Interpreting France, The US, & Russia’s Latest Statements About The Djiboutian-Eritrean Dispute
Eritrea’s regional security dilemma with Ethiopia and its troubled ties with Djibouti’s Western partners arguably impede its policymakers’ ability to appreciate the strategic importance of those two’s growing ties with Russia. If they continue to perceive everything through that zero-sum security-centric prism instead of the win-win economically driven one, then they risk missing the opportunity that Russia can provide for alleviating pressure upon their country.
The latest UNSC Resolution prolonging sanctions against Al Shabaab was mildly criticized by France and the US for omitting any reference to the Djiboutian-Eritrean dispute, while Russia praised the resolution precisely because it didn’t include any such references. Those neighboring coastal states have feuded over their border since 2008, during which time they each requested Qatari peacekeepers, though they withdrew in 2017 after those two took Saudi Arabia’s side amidst its dispute with Qatar at the time.
Here's what the official UN website reported about the French Ambassador’s latest words on this issue:
“Speaking after the adoption, Nicolas de Rivière (France) expressed unequivocal support for the lifting of the arms embargo on Somalia. While he welcomed the just-adopted resolution renewing the sanctions regime and arms embargo against Al-Shabaab, he had abstained because references to the territorial disputes between Djibouti and Eritrea are lacking in the resolution.
References to that dispute in prior Council resolutions on the Al-Shabaab sanctions regime allowed the attention of the Council and the international community to be maintained, he said, adding: ‘We must not give the impression that this Council is less interested or losing interest in the situation, which still constitutes a threat to peace and security.’”
That same source reported that the American Ambassador said the following:
“Robert A. Wood (United States) said the renewal of the arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze measures will ensure that the Panel’s oversight and reporting will continue to inform the Al-Shabaab Sanctions Committee and the Council.
All Member States must implement existing sanction measures to help curb Al-Shabaab's ability to access funds, weapons and other support they need to carry out attacks and support Somalia’s security and police institutions.
Voicing disappointment by the omission of ‘Djibouti and Eritrea language’, he said his country remains committed to working constructively with all parties to support the normalization of relations between those two countries.”
By contrast, here’s what Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative Anna Evstigneeva had to say:
“We welcome that none of the resolutions mentioned dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea.
It is clear that this issue was not and is not relevant to the documents under consideration. Resolution of the outstanding disputes between those countries lies belongs with the area of bilateral diplomacy, which we strongly encourage Asmara and Djibouti to do. The absence of references to the dispute in UNSC resolutions does not mean that we will not be prepared to address the issue should the situation change or new circumstances arise.
Both Djibouti and Eritrea can count on our balanced and impartial approach in this regard.”
As can be seen, France and the US – which each have military bases in Djibouti and count it as one their closest allies in Africa – want to keep that country’s dispute with Eritrea on the UNSC agenda, while Russia believes that it’s bilateral and should only be internationalized if both request mediation. Quite clearly, the first two are interested in politicizing this issue whereas Russia is interested in politically resolving it, thus making them representatives of totally different approaches towards this issue.
It's no secret that Eritrea has troubled ties with the West, but what few outside the region have realized is that Russia’s ties with traditionally Western-aligned Djibouti have greatly improved over the past year. Here are four relevant news articles from Russian media documenting their achievements since the start of the year, which will show readers that Russia is impressively well positioned to play its envisaged role as a balanced and impartial mediator if requested by both to do so:
* 3 April: “Russian warships visit east African seaport”
As for Russian-Eritrean ties, they’ve only begun to blossom since the start of the year, but each has done their utmost to make up for lost time. In particular, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki paid his first-ever trip to Moscow in May to meet with President Putin and then participated in the Second Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg in July. The following analyses documented the comprehensive expansion of their relations since Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s trip to Asmara in January:
* 15 April 2023: “Russia's Grand Strategy in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea Countries”
* 19 July 2023: “Insight into the Russia-Africa Summit and its Geopolitical Significance”
For as promising as these two sets of ties are, “Russia’s Balancing Act In The Horn Of Africa Is Challenged By The Region’s Security Dilemma”, particularly the Eritrean-Ethiopian one that returned after November 2022’s peace deal with the TPLF as explained here. Unlike Djibouti, which is a comparatively open country that multi-aligns between Great Powers in pursuit of win-win deals, Eritrea is a comparatively closed one that has much less foreign policy flexibility and sees the world in zero-sum security terms.
Accordingly, just like the above hyperlinked analysis warned that Eritrea might misinterpret any potential Russian-led series of Ethiopian-Djiboutian deals for aiding Addis’ peaceful port plans as being at its expense, so too might it misinterpret the same regarding Russia’s Eritrean-Djiboutian mediation remark. Eritrea trusts Russia, but it doesn’t trust Ethiopia and Djibouti, the first due to the regional security dilemma between coastal-hinterland states while the second is due to its troubled ties with the West.
With all due respect to Eritrea’s sovereign rights to perceive International Relations however it wants and then formulate policy accordingly, that country also shouldn’t overlook the strategic importance of its neighbors’ growing ties with Russia. Ethiopia’s refusal to capitulate to Western pressure to condemn and sanction Russia contributed to Chairman John James’ scathing opening statement at last week’s House Committee on Foreign Affairs open hearing on “Ethiopia: Promise or Perils, the State of U.S. Policy”.
Likewise, while Djibouti hasn’t come under anywhere near as much pressure from the West for its own such refusal that eventually resulted in Russia agreeing to supply it with free wheat, that country’s growing ties with Russia reduce its hitherto disproportionate strategic dependence on the West. Taken together, those two’s relations with Russia promote multipolarity in the Horn of Africa (HoA), which is the same world system that President Afwerki told Sputnik Africa that his country officially supports.
Nevertheless, Eritrea’s regional security dilemma with Ethiopia and its troubled ties with Djibouti’s Western partners – particularly the US – arguably impede its policymakers’ ability to appreciate the strategic importance of those two’s growing ties with Russia. If they continue to perceive everything through that zero-sum security-centric prism instead of the win-win economically driven one, then they risk missing the opportunity that Russia can provide for alleviating pressure upon their country.
To explain, the coastal-hinterland dimension of the regional security dilemma was inadvertently worsened by Ethiopia recently prioritizing its peaceful pursuit of a port, so it would serve Eritrea’s interests if Russia potentially mediated a series of Ethiopian-Djibouti deals for aiding Addis’ port plans. As for Eritrea’s troubled ties with Djibouti’s Western partners, the US and France just revealed that they want to keep those two’s dispute on the UNSC’s agenda, so it would help if Russia mediated a resolution.
In times past, Djibouti might have been disinterested in the scenario of Russia mediating anything between it and those two, but the past year proved that their ties have greatly improved to the point where it’s nowadays politically possible for this to happen. It would therefore be in Eritrea’s objective national interests for its policymakers to no longer fear either of these possibilities, but instead support them so as to promote multipolarity in the HoA exactly as its leader said that he wants to have happen.