Russia’s Southward March to the Indian Ocean: Is Washington Turning a Blind Eye to Putin’s Cold War Renaissance?                                                  

by The Strathink Editoial Team

During his December 2017 press roundtable in Addis Ababa, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Donald Yamamoto, appeared blindsided when a reporter asked what would be the U.S. position if Russia starts negotiations to open a military base in Eritrea. Mr. Yamamoto responded by citing a litany of other countries with a military presence in the Red Sea/Horn of Africa Region and by saying the U.S. engages in dialog with them. He didn’t seem aware of a Russian military presence in Eritrea, although Strathink originally reported on it two years ago in an analytical piece by Robert Pittelli and Gregory Pirio. There have been, moreover, online reports that Eritrean president Isaisas Akwerki has given the Russian government permission to build air and naval bases at its southern port of Assab. Strathink has been unable to verify the existence of such a bilateral agreement between Asmara and Moscow.

Such a development, however, would not at all be surprising. Russia has a clear strategy of promoting military alliances with states and non-state actors to its south. In addition to its military presence in Eritrea, Russia has bases in Syria; has reached a recent base agreements with Egypt; provides weaponry in support of Libyan armed factional leader, Khalifa Haftar; has received the nod from Khartoum to open a naval base on the Red Sea; and the Somali government has received Russian arms via Eritrea, according to a source close to the Somali presidency.

As Pittelli and Pirio argued in this Strathink article, Russia’s positioning with Eritrea and other actors in the Horn of Africa region should be regarded as geopolitical leveraging in the vital Red Sea/Suez Canal region of the Middle East that is reminiscent of what occurred at the height of the US-Soviet Cold War rivalry.[1] Certainly, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is thinking of Russian engagement in the region in terms of a Cold-War-like calculus. During a November 2017 visit to Russia, Bashir told President Vladimir Putin,”We are thankful to Russia for its position in the international arena, including Russia’s position on the protection of Sudan. We are in need of protection from the aggressive acts of the United States.”

Interestingly, in the month prior to Bashir’s meeting with Putin in Sochi, the Trump administration announced that it would formally lift a host of sanctions against Sudan, concluding that decades of punitive efforts had done little to encourage reforms or fully resolve a conflict in the Darfur region. The timing of Washington’s move just prior to Bashir’s Sochi meeting raises the prospect that Sudan is benefiting from an increasingly bipolarized world. The availability of military assistance from Moscow and the prospects of benefiting from a Russian veto in the UN Security Council arguably weakens Washington’s influence and power.

Since Putin’s ascension to power in 2000, he has set out on a course to increase Russia’s control over petroleum, natural gas and uranium as a means of achieving influence and dominance on the world stage, especially over Western and Central Europe. Russia’s quiet acquisition of valuable energy assets in Africa, especially natural gas, is likely part of an effort to maintain energy leverage over Western Europe. Acquiring a military presence on the Red Sea and near the Suez Canal – a vital transportation corridor, including for the transport of energy — further further increases the leverage that Russia will be able wield in world politics.

Reports of disarray in the U.S. State Department under President Trump raises the specter that the United States is ill served to develop a strategy to counter Russia’s growing military assertiveness. It is also worth noting that the current American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while he was the CEO of the Exxon Mobil Corporation, oversaw the development of a strategic global business alliance between Exxon and Russian oil giant, Rosneft. Reportedly Putin personally enjoys ownership a large share of the ownership of Rosneft. For all practical purposes, this made Tillerson and Putin business partners at that time.

Certainly, a more forceful statement by Donald Yamamoto would have provided some assurances that Washington has a strategic vision for responding to the challenges that Russia’s southward trajectory represents. An effective U.S. response would be welcomed because, despite the U.S.’s many inconsistencies, it may be the only pole of influence in the world capable of countering Putin’s full-throttled promotion of authoritarianism and kleptocratic rule. Africa deserves a reliable and credible partner in the United States, and African leaders should make this expectation known to Washington. The recent derogatory comments about Africa reportedly made by the U.S. President do not help and only distracts from the important issues. The U.S. State Department cannot, and should not, turn a “blind eye” to Russia’s strategic and economic geopolitical interest in Africa and elsewhere.


[1] Also see:;;


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