not only has Russia opened up flights with Ethiopia recently in the midst of this conflict and is going into Sudan, but also, Russia has a centuries-long interest in Ethiopia, going back to the days of the Tsar.

Let’s take a brief journey back in history over this.

As I noted, Russia’s interest in Ethiopia is centuries old. One only needs to look at Pushkin, the most famous of all Russia authors, who was not actually a “full blooded Russian”, but the mixed-race grandson of an Ethiopian servant, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, given as a gift to the Tsar who in turn was well-liked and married to the daughter of a lower nobleman, who then married another Russian woman, and it was from her that the world was given Pushkin. Job (Hiob) Ludolf, a German Orientalist who did a lot of work on Ethiopia, had his works translated into Russian early on in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Amharic (Ethiopian) was being taught at Russian universities in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Russia tried to establish a colony in Ethiopia on the land that is today Djibouti, which was later a French protectorate and success at what the Russians failed to achieve. In terms of modern times, Russia established a “formal” diplomatic mission to Ethiopia in 1902, but this does not discount what clearly has been centuries of cultural, economic, military, political, and even religious (as both have large Orthodox populations) interchange.

Geopolitically speaking, the 19th century for the then Russian Empire was dominated by conflict with the Anglos, who went about aggressively colonizing the world and with great success along with the French. While the Russians and French shared a nominal alliance (although with often times a lot of mistrust), the English successes in India that threatened Central Asia compelled Russia to try and establish their own interests in Africa to get a hold on the Nile region over which the British held a dominating influence. Ethiopia was chosen because of the above long-existing contact and that fact that given her position in the Nile River flow, she might jeopardize English influence as well as take a strategic location, given her position near the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.

Obviously, history shows that Russia never managed to take over Ethiopia. In fact, the Italians had far more overall control because even Italy, disorganized and divided as she historically has been, was able to colonize Somalia and about half of what is today Ethiopia. However, Russian advice was freely given, and large consignments of arms, rifles, and rounds of ammunition and cannons were sent clandestinely to Ethiopia as well as Russian logistical and medical aid such as during the first Italo-Ethiopian war in 1895.

Russian history changed forever with the destruction of the Tsar and the rise of the Bolsheviks. However, the change in government did not mean a change in policy, for just as Byzantium became Constantinople and then Istanbul and Germania became the Holy Roman Empire and then Prussia and then modern Germany (in other forms as well) but the alliance between the Germanic and Anatolian peoples did not change, so did the rise of the Politburo and in Ethiopia’s case, the kingship of Haile Selasse (who is worshipped by the Rastafarian religious adherents as divine) change nothing in the fundamental relationship between Russia and Ethiopia, for even in 1959, when Haile Selasse visited Moscow for the first time, he hailed the centuries-long relationship between Ethiopia and Russia.

I have noted before that in the case of Russia, as with unfortunately too much of “Orthodoxy”, religion is inseparable from political aspirations but without the theological error of rejecting apostolicity. This has been a constant of “Orthodox” history and is why in spite of all the talk of “Orthodox Unity”, there is no real unity because ultimately it inherently devolves into a political competition between various factions for power. This was the center of the Georgian-Russian conflict, for while Georgia was dominated by Persians and Turks, when the Russians came in and “saved” them, they immediately began suppressing the Georgian Orthodox Church to the favor of the Russian Orthodox, and this animosity was so intense that it contributed to the pro-Georgian Orthodox sentiments used by the anti-communist programs of NATO under the umbrella of Gladio in helping to take down the USSR such as with the assistance of Georgian nationalist revolutionaries like Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Russia attempted to do similar in Ethiopia, even after the revolution. The logic was simple- that by promoting education and Orthodoxy (although initially not so because of the Soviet atheist philosophy), the Russian government could use the Church as she has too often done and what the Bolsheviks, as I have noted, have been masters at doing, which is to promote the Russian Orthodox Church in order to promote Russian political interests. This went so far as to encourage the establishment of Russian spiritual leadership in the affairs of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and this lasted even into recent times, and of course, this comes in spite of the intense persecution of all Christianity within the USSR.

To show the callous nature of which the USSR regarded religion as but a tool of expediency for selfish interests, consider that while Russia was backing Ethiopia- a fellow “Orthodox nation” in the Second Italo-Ethiopian war (just as with the First Italo-Ethiopian War), she was also selling as many raw materials as she could to Mussolini such as coal, oil, and wheat- all things needed to run or maintain a nation and army at war. She did not care about either the Italians or the Ethiopians, but about making money for herself at all costs and expanding her own interests, and using Ethiopia to do this.

This is where Haile Selassie comes in, as well has his visit to Moscow in 1959. Beginning as early as 1956, the USSR attempted to fully “pull” Ethiopia into her sphere of influence. This came at a time when Selassie was a strong supporter of NATO, going so far as to even have Ethiopian detachments sent to Korea to fight on behalf of the Americans. What seems to have happened is that as Selassie was recognized as being a major force in Africa for peace, such as his involvement in the Pan-African movement as well as neutrality in major political affairs, the USSR wanted to use these aspects to make him a “dog” for their cause by using the talk of ‘peace’ from the USSR that is often a pretext, even up until this day, to attempt to hide militaristic ambitions.*

However, there were other factors that influenced Selassie to seek out a balance with the USSR. The Soviets promised him new technologies and development, while at the same time there was the continuous deterioration of Ethiopian-British relations, an economic recession in Ethiopia, and also a fear of “encirclement” from Muslim nations that, in the name of pan-Arabism, would threaten an Islamic retaliation against his nation that would create a “greater Somalia.” Likewise, as the great empires were at least nominally returning territories to sovereign rule beginning about this time, given Selassie’s fame and role of Ethiopia in Africa, it was an opportunity for him to help lead a new, revitalized African continent and to become a spokesman for a new and independent Africa. These factors seem to to culminate in 1956 with the Suez Canal crisis, which then, not surprisingly, contacts with Ethiopia and the USSR become more pronounced.

In July 1959, Ethiopia and the USSR signed a major trade pact for three years, where the USSR would export machinery, tractors, factory products, and other industrial and medical goods to Ethiopia, largely in return for an assortment of agricultural goods such as coffee, meats, animal skins, and produce. Now, the reality of what happened after this was not as it might seem, for while the particular details are seldom known, Selassie continued to support NATO leaders as well as advocate for peace around the world and in Africa, and was less willing to be a willing pawn for Soviet attempts to influence Egypt and the Middle East through Ethiopia.

This decision, while noble, ultimately seems to have angered the Soviets, for in 1974 after a famine, ongoing economic crisis, and popular discontent, Haile Selassie was deposed and found mysteriously dead by suffocation from the Derg, meaning “Committee” in Ethiopia that was pro-communist and was immediately hailed as the forebears of a new Leninist revolutionary movement in Africa. Far from what he was hailed as before, the USSR immediately returned to vilifying Selassie, his legacy, and praised the Derg, which began a series of violent Cheka-style persecutions as what happened in the USSR.

During Selassie’s reign, there was an ongoing war with Eritrea, the northern region of Ethiopia along the Red Sea coast that has an ancient history back to the days of the Aksumite kingdoms. While Selassie was known for his own brutality against the militants, when the Derg took power, they in typical Soviet fashion committed as series of massacres against the population known as the Qey Shabr Massacre in 1976 as a part of the Ethiopian Red Terror. Not surprisingly, the conflict attracted the attention of NATO, which watched but largely did not get involved, which also extended significantly into Tigray as well as Eritrea.

Now this is not to say that atrocities did not happen on both sides, and conflict in that region still takes place frequently. However, from the point of view for a Cold War strategy of tension, the situation was a classic repeat of situations found in other nations, and while the Soviets did not extend into Ethiopia with a serious military occupation, their support of the Derg was an extension, like with the 19th century and specifically the Italo-Ethiopian conflict, of their “maximum-minimum” policy, where they supported the nation using minimum effort (weapons exporting, etc.) to attempt maximum results by either expanding Soviet influence or interrupting American and NATO-based projects.

Fast forward to 1987, and the Derg collapsed, forming the brief People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia until 1991, when as with the fall of the USSR and he breakup into new nations, Ethiopia became the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Overall since the fall in 1991, Ethiopia has been relatively stable for an African nation, tending to avoid the extreme coups and heinous violence common so often to political transitions of power in her nations. This conflicts with Eritrea, which has seen numerous border conflicts and far less stability.

So far, Ethiopia’s most serious conflict is the one taking place in Tigray with Sudan. Likewise, for many years, people in Eritrea have been forcibly conscripted to fight in her military amid an increasingly brutal regime. This is one of the reasons why during the migration crisis of 2016, many of the refugees that went to Europe and specifically Germany were from Eritrea, fleeing the violence in their lands, so much that Human Rights Watch estimates that 12% of the total population, or about one-in-eight people, has fled.

Now Tigray is NOT a part of either Sudan or Eritrea, but the northermost region of Ethiopia proper. However, given her border with both regions, a conflict in Tigray has the potential to spread political instability into both nations, possibly furthering the already existing refugee crisis there and driving more people into Europe.

But what is perhaps the most interesting is that the Tigray People’s Liberation front has long-standing ties to communism. There has always been resistance in Tigray beginning in the 19th century when the rural people of the area felt marginalized by government policies, and while nationalistic and “patriotic” in their positions as well as opposing the Communist Derg, the Tigrays were also inclined to communism and openly presented themselves such as early as 1974, the same year that Haile Selassie was overthrown and the Derg took power, at which time the two parties fought with each other.

But is there more evidence the Tigray may be inclined to communism? A public search reveals popular sentiment expressing this, but no real academic sources assisting. However, a quick visit to the CIA archives reveals that even though the Derg was being hailed by the Soviets, just like with the USSR supporting Ethiopia proper but backing the Italian fascists, the Soviets were directly and actively assisting the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) with their conflict against the Derg in 1982 while at the same time supporting the Ethiopian government.

The government, nevertheless, in increasingly concerned about the TPLF’s aggressiveness. The guerillas not only are challenging Addis Ababa’s control of Tigray Province and threatening the supply routes to Eritrea Province, but also expanding their operations to lightly defended areas of adjoining provinces. These attacks, at times in cooperation with other dissident groups, highlight Addis Ababa’s vulnerability. To counter this, the government has been forced to divert troops to defensive roles or convoy escort duty and to rely on air transport to move supplies to the north. There are now some 20,000 government soldiers with Soviet military campaigns, the government has failed to subdue the guerillas, largely because it has been unable to engage them in fixed battles or effectively apply its superior numbers, firepower, and mobility in the inaccessible terrain of the interior. (source)

And in a second report,

Ethiopia’s military position in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigray has eroded since its 1982 offensive but Addis Ababa appears firmly committed to either crushing the insurgencies militarily or forcing a political settlement on its terms. At the same time, the insurgents are likely to achieve a decisive military victory due to weapons shortages. Soviet and Cuban support for the Mengitsu (note: Ethiopian government) regime was also discussed. (source)

We know that looking at conflicts in the Caucasus mountains, or throughout the world during the duration of Soviet history, Russia is known for starting a conflict, backing both sides, and trying to take advantage of the chaos (NATO acts in a similar way, but often times with more organization). It bears, in an East African context, a striking similarity to the Donetsk and Lugansk conflict, where not only NATO, but Russia herself has provided assistance to the neo-Nazi Azov brigades while at the same time is very loudly proclaiming her support for the Donetsk and Lugansk as well as all pro-Russian movements in Ukraine.

At the current time, it is yet to be seen what role Russia is playing, if any in the ancient Aksumite lands. However, we can say that as the song of history does not repeat but bears a similar rhythm, the fact that suddenly a nation where Russia has had a centuries long interest is having problems with an area filled with Communist supporters who have received direct support from Communists in the past by way of the Soviets is threatening a major regional conflict, while at the same time Russia is promoting people tied to socialism and is showing a desire to revive the USSR, one cannot help but pay attention lest one choose to ignore the patterns of history and become forced to relive the same brutality as in the past, for as NATO has been doing similar in other nations and while Russia tends to be “late to the party”, she still gets involved and with no less destructive a capacity.

May God have mercy on us all as the mistakes that lead to the horrors of the twentieth century are repeating as we speak.

*With respect to Ethiopia, Selassie was known for brutal internal repressions that eventually culminated in the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. However, as with most economics and politics, what matters more is the perception of a state of affairs rather than the actual state itself until critical events are reached from at which point the ugly truth can no longer be hidden.

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