Amid US pressure, Ethiopian government turns to Russia as humanitarian crisis continues in Tigray

The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has requested a high-level meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, raising concerns that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali may be turning to the undemocratic competitor of the United States rather than working to resolve Ethiopia’s current humanitarian crisis.

President Putin at First ever Russia-Africa summit, Sochi 2019 
President Putin at First ever Russia-Africa summit, Sochi 2019

The news comes shortly after the United States imposed economic sanctions and visa restrictions on Ethiopia in response to reports of ongoing atrocities being committed in Tigray and a lack of cooperation from authorities in opening up access and humanitarian aid.

While the United States has taken an increasingly bold stance of condemnation of the continued violence in Tigray and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, the Ethiopian government seems to be exploring alternative courses of action.

“A total of 5.2 million people, equivalent to 91% of Tigray’s population, need emergency food assistance due to the conflict,” said U.N. World Food Program Spokesperson Tomson Phiri on Tuesday.

While U.S. President Joseph Biden has pledged to defend human rights and democratic values around the world, many would argue that respect for international norms is not a priority for Putin and the Russian government.

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President Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, en route to New Castle County Airport in New Castle, Delaware. (Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe) 
President Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, en route to New Castle County Airport in New Castle, Delaware. (Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe)

While most Western nations have expressed immense outrage over the Belarusian dictator’s decision to have a passenger plane deliberately diverted in order to detain a dissident journalist, Putin has since received Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko with open arms and has indicated that it will not affect Russia’s relationship with Belarus.

The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry’s request to engage with Russia comes just weeks before Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Joseph Biden in Geneva, Switzerland on June 16.

President Biden in late May asserted that he is “deeply concerned by the escalating violence and the hardening of regional and ethnic divisions in multiple parts of Ethiopia” and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called for an immediate end to hostilities and the complete withdrawal of Eritrean forces.

When asked Wednesday about whether Ethiopia will be a topic of discussion during the meeting between Biden and Putin, State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter said that “the relationship with Africa is a priority for the Biden administration” but did not specifically elaborate on any details.

For the United States, the decision from Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian government to potentially turn to Russia for assistance is alarming. Rather than expanding access to humanitarian aid and working to resolve the crisis peaceably and quickly, Abiy appears to be exploring other options.

As the United States and Russia both have vested interests in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa, Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian government face an important decision. Will Ethiopia choose to promote democratic ideals, human rights, and a peaceable resolution or will it favor authoritarianism and neglect the need for accountability?

Noah Pitcher is a global politics correspondent for Today News Africa covering the U.S. government, United Nations, African Union, and other actors involved in international developments, political controversies, and humanitarian issues.

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