Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 47

As international efforts to end the bloody conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea have moved forward in recent weeks, Moscow authorities have been forced to answer allegations that Russian mercenaries are playing a significant role in that–and possibly other African–conflicts. This Russian presence was underscored some two months ago when a former Russian Air Force colonel reportedly ejected from a crashing Ethiopian Su-27 fighter jet. U.S. sources say, moreover, that intercepted radio transmissions confirm that many of the pilots in the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict spoke Russian to their ground controllers. Russian-speaking pilots are said to have been involved in wars in Angola, Sierra Leone and the Congo as well. A former U.S. State Department specialist in African affairs appeared to sum up the situation when he was quoted by a U.S. magazine as saying that “if you don’t speak Russian, you can’t fly in central Africa” (U.S. News and World Report, March 15).

The Russian Foreign Ministry has gone to some pains to deny such allegations, including those suggesting that Russian pilots were involved on both sides of the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict. A Foreign Ministry statement published in late February expressed Moscow’s confidence that “the involvement of Russian specialists…is limited to exclusively technical issues and military training activities that are conducted in areas located far from the border zone.” Russian diplomats have also pointed out that the use of Russian by those flying in African conflict zones “does not at all suggest that those who speak Russian are Russian citizens” (Izvestia, February 25; Russian agencies, February 28). Indeed, reports, not all of them well-substantiated, have suggested that Russian-speaking mercenaries in Africa are drawn from Belarus, Ukraine and Bulgaria as well as from Russia.

The appearance of mercenaries from former Soviet states in Africa is hardly a surprise. A British correspondent (quoted by a Russian source), has observed that military specialists began appearing in great numbers in hot spots all over Africa following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They were drawn, he said, by the fact that many countries in the region still rely on Soviet-made military hardware. Massive reductions in the armies of the former Soviet states have also cut many military specialists adrift, and have left some of them receptive to offers of employment in Africa and elsewhere (Izvestia, February 25).

Meanwhile, cash-pressed Russian defense and arms export officials have made Africa a primary focus of efforts to peddle more Russian military hardware abroad. Those efforts have yielded some success. They have also generated some concern in the West that Russian arms sales may be helping to fan regional conflicts in the region (see the Monitor, December 15).