Navigating diplomacy with caution: Ethiopia’s approach to Ukraine’s Zelensky amid Russia’s watchful eyes

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On the 20th of July 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held a telephone conversation with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, marking a historic first in the bilateral relations between the two countries. The conversation primarily focused on Russia’s unilateral withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) and the subsequent military operations taken by the Russian army after Ukraine’s attack on the Crimea Bridge. The Crimean Bridge, is a significant infrastructural project connecting the Crimean Peninsula to Russia’s Southern territories. Crimea has a long and complex connection with Russia, and the issue of its status remains a topic of contentious.

The construction of the Crimean Bridge by Russia exacerbated the dispute, as Ukraine and its western backers discredited the referendum leading up to the annexation of Crimea. The recent attack by Ukraine on the bridge prompted a military counter-attack by Russia on the port city of Odessa, a major Ukrainian Black Sea port and a crucial gateway to international trade through the Black Sea, particularly for grains that feed millions of people around the world. Odessa, being located at the strategic shores of the black sea, is also home to one of the two major active naval bases of the Ukrainian Navy, the Western Naval Base.

The Crimean bridge connecting mainland Russia with the Russian Peninsula

Alongside with other Ukrainian Black Sea ports, Odessa was blockaded after Russia launched its special military operation last year. Russia only cleared access to three seaports last July under a deal that was brokered by the UN and Turkey as the blockade restricted international grain supplies and resulted in a serious blow to global food crisis. Such a deal is what Zelenskyy mentioned as the “Black Sea Grain Initiative” in his telephone call with Abiy Ahmed. And it has now apparently come to an end with Russia’s resumption of military operations against Odessa.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative and Global Food Security: Particular Focus on Africa

The Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) entered in July 2022, as an agreement among Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations has been instrumental in ensuring the safe transportation of grains and foodstuffs from Ukrainian ports. This initiative has facilitated the delivery of hundreds of millions of tons of grains to the global market, mitigating the impact of the global food crisis that was feared at the onset of the conflict. Given that Ukraine is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, barley, and corn, and both Russia and Ukraine contribute significantly to global wheat and vegetable/seed oil exports, the potential disruption of agricultural imports and exports amid the end of the BSGI and renewed blockades of Black Sea Ports poses a serious threat to global food security.

According to recent UN estimates, approximately 345 million people across 82 countries are expected to face food shortages unless the BSGI is resumed and military operations targeting the Black Sea routes are halted. The crisis also extends to Africa, where the price of wheat alone has surged by 45% since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, according to the African Development Bank. Former World Food Program’s director, David Beasley, has warned such a global food crisis could lead to famine and destabilization, affecting not just Africa, but also regions worldwide.

Ethiopia, facing its own food crisis exacerbated by various factors, such as armed conflict, internal displacement, locust swarms, economic challenges and climate change, is particularly vulnerable to any further blockade of the Black Sea Ports. These ports play a vital role in facilitating the import of food and grains that are essential for Ethiopia’s food security. Any disruption in the flow of these supplies would have devastating consequences, leaving millions of people at risk of hunger and malnutrition. During the telephone conversation with Abiy, Zelenskyy noted that Ukraine had delivered almost 300 thousand tons of food to Ethiopia only under the Black Sea Grain Initiative and another 90 thousand tons of grain under the “Grain from Ukraine Humanitarian Initiative”.

Map of Ukraine indicating military activity in the east and south (2023)

As Ethiopia engages in diplomatic relations with Ukraine, it is crucial to prioritize the resumption of the BSGI and maintain food trade to address the pressing food crisis and safeguard the well-being of its population. However, Ethiopia must exercise caution and carefully evaluate President Zelenskyy’s ambition for “strong bilateral relations with African Countries” and to secure the voices of Ethiopia, Africa and the African Union towards Ukraine’s best interest.

The country should be mindful of the geopolitical dynamics involved, considering that Ethiopia and many other African nations and the African Union itself have maintained a largely neutral stance on the conflict since the start of the war, as some acted passively and openly supportive of Russia. Russia and many African nations, including Ethiopia, have a long history of backing each other in times of diplomatic pressure or threats of economic sanctions or military interventions by the global north. Thus, as Russia already established a reliable bilateral relations with most African nations, Ukraine’s Zelenskyy is striving to secure the diplomatic backing of African nations on international and regional platforms. Hence both countries embark on tours to the continent, including Ethiopia, as they seek to bolster relations and secure Africa’s support in the ongoing war.

Ethiopia’s Diplomatic Engagements with Russia & Ukraine: Challenges & Key Considerations

Ethiopia’s status as a regional powerhouse, an emerging economy, and a rising military power in the Horn of Africa, combined with its role as the diplomatic capital of Africa and home to the African Union, makes it a significant player on the African continent and a crucial partner for various countries worldwide. It is also one of Russia’s major partners in Africa – a continent that has been a region of significant diplomatic influence for Russia – a major global power. Therefore, Kyiv’s unprecedented diplomatic engagement with Addis Ababa and President Zelenskyy’s vision of further diplomatic engagement and cooperation, not only with Ethiopia but with the entire African continent, is likely to raise concerns in the Kremlin.

Ethiopia now finds itself in a challenging position, at the center of a diplomatic heatwave, with Ukraine proposing trade/food aid diplomacy and security cooperation, while Russia, a major power and historical ally, observes Ethiopia’s moves with great caution. It is also crucial to consider that Ukraine’s diplomatic approach comes at a time when Ethiopia is awaiting a decision on its potential membership in BRICS, a group of major emerging economies.

Additionally, Russia is strengthening its defense cooperation with Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea, further influencing the diplomatic landscape in the region. Given these complex circumstances, Ethiopia must carefully weigh its options and consider the potential consequences of its diplomatic choices. The path Ethiopia chooses to follow will not only shape its diplomatic relations but also have far-reaching effects on its regional influence, trade partnerships, and security cooperations. Strategic consideration of the following factors will be vital in ensuring Ethiopia’s position as a regional powerhouse and its role in the emerging multilateral global order:

  • How its decision in dealing with Ukraine’s overtures and Russia’s watchful eyes impact its aspirations for BRICS membership and its standing in the emerging multilateral global order;
  • What the potential implications of its diplomatic engagement with Ukraine can be for its existing defense cooperation and historical partnership with Russia;
  • How it can strike a delicate balance between fostering relationships with both Russia and Ukraine while safeguarding its own national interests and maintaining its diplomatic integrity;
  • What role it can play in regional and global geopolitics, and how its diplomatic engagements align with its strategic objectives and its commitments to its allies; and
  • What value can Ethiopia add to the African Peace Mission, a delegation of African leaders led by South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa that met with both Russian and Ukrainian leaders to discuss conflict resolution and continued grain exports and the shipment of Russian fertilizers to help alleviate food insecurity on the continent and beyond.

These are important points that call for carefully measured diplomatic approaches that can intelligibly resolve the complex dynamics of the situation. Ethiopia, like any country navigating complex diplomatic waters, should approach its relations with Ukraine with strategic caution. Diplomacy in this context requires careful consideration and tact to navigate geopolitical sensitivities in the region, encompassing both Europe & Asia-pacific, as well as in global politics.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attended the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg on July 26, 2023

Being mindful of the broader geopolitical context and the implications of its diplomatic engagement with Zelenskyy will help steer clear of provocative actions or statements that could lead to diplomatic complexities or controversies with either nation or their allies. Maintaining open, regular, and transparent communication with Russia, Ukraine and all stakeholders will also be essential in addressing any concerns, misunderstandings/misperceptions or diplomatic tensions.

Most importantly, Ethiopia should maintain a non-aligned foreign policy position and strategically balance its interests while pursuing diplomatic initiatives with Ukraine. This helps to effectively navigate this delicate situation and avoid any actions that may overtly antagonize Russia. Exploring economic opportunities and identifying areas of shared interests and cooperation will also be instrumental in maintaining balanced and constructive long-term vision for Ethiopia’s diplomatic relations with both countries. Furthermore, Ethiopia should actively participate in multilateral/international forums and organizations, such as the United Nations and the African Union, to foster dialogue and cooperation and enhance its diplomatic standing. Consulting with regional and international partners will also provide valuable insights into the complexities of the situation and aid in making informed decisions.

However, it is crucial to acknowledge that the diplomatic situation is fluid, and the dynamics between Russia and Ukraine can change rapidly. Therefore, Ethiopia must engage proactively, remain flexible and adaptable, continuously monitor developments, and adjust its approach accordingly to promote constructive relations with both countries.

As Ethiopia moves forward, a well-calibrated, thoughtful and pragmatic diplomatic approach is instrumental in navigating the diplomatic waters with both Russia and Ukraine, maintaining stability in the region and preserving its role as a player in the emerging multipolar global order. In doing so, it should set clear priorities and adhere to its national interests, strategic goals and core values while exploring the ever-evolving geopolitical landscape to prevent any unintended consequences. Ethiopia should also exploit the opportunity to enhance its standing in the international community and attract support from like-minded nations that embrace multilateralism and cooperative engagement with in regional and international organizations to facilitate partnerships and collaboration in addressing such a shared challenge.

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