Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 97

UN Security Council members continued to battle last night over a U.S.-sponsored resolution that would, among other things, place an arms embargo on Ethiopia and Eritrea. The U.S. effort, which comes as fighting worsens between the two African countries, has run into opposition from a Russian-led group of Security Council members. Moscow reportedly opposes both the plan for an arms embargo and another provision of the U.S. sponsored draft resolution that would prohibit senior Ethiopian officials from traveling abroad. The Security Council was unable to reach agreement on the U.S. resolution on Monday, and came up short again last night, though one late report said that the Russian objections had weakened. The council is scheduled to meet yet again today in hopes of reaching agreement on a final text. A competing draft resolution, which Russia had offered earlier, is apparently no longer being considered (AP, Reuters, May 16; The Guardian, May 17).

The latest jostling in the UN Security Council–which originally saw the United States and Britain facing off against Russia, China and France–highlights several sobering developments. One is the continued fractiousness which has marred debate over the past several years on so many key international issues by the five permanent Security Council members. Another is the degree to which the Council–and the United Nations and international community more generally–has failed to control or to address effectively bloody conflicts around the globe, and particularly those now taking place on the African continent. Finally, the resurgence of fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Security Council efforts to deal with it, have focused attention on the extent to which Africa’s wars are being fueled by arms sales from abroad, and particularly from Russia and other former Warsaw Pact countries. Russia’s opposition to the arms embargo contained in the U.S.-sponsored resolution has, not surprisingly, generated suspicion that one of Moscow’s motivations may be to protect what has turned into a lucrative market for Russian arms dealers.

That the five UN Security Council members remained divided over how best to approach the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict was evident even on May 12, despite the fact that the council that day unanimously adopted a resolution demanding that the Horn of Africa neighbors restart peace talks which had broken down last week. The resolution, which Britain sponsored, had warned that the council would meet again this week “to take immediate steps to ensure compliance” with UN demands in the event that the fighting in Africa continued. The very vagueness of that warning, however, reflected an unwillingness by Russia, China and–according to some reports–France to make the threat of an arms embargo more explicit (AP, May 13).

Russian opposition to the embargo was embodied in a competing draft resolution, which both called for more diplomatic moves to stop the conflict and pointedly omitted any call for an arms embargo. The diplomatic actions urged by Moscow reportedly included a call for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and OAU (Organization of American States) Chairman Abdoulaziz Bouteflika, the president of Algeria, to send special envoys to Ethiopia and Eritrea to pressure them into resuming peace talks. Moscow complained that the U.S.-British call for sanctions was premature both because the latest outbreak of hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea had occurred so recently and because diplomatic options needed still to be given a chance to work. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman also criticized the sanctions proposal on the grounds that it is open-ended. In what appeared to be a reference to international sanctions on Iraq–and perhaps on other countries as well–he argued that open-ended sanctions have a tendency never to be lifted. In addition, the Russian diplomat complained about the fact that the U.S.-sponsored resolution calls for travel restrictions to be placed on the Ethiopian–but not the Eritrean–political leadership. He suggested that Washington’s motive in this case was “purely political” (AP, May 15; New York Times, BBC, Russian agencies, May 16).

Whatever Moscow’s motivations, the Russian position clearly won the support of the Ethiopian government. A spokeswoman for Addis Ababa told reporters on May 16 that the U.S.-sponsored resolution was “biased and unfair” because, in the Ethiopian government’s estimation, it fails to designate Eritrea as the aggressor in the current conflict. The spokeswoman also welcomed the Russian draft resolution, saying that is was acceptable to her government (PanAfrican News Agency, May 16).

As was suggested earlier, the fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia has also highlighted the high volume of arms sales by Russia and other former Soviet satellite countries–although, to be sure, not solely by these countries–to various African governments. According to the BBC, Ethiopia spent US$150 million on eight Su-27 fighters in December of 1998 alone, while Eritrea paid a comparable amount for eight MiG-29 interceptors. Ethiopia is reported also to have purchased a number of Su-25 ground attack aircraft during the ten-month lull in fighting that occurred between the two countries before the latest break out of hostilities. Both sides are estimated to have spent roughly US$1 million per day on weapons since the conflict first erupted in May of 1998 (BBC, May 16).

In Moscow, Russian government officials have on several occasions trumpeted their successes in selling military hardware to Africa. They have also suggested that they view the African market as a promising target for Russia’s hard-put arms dealers. Indeed, in December of 1999 a top Russian arms official said that Moscow intended to reestablish its positions in countries which had traditionally bought their weapons from the Soviet Union; he singled out Africa specifically. He suggested that arms sales to Africa could total from US$200-$500 million for the year 2000 alone. That comment came, perhaps not surprisingly, during a visit to Moscow by Ethiopia’s defense minister. Military-technical cooperation apparently occupied a significant place on his discussion agenda (Russian agencies, December 22, 1999).

A Western newspaper report, meanwhile, noted at roughly the same time that the Russian state arms trading company Promeksport has spearheaded Russian arms sales to Africa, and to Ethiopia and Eritrea in particular. The company specializes in selling off surplus weaponry, space parts and ammunition from the Russian military, and its actions have been driven in part by Russian efforts to sell off the vast stockpiles of armaments that it must eliminate in order to meet ceilings set by the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty (Wall Street Journal, December 8, 1999).

All of this suggests that Western efforts to cut off the flow of arms to Ethiopia and Eritrea could founder on Moscow’s hopes both for continued profits from arms sales to the region, and for a recovery of the political influence in Africa that such arms sales could confer. Moscow is likely to point also to ongoing military cooperation between Western military establishments–including that of the United States–and other African governments, and to the role that these relationships have played in various conflicts on the African continent.