On February 7, the Russian special envoy for the Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Bogdanov, went to Eritrea, in Massawa, where he was welcomed by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and where he then met President Isaias Afwerki.
The visit of the Russian diplomat was brief but highly significant, marking what could be a turning point in relations between Russia and Eritrea. Also symbolic was the choice of the meeting place, Massawa, on the Red Sea, where Russia cultivates the ambition to establish one or more naval bases to allow its navy a wider projection in the Indian Ocean.
Mikhail Bogdanov brought to the attention of President Isaias Afwerki the readiness for large-scale cooperation between Russia and Eritrea, then discussed at length developments in regional dynamics.
The official notes of the meeting report a wide opening by President Afwerki towards Russia, who defined Moscow’s role as important for the development of African peoples, while both expressed criticism in the direction of what they define as “external interference and illegal sanctions”, clearly referring, without specifically naming them, to the United States and the European Union.
Bogdanov’s visit to Eritrea was organized with precise timing by Russia, aware of the country’s economic difficulties and increasing international isolation, especially as a result of its role in the conflict in neighboring Ethiopia.
In this way, Russia joins China in proposing an economic cooperation of certain interest for the country, offering incentives of various kinds, at this time of vital importance for Eritrea. This opening, that Bogdanov himself has defined as “on a large scale”, however, does not hide Russia’s interest in the development of one or more naval bases on the Red Sea.
For some time, in fact, Moscow has been looking for a regional port capable of allowing its naval units a wider projection in the Indian Ocean, through the development of a support base capable of satisfying the technical and logistic needs of a regional fleet permanently employed in the region.
Preliminary contacts established with Sudan, during the first mandate of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, seem to have come to a standstill as a consequence of both the local political crisis and US pressure on Khartoum. The option for the development of a base in Eritrea represents a new stimulating opportunity for Moscow, which has preliminarily and informally selected three areas of possible interest.
The first is the port of Massawa, certainly the most important in the country and the one with the most developed infrastructures and land connections. The second is the port of Assab, and above all the huge area developed – and then abandoned – by the United Arab Emirates, close to the airport, within which a sea port has been realized with an access channel deep enough to host military ships. The third option could instead be that of restoring some of the infrastructures built by the former Soviet Union in the Dahlak islands, which on the one hand enjoy total autonomy with respect to the ports of Massawa and Assab, but at the same time suffer from the lack of any infrastructure, determining the need for extensive structural interventions.
Although the possibility of an agreement with Russia for the development of a naval base could represent a vital economic resource for the country, the Eritrean experience teaches how the presence of military infrastructure under the control of third states has always been problematic from the point of view of political and military management within the administrative apparatus of the country.
Even the recent experience of the presence of the Emirates at the Assab base had fueled rumors of growing nervousness within the Eritrean army cadres, who traditionally do not like third countries’ requests for operational autonomy on their territory.
The possibility of an agreement with Russia, and in particular an agreement for the development of a naval base, in this way, represents both a vital economic opportunity for Eritrea but also a potential source of friction both internally, within the military hierarchy, and internationally, in the already precarious relationship with the international community and the United States in particular.