19 May 2007 04:24


  • Title: [SW Country](CWIHP - Paul B. HenzeMoscow, Mengistu, and the Horn:
  • From:[]
  • Date :[24 July 2000]

Cold War International History Project
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Moscow, Mengistu, and the Horn: Difficult Choices for the Kremlin, by Paul B. Henze

by Paul B. Henze

The Russian and East German documents reproduced here constitute a useful contribution to the history of the Horn of Africa during the critical events of 1977-78. They provide insights into the Soviet relationship with the authoritarian leaders of Ethiopia and Somalia at that time, Chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam and President Mohammed Siad Barre, as well as into the motivations of these men and some of their associates.
Both Mengistu and Siad Barre were stubborn and ambitious leaders who confronted the Kremlin with difficult choices, which it tried to avoid for as long as possible. Siad comes across as a more blatant liar than Mengistu, who appears to have been more genuinely devoted to "socialism." While Siad seems totally mendacious and devious in his manipulation of the Soviets, Mengistu is shown with his back to the wall. He was determined to win Soviet support by vigorously professing his loyalty to "socialism" and making clear his readiness to serve Soviet aims throughout the Horn and in the world at large. The documents occasionally reveal Soviet concern that Mengistu and his Derg associates were moving too fast, and these concerns were sometimes expressed to him. But as the Horn crisis developed, they became more concerned about preserving Mengistu's power than Siad's. The reason, undoubtedly, is that Ethiopia was a much more important country than Somalia. The Soviets originally established themselves in Somalia because they were unable to do so in Ethiopia.
To those knowledgeable of the details of Ethiopian history during this period, enthusiastic Soviet references to the "decisive action" Mengistu took on 3 February 1977 are noteworthy. In spite of repeated protestations of peaceful desires, these references show that Soviets had no reservations about approving violence as a means of settling differences. Though there are no explicit references to this action in these documents, Soviet Ambassador Anatolii P. Ratanov was reliably reported at the time to have been the first to congratulate Mengistu after the spectacular bloodbath in the Derg when several challengers of Mengistu, most notably Head of State Teferi Bante, were shot. As a result, Mengistu emerged into the open as the dominant figure as Chairman of the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC), i.e. the Derg.
The documents provide useful information on the activities of Cuba as junior partner to the Soviets in Ethiopia during this period. A long near-verbatim report from the archives of the former German Democratic Republic of a meeting between Fidel Castro and Erich Honecker on Castro's return from Africa in early April 1977 gives us vivid detail that confirms what has long been generally known of Castro's unsuccessful effort to mediate the developing Horn crisis in mid-March 1977. A subsequent briefing by Soviet Ambassador Ratanov of Cuban Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa provides a remarkably frank, and not entirely positive, appraisal of Ethiopia's military and political predicament and performance as of mid-summer 1977.
The Soviet Union was remarkably uncreative in its efforts to deal with the situation provoked by Siad Barre's attack on Ethiopia. Siad felt his way cautiously at first, operating behind a facade of what he claimed were only guerrilla operations. But by July 1977, Somalia was openly invading Ethiopia with regular military forces.1 Nevertheless, Somali officials adhered to the pretense well into 1978 that the operation was entirely the initiative of guerrillas. Even though Soviet officials in both Somalia and Ethiopia had to be well aware of what was happening, Moscow--on the surface at least--persisted on the course adopted early in the year: trying to bring the Somalis and Ethiopians together to compose their differences. Long reports by Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Leonid Ilychev of almost four weeks of meetings with a Somali delegation in Moscow from late July through the third week of August chronicle an elaborate charade of negotiations. Unfortunately the documents available to us here do not include parallel reports of dealings with the Ethiopian delegation that was in Moscow during the same period, but it appears that the Somalis and the Ethiopians never even engaged in preliminary face-to-face talks. The reason why is easy to see in written statements each delegation gave the Soviets of its country's position, for neither left any room for compromise or even discussion with the other.
While the independence of erstwhile French colony of Djibouti caused immediate worry, both Ethiopia and Somalia behaved with caution. Ratanov did not react to an offer by Mengistu to support intervention in Djibouti. Ethiopia lacked the strength to intervene alone.
The biggest problem looming in the background of the discussions reported in these documents is Eritrea. It was already the most intractable problem of all for Moscow in its relations with Mengistu. Ethiopian military performance in meeting the Somali invasion was inhibited by the predicament which Mengistu had got himself into in Eritrea. The Soviets were not impressed with the performance of Mengistu's army in Eritrea. An East German document from December 1977 reveals what appears to be Ambassador Ratanov's irritation at Mengistu's intransigence on Eritrea as well as the hope that somehow a basis for negotiation with the rebel movement there might be developed. This became a major Soviet aim during the next decade and led to repeated East German efforts (and some Italian Communist attempts) to bring Eritrean and Ethiopian Marxists together.
In response to Mengistu's urgent pleading, the Soviets agreed during July 1977 to send in urgently needed transport equipment to enable the Ethiopians to utilize some of the tanks and guns the Soviets had already provided as a result of agreements reached during Mengistu's December 1976 and May 1977 visits to Moscow, but the Kremlin was still apparently hoping to limit its commitment. Politburo minutes of 4 and 11 August 1977 confirm decisions to provide Ethiopia support to defend itself against Somalia, but details have not been declassified. This, nevertheless, appears to be the point at which, de facto, Moscow finally made an irrevocable decision to opt for Ethiopia over Somalia.
Whether or not Ambassador Ratanov agreed with Moscow's continued insistence on further efforts to bring the Somalis and Ethiopians together in negotiations at "the expert level," he followed Moscow's orders and repeated this position as late as 23 August 1977 in a meeting with Cuban Ambassador to Ethiopia Perez Novoa. The Soviets were even more hesitant on the question of manpower, for the main purpose of this meeting with the Cuban envoy was to chastise him for permitting Cuban Gen. Ochoa to promise Mengistu that more Cuban technicians would be coming: "The decision to send Cuban personnel to Ethiopia does not depend on Havana, but on Moscow." Ratanov expressed the Soviet fear that a large-scale introduction of Cubans into Ethiopia could provoke the Eritreans or Somalis to call in troops from supportive Arab countries such as Egypt.
Taken as a whole, these Russian documents seem to have been made available to give a picture of a well-intentioned and relatively benign Soviet Union confronted with a situation it neither anticipated nor desired. The Soviets are shown to be surprised by the crisis, reluctant to choose between Ethiopia and Somalia, and trying to delay hard decisions as long as possible. This does not fit with the general atmosphere of Third World activism characteristic of the Soviet Union at this time. While there seems to be no reason to question the authenticity of the documents themselves, there are obviously large gaps in this documentation. We find nothing about differing views among Soviet officials or various elements in the Soviet bureaucracy, nor about different interpretations of developments between the Soviet establishments in Mogadishu2 and Addis Ababa. We see no reflection of options and courses of action that must have been discussed in the Soviet embassies in the Horn and in Moscow as the crisis intensified. We get no comparative evaluations of officials with whom the Soviets were dealing in Mogadishu and Addis Ababa.
The documents also lack any direct reference to intelligence. It is hard to believe that Soviet officials did not receive extensive KGB and GRU reporting from agents in both Somalia and Ethiopia. There is, in fact, good reason to believe that the Soviets were re-insuring themselves during this period by maintaining contacts with political groups opposed to Mengistu in Ethiopia as well as opponents of Siad Barre in Somalia. They, the East Germans, the Cubans, and perhaps other socialist countries must also have had contacts among Eritrean factions. We do find tantalizing references to opposition to the Derg and to the strain under which Mengistu found himself as a result. At times the Soviets seem to be more apprehensive of Mengistu's staying power than U.S. officials were at the time.
The final portion of Ratanov's 18 March 1977 meeting with Berhanu Bayeh sheds indirect light on attitudes among the Ethiopian public. Major Berhanu asks to have the Soviets arrange for a scholarship for his younger brother to study in Moscow and explains that the young man has been unable to complete his work at a prestigious Addis Ababa secondary school because, as the relative of a Derg member, he became the object of harassment by other students. Even at this relatively early stage of the Derg's history, its popularity with the student population seems to have been quite low.
Nevertheless, most of the basic questions about Soviet policies and calculations during 1977 which I identified as still needing clarification in my discussion of this period in a 1991 study3 remain open so far as these documents go. The Russian documents stop, for the most part, at the point when hard Soviet decisions about action and implementation began to be made: at the end of September 1977. For example, they shed no light on how these decisions were arrived at and carried out, or how risks were assessed. The massive airlift and sealift of Cuban troops and equipment that startled the world from November 1977 onward, or the decision to send General V. Petrov to Ethiopia to oversee operations against the Somali forces, get scant mention, as does Mengistu's "closed" or secret trip to Moscow in October 1977 at which the imminent Soviet-Cuban military effort was undoubtedly the chief topic of conversation. [Ed. note: Both are mentioned in passing in the 3 April 1978 Soviet Foreign Ministry background report on Soviet-Ethiopian relations printed below; a generally-worded Soviet report to the East German leadership on Mengistu's trip is also included.] Likewise these documents are devoid of reference to the decision to shore up Ethiopian forces by transferring South Yemeni armored units to Ethiopia in late summer 1977 to blunt the Somali advance.
The most curious aspect of this batch of documents concern three that deal with "Operation Torch"--an alleged American plot to assassinate Mengistu and attack Ethiopia from Sudan and Kenya. Ethiopian leaders presented what they described as documentation of the plot to Soviet-bloc diplomats in early September 1977, and claimed that it was planned to be launched on 1 October 1977. The text of the description of the plot, supposedly conceived and directed out of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, reads like a fourth-rate pulp thriller. Nothing in it, including the names of the American officers who were supposedly directing it, bears any relation to known or plausible facts. Perhaps the oddest feature of "Operation Torch" is its lack of direct connection with Somalia or with Eritrean rebels.
If the Soviets actually took this "report" seriously, why did they not challenge all the countries supposedly cooperating in mounting it--Kenya, Sudan, and the United States? It bears all the marks of a disinformation operation of the kind that the Soviets (often through Bulgaria or Czechoslovakia) frequently undertook during this period. Whatever specific purpose it was designed to serve is unclear. One possibility is that it may have been intended to heighten the paranoia of Mengistu and his Derg colleagues and make them more amenable to Soviet manipulation. In its crudity, it is insulting to the intelligence of the Ethiopians. They did not take it seriously enough to bring it to the attention of the United States toward which they were showing some warmth at this very period in hopes of getting previously ordered military equipment and spare parts released. It is hard to believe that a seasoned and experienced officer such as Ratanov was not engaging in a charade in reporting this grotesque scheme and discussions of it with senior Ethiopian officials to Moscow.4
Limited as they are in what they reveal of the debates and actions of Soviet officials in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Moscow in 1977-78, these Soviet-bloc documents are worth more detailed examination and analysis, a task which I hope to undertake at greater length and also encourage others to do. More such documents may eventually become available, as well as a potentially rich collection of Ethiopian materials from this period that has been assembled in Addis Ababa for use in the trial of former Derg officials (the future status of these documents is unclear, but it is to be hoped that they will be made available to scholars). Access to these materials, as well as additional U.S. government documents still awaiting declassification and still-inaccessible Cuban and other sources, may enable a far better understanding of the Horn of Africa Crisis of 1977-78.

1 Though Siad told me on meeting with him in Mogadishu in September 1977 that Somalia had no regular military personnel in Ethiopia, the United States never took his claims seriously. Neither, so far as we can tell, did the Soviets.
2 Moscow had up to 4000 advisers in Somalia as of the beginning of 1977. There was also a sizable Cuban presence in Somalia.
3 Chapter 5, "Crisis and Degeneration", pp. 133-167 in The Horn of Africa from War to Peace (London/New York: Macmillan, 1991).
4 I served as the officer responsible for Horn affairs in the U.S. National Security Council during this period. No scheme remotely resembling "Operation Torch" was ever considered by the U.S. Government.

Subject: Horn of Africa Crisis Bulletin Bulletin 8-9 - Cold War in the Third World and the Collapse of Detente
Keywords: Rise and Fall of Detente (1962-80) Collection ID: Anatomy of a Third World Cold War Crisis: New East-bloc Evidence on the Horn of Africa
Geographic Subject: Ethiopia, Somalia Document Author: Paul B. Henze
Document Origin: CWIHP Bulletin Published:
Document Date: Document ID:
Document Type: Article Archive:


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