How Russia Could Help Ethiopia In Its Peaceful Quest For A Port Red Sea

January 2024

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All landlocked countries have the international legal right to obtain reliable access to the sea. An estimated 95% of Ethiopia’s international trade is presently conducted via Djibouti, but that country reportedly charges onerous rates for using its commercial port facilities. The pandemic, the two-year-long Northern Conflict, and a severe draught led to financial problems for Ethiopia, which means the aforesaid rates risk holding back and possibly even capping the nation’s economic growth.

If this situation isn’t rectified to release Ethiopia’s full economic potential, its expected demographic explosion could then lead to a mass exodus that destabilizes the region, not to mention potential domestic instability that could threaten its neighbors, too. That’s why it’s imperative for Ethiopia to negotiate better terms for using Djibouti’s commercial port facilities to lessen the burden that negatively affects its growth and could catalyze these future crises.

In connection with these legitimate national interests, Ethiopia wants to rebuild its navy to secure the fertilizer and fuel maritime logistics upon which its economic stability depends. If they’re unexpectedly disrupted, perhaps due to Great Power games in the region, the economy could then immediately enter a crisis with all that would entail for domestic and regional stability. It’s therefore equally imperative for Ethiopia to rebuild its navy to preemptively avert economically driven crises.

Considering these dynamics, it might be in the neighboring countries’ objective interests to facilitate Ethiopia’s commercial and naval port plans, but the regional security dilemma poses a challenge. To explain, this refers to a concept in International Relations theory that draws attention to the mutually detrimental effect that countries’ suspicions of each other could have on their shared interests. What one regards as defensive and peaceful moves might be perceived by the other as offensive and warmongering.

In response, the country that perceives the other’s moves in that negative way might make its own defensive moves in response, which its counterpart similarly perceives in a negative way, does the same, and so on. If left unchecked, this could lead to a self-sustaining cycle of escalation that risks spiraling out of control into a regional war. In this case, Ethiopia’s peaceful port plans might be perceived by some coastal countries as being driven by ulterior warmongering motives.

From some of those countries’ perspective, Djibouti’s monopoly over Ethiopia’s global trade contains the latter and therefore averts latent threats to the coastal countries’ security as their policymakers see it. From Ethiopia’s perspective, however, these speculative containment intentions could potentially lead to cascading economic-security crises that risk “Balkanizing” the country and destabilizing the region. Since trust between Ethiopia and some of its neighbors is presently lacking, this worsens mutual suspicions.

International Relations scholars suggest that such regional security dilemmas as the one afflicting the Horn are best resolved through joint trust-building initiatives that are mutually beneficial to each party or at least to some of those involved in this dilemma without harming others’ legitimate interests. Prime Minister Abiy proactively sought to do just that by bravely broaching this previously taboo topic for the purpose of preemptively averting such potentially forthcoming crises through a series of deals.

He explained why he brought this up and why everyone should resolve these problems far ahead of time before they spiral out of control, after which he suggested giving any interested neighboring country stakes in GERD and national companies in exchange for commercial-military port rights. The regional security dilemma had already regrettably worsened by then, however, which is why their policymakers wrongly suspected that he secretly harbored offensive and warmongering intentions.

Their official responses to his proposal prove that they were reacting to it under the influence of the abovementioned perceptions that are attributable to the regional security dilemma that was described earlier. They therefore shouldn’t be interpreted as ruling out a series of mutually beneficial deals in principle such as the sort that Prime Minister Abiy proposed. Rather, all that those countries did was reaffirm their territorial integrity in reaction to fears that Ethiopia secretly intends to threaten them.

No such intentions exist, however, as Prime Minister Abiy recently made clear during his latest extended remarks that emphasized the purely peaceful nature of Ethiopia’s port plans. The combination of innocent concerns and malicious portrayals of this policy, both of which stem from the regional security dilemma, are why perceptions about it don’t reflect reality. This explains why Ethiopia continues clarifying its policy to discern which of these two reasons accounts for each neighbor’s reaction.

At this point, it’s arguably the case that Ethiopia’s peaceful port plans stand the best chance of success through a series of mutually beneficial deals with Djibouti, which already allows Ethiopia commercial port access notwithstanding its onerous rates and hosts several other states’ naval bases. The precedent therefore exists for renegotiating the first’s terms and opening negotiations on the second item, but Djibouti might be reluctant to cede its monopoly over Ethiopia’s global trade due to how lucrative it is.

Ethiopian and Djiboutian sources have shared different annual rates regarding the first’s commercial access to the second’s port, but regardless of whichever statistics one goes by, it’s indisputably the fact that the revenue derived from these rates accounts for a sizeable proportion of Djibouti’s budget. Accordingly, it’s understandable why it might not want to negotiate reduced rates out of fear that it could struggle to replace this lost revenue, with all that might entail for economic and domestic stability.

The shares that Prime Minister Abiy offered coastal countries in exchange for the commercial-military port rights that Ethiopia is seeking for the legitimate reasons that were earlier explained might not be considered by Djibouti to be adequate compensation for the annual revenue that it stands to lose. This observation could spoil the success of their talks or prevent them from beginning in the first place, unless a creative solution is proposed for resolving this financial dilemma.

Therein rests the importance of what the South Sudanese Ambassador to Russia recently revealed in his latest interview with TASS. He said that Russia had been contracted to map South Sudan’s natural resources across the next two years and that those two are considering building a pipeline to the Red Sea via Ethiopia and Djibouti. To be clear, such a pipeline has yet to be formally agreed to, but his confirmation of their talks about it is significant.

What it means is that Russia could possibly help resolve Djibouti’s financial dilemma that impedes progress on any potential commercial-military port talks with Ethiopia due to its strategic stakes in this. Djibouti might be willing to renegotiate a much less onerous rate for Ethiopia’s commercial port access if it was guaranteed the right to purchase oil from this prospective pipeline at privileged prices. This deal could be further sweetened if Russia agreed to build an oil refinery in Djibouti, too.

The proverbial cherry on the cake could be if Russia offers privileged prices on agricultural exports to Djibouti and/or stakes in some of its resource companies that might operate in South Sudan following the mapping of that country’s natural resources and the possible clinching of a regional pipeline deal. These stakes could generate enough annual revenue that Djibouti ends up making more money from this grand deal than if it refused to negotiate with Ethiopia and kept its presently onerous rates in place.

To clarify, the South Sudanese Ambassador was the one who told Russian media about those two’s regional pipeline talks, but no agreement has yet been reached and Russia hasn’t made any of the proposals suggested above to Djibouti. The purpose of the preceding two paragraphs is solely to suggest pragmatic and mutually beneficial ways for resolving the regional security dilemma and Djibouti’s supplementary financial one that impedes the first such dilemma’s resolution as was explained.

If any of these proposals are incorporated into future talks between those four parties – Ethiopia, Djibouti, Russia, and South Sudan – then Djibouti might consider this adequate compensation for the annual revenue that it stands to lose from renegotiating its commercial port deal with Ethiopia. From there, those two could then have a greater chance of agreeing to a military deal as well, which might even include a joint naval base with Russia in exchange for the stakes that it might offer Djibouti.

Once again, nobody should misinterpret this scenario forecast as confirming that Russia requested a naval base there since all that’s being done here is proposing what might come to pass but hasn’t yet. This suggestion could further alleviate the regional security dilemma since the coastal countries that distrust Ethiopia all trust Russia, which they know wouldn’t support any speculative acts of aggression against them from Ethiopia like their policymakers might fear that it’s supposedly plotting in secret.

To sum it up, Ethiopia’s peaceful quest for fair and reliable commercial-military access to the sea is legitimate in terms of international law and aimed at preemptively averting economically driven crises that could threaten regional stability. The regional security dilemma between this landlocked country and its coastal neighbors has impeded progress on this policy, as has Djibouti’s financial dilemma in not wanting to lose the sizeable revenue that it derives from charging Ethiopia onerous rates for port access.

These dilemmas might finally be resolved if Russia proposes a series of mutually beneficial deals between Ethiopia and Djibouti as part of the talks that it’s reportedly engaged in with South Sudan over a regional pipeline from that country to the Red Sea via those two. Djibouti might seriously consider granting Ethiopia the commercial-military access it’s seeking if Moscow is able to get all four parties to agree to a grand deal.

This could involve Ethiopia giving Djibouti stakes in its megaprojects and national companies while Russia could offer Djibouti stakes in its own resource ones that might soon operate in South Sudan. Djibouti would become the terminal point of South Sudan’s envisaged Red Sea pipeline and possibly have a Russian-built refinery too in exchange for giving Russia and Ethiopia a joint naval base. If Djibouti doesn’t agree to these generous terms, then Russia could also offer it privileged agricultural and oil prices too.

What’s being proposed represents the most peaceful, pragmatic, and mutually beneficial way for resolving the regional security dilemma between landlocked Ethiopia and its coastal neighbors. The intent is to encourage a series of Russian-led deals that bring peace and development to everyone in the Horn, and nothing contained in these proposals warmongers or threatens anyone’s legitimate interests. Those who might still oppose this proposal are ultra-nationalists obsessed with containing Ethiopia.

While the terms of this proposed deal can be constructively critiqued by anyone, its spirit can’t be criticized since it aligns with each state’s UN-enshrined right to negotiate whatever it might be with anyone that they’d like, with this only being immoral if it threatens a third party’s legitimate interests. That’s not the case with this proposed deal, however, hence why those who criticize its spirit are exposing their zero-sum divide-and-rule regional hegemonic interests.

No country’s legitimate interests are threatened by the proposed joint Ethiopian-Russian naval base in Djibouti, those two offering Djibouti stakes in their companies, Russia also offering it privileged agricultural and oil prices, nor by Djibouti serving as the terminal point of a South Sudanese pipeline. Only those obsessed with containing Ethiopia, potentially with the ultimate intent of “Balkanizing” it, would object to this proposed series of peaceful, legal, rational, pragmatic, and mutually beneficial deals.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Araweelo News Network. By Andrew Korybko This article was first published on moderndiplomacy.eu

Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, journalist and regular contributor to several online journals, as well as a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He has published various works in the field of Hybrid Wars, including “Hybrid Wars: The Indirect Adaptive Approach to Regime Change” and “The Law of Hybrid War: Eastern Hemisphere”.

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