Geopolitical Diary: Somalians, Russians and Pirates

4 MINS READOct 2, 2008 | 02:45 GMT
Somalia announced on Wednesday its intention to recognize the independence of the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. So far, only Nicaragua (and of course Russia) recognizes them as independent. According to Somalian Ambassador to Moscow Mohammed Mahmud Handule, "We want Russia to start military and technical cooperation with our country as soon as possible. Active talks are currently under way between our countries' foreign ministries on Russia's assistance in training Somalian border guards, combat units and security services." According to Handule, Somalian President Abdullahi Yusuf has agreed to allow Russian forces to fight pirates at sea and, significantly, on Somalian soil. On Sept. 23, the Russians announced that they would join international efforts to fight piracy off the Somalian coast, an area which has seen numerous ships seized. On Sept. 26, Somalian pirates hijacked a Ukrainian ship, MV Faina. The ship, with Belizean registration, was carrying materiel including 38 T-72 tanks, armored personnel carriers and munitions and spare parts. While some reports said the ultimate destination for the tanks was southern Sudan, it appears that the Kenyans were actually buying them from Ukraine. The pirates demanded an approximately $35 million ransom (the exact amount is not clear). Three warships of the international flotilla patrolling the waters of Somalia surrounded the ship. The hijackers refused to surrender. At this point things began to get really confusing. One hostage died, apparently of natural causes. Then fighting broke out on the ship among the hijackers, apparently over how to deal with the situation, leaving three pirates dead. According to one report, the issue was between "moderate" and "radical" pirates. The moderates, seeing a U.S. warship close by, wanted to give up. The radicals didn't. Thus far, there has been no surrender. On Sept. 24, the Russian frigate Neustrashimy left the Baltic Sea for Somalia. There are unconfirmed reports that the ship carries a contingent of naval commandos. To sum up: the Russians announced that they were sending a warship to patrol off of Somalia's coast, and dispatched it just two days before a Ukrainian ship loaded with Soviet-era weapons was seized by pirates. A week after the hijacking, the Somalian government announced recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence, and announced that they were in talks with the Russians for military training and assistance. (Somalia was allied with the Soviets during the Cold War, but relations fell apart after pro-Soviet President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991.) Setting aside the coincidence that Russia announced the deployment of an anti-piracy warship three days before the hijacking of the Ukrainian ship, the strategic issue is that the Russians are involving themselves once again in the Horn of Africa. They had been involved there during the Cold War, and they are returning — on a very small scale for now. The Horn of Africa is critical to U.S. counterterrorism efforts; the region is watched through Africa Command, headquartered in Germany, and Djibouti hosts the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. This follows the pattern Russia established with Venezuela: recruiting allies whose interests diverge from those of the United States. The primary function at this point is to irritate Washington, since the primary deployment is naval — and so minimal that it presents no threat to U.S. naval sea-lane control. At the same time, the Somalian announcement that the Russians are welcomed ashore in Somalia opens the possibility of a Russian land base in the region, and the possibility of Russian troops helping to assert government control over Somalian chaos — or at least trying to. The fate of the hijacked ship is unknown. Kenya's decision to buy T-72s from Ukraine is not unheard of. The timing of the announcement and the hijacking is entirely coincidental. We understand all of that of course. But in this bizarre affair what is clear is that the Russians are moving ahead rapidly to at least show the flag in diverse parts of the world, and are finding willing partners — maybe not of the first quality, but enough to distract the United States at least somewhat from more focused and pressing issues elsewhere.

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