History Matters: Captain Gary D. Payton’s Analyiss of the USSR-ETHIOPIA MILITARY RELATION of 1975-1990(1991)


The Soviet-Ethiopian Liaison

airlift and beyond

Captain Gary D. Payton

On the night of 28 November 1977, the Soviet Union launched a major military airlift of arms and materiel bound for the Horn of Africa.1 In succeeding weeks the U.S.S.R. employed An-12 (NATO Cub) and An-22 (NATO Cock) transport aircraft along with seagoing cargo vessels to deliver an estimated $1 billion in fighter-bombers, tanks, artillery, and ammunition to the Ethiopian regime of Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu’s armies were staggering in the Ogaden desert under the attack of Somali-backed rebels, trying to capture territory claimed by the Mogadiscio government as part of a “Greater Somalia.” Although this resupply campaign did not rival the scale of the 1973 effort to rearm the Arab states in the wake of the October War, it was highlighted by the speed of Soviet reaction and the morale boost it provided the beleaguered Ethiopian army. As a result of the weapons supplied by the U.S.S.R. and the augmentation of Mengistu’s forces by Cuban combat soldiers and Soviet technicians and advisors, Ethiopia mounted a successful counteroffensive to regain the Ogaden in February and March of 1978.

These recent events clearly demonstrate the ability of the U.S.S.R. to project military force abroad in order to achieve foreign policy objectives. In the short-term this episode affirms the foresight of those military planners of the 1960s who recognized the requirement of the Soviet armed forces to be globally mobile. In the long-term the Ethiopian liaison marks the logical conclusion of a Soviet foreign policy process driven by ideological, geopolitical, and systemic needs. In response to four basic questions, this article will examine how U.S.S.R. military doctrine and capability have grown to accomplish this task, what the Soviet-Ethiopian relationship has been over time, why this new political and military affiliation has developed, and where the relationship may lead.


The military force responsible for success in Ethiopia did not materialize overnight to meet this specific crisis. It had been carefully and capably constructed over the last decade to fill a void in the otherwise potent armor of Soviet offensive forces. In repeated post-World War II episodes, Soviet military leaders had witnessed demonstrations of U. S. ability to project military force abroad. They could not help being impressed by America’s air and sealift capability to respond to crises in Berlin (1948), Korea (1950), Lebanon (1958), the Dominican Republic and Vietnam (1965). This final example was the most spectacular. In 100 days the United States moved 100,000 men to a locale 10,000 miles from our borders with relative ease of transport and without substantially reducing our troop commitments elsewhere in the world.2 If the Soviet Union were truly to become a world power, its military had to achieve a force mix capable of projecting power around the globe.

In his concise account of how Soviet military strategists developed their mobility concept, Colonel William F. Scott, former U.S. Air Attaché in Moscow, has argued that the Soviet armed forces are firmly dedicated to the defense of those socialist countries traditionally allied with the U.S.S.R. This defensive dedication has now been extended to progressive socialist regimes in the Third World. As the new doctrine slowly emerged from the Academy of Science’s research institutes and the General Staff, the announced emphasis on the role of the military changed. Leonid Brezhnev asserted in 1971 at the 24th Party Congress that “the Soviet Armed Forces are prepared to repel an enemy attack, no matter from where it comes.”3 Yet by 1974 this previous characterization, based on defense of the homeland, was modified by the Minister of Defense, Marshal Andrey Grechko, to affirm that:

At the present stage the historic function of the Soviet Armed Forces is not restricted merely to their function in defending our Motherland and the other socialist countries. In its foreign policy activity the Soviet state actively purposefully opposes the export of counter-revolution and the policy of oppression, supports the national-liberation struggle, and resolutely resists imperialist aggression in whatever distant region of our Planet it may appear.4

The shift in emphasis to an aggressive defense of progressive forces no matter where they reside has peep called “…probably the most significant Soviet pronouncement on international affairs made thus far in the 1970s.”5 Yet until 1977 there had been only limited foreign demonstration of this doctrinal change. Prior to 1977 the most significant projection of force into sub-Saharan Africa was the support provided Angola in 1975 and 1976. At that time the U.S.S.R. ferried Cuban combat troops to Angola via Aeroflot (Soviet national airline) aircraft and troop ships and supplied military hardware to the floundering government of Dr. Agostinho Neto. The Soviet assistance pr9ved to be but a foreshadowing of events in Ethiopia, however.

Development of the military hardware to implement this new policy has been fully documented in recent years. Through a sustained program to upgrade the Soviet navy and expand and modernize the Soviet air force, the U.S.S.R. now possesses the military capability to influence international events on a worldwide scale. Most relevant to the Ethiopian adventure is the proven ability of the An-12 Cub and the An-22 Cock to “surge” arms and materiel to a location thousands of miles from the Soviet homeland. As demonstrated in late 1977, the Soviet air force can respond in rapid fashion to meet the crisis needs of the nation’s client states. By coupling its air and sealift capacity, the Soviet military has demonstrated once more that it maintains a force with proven global reach.


The roots of Russian interest in Ethiopia run far deeper than the recent emergency. Drawn by the prospects of uniting the Orthodox world, Russian czars beginning with Peter the Great sought to curry favor with the feudal aristocracy of Abyssinia. This interaction was later highlighted by the exchange of ambassadors in the 1880s as Czar Alexander III tried to influence the imperial court of Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II. In an overlooked footnote to Russian history, Slavophile officials under Alexander viewed the Horn as a logical location for a Russian colony during the years that the European powers were partitioning the African continent. To that end, the small colony of New Moscow was established in the present state of Djibouti in 1889.6 Though the handful of hearty adventurers ultimately returned to Russia, the importance of the Strait of Bab al-Mandab continued to be recognized by military strategists.

Not to be outdone by the Western powers, who were allocating the spoils of World War II. Stalin attempted to acquire a United Nations trusteeship over the Red Sea colony of Eritrea or Italian Somalia in 1945 and 1946. But, despite his diplomatic jockeying, Stalin came away empty-handed as the territories were kept within the Western sphere ofinfluence.7

When Ethiopia signed a military assistance agreement in 195~ with the United States, Soviet interest in Ethiopia was effectively checked for twenty years. During this period U.S. military personnel trained and equipped thousands of Ethiopian regulars in the conduct of conventional and counterinsurgency warfare. In return, the United States operated a sophisticated communication facility at Kagnew Station in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. All of these factors changed, however, with the demise of Emperor Haile Selassie I in a “creeping coup” of 1974. The radical Provisional Military Administrative Council, or Dirgue, espoused their belief in Marxism -Leninism as the only method of bringing true social reform to Ethiopia; As the Dirgue grew increasingly hostile in its denunciation of the United States, relations between the two states cooled. When the U.S. refused to supply additional war materiel requested by the Addis regime, the military council looked elsewhere for support.

Faced with growing dissent in the Ethiopian provinces, a hostile Somali government across the Ogaden border, and a continuing armed liberation movement in Eritrea, the Dirgue turned to the U.S.S.R. for military assistance. In December 1976 Ethiopian military leaders signed an arms agreement in Moscow assuring a renewed flow of modern weapons.

Had the scenario continued on a “peaceful” course, it is possible that Soviet military assistance would have flowed into Ethiopia via routinely scheduled air and sea deliveries. The arms buildup would have been progressive. Some Soviet technicians would have been required for training and weapons familiarization, but no massive resupply effort could be foreseen. Ethiopia would be just another sub-Saharan state undergoing a periodic flirtation with the Soviet Union and the African brand of Marxism.

But external factors precluded this “peaceful” scenario. In July 1977 the Western Somali Liberation Front, backed by regular Somali forces, mounted an offensive against the Ogaden Province of Ethiopia. In rapid order the Somalis rolled back the Ethiopian army and by October had captured one-third of the nation’s territory. This action, coupled with the military successes of the Eritrean “freedom fighters,” placed Colonel Mengistu in a desperate situation. The vital rail link connecting the central highlands with the port facilities of Massawa and Assab were harassed by Eritrean guerrillas. If Mengistu were to survive this crisis and continue the Ethiopian revolution, drastic measures had to be taken. Those drastic measures took the form of the airlift of arms and materiel from the Soviet Union and the infusion of thousands of Cuban combat soldiers to assist in the Ogaden battle.

The critical nature of Mengistu’s situation was illustrated by the actions of his Soviet and Cuban supporters. In the sixty days after the airlift began, fifty flights were flown from bases in southern Russia to the Ethiopian capital.8 Soviet pilots reportedly filed false reports with air traffic controllers along the routes to mask the nature of their missions and the on-board cargo. To relieve the strain placed on the Cuban air force, which was contributing pilots for the Ogaden conflict, it was reported that as many as 30 Soviet air defense pilots were transferred to Cuba to fly MiG-21 interceptor missions.9 Finally, not trusting its monetary and manpower investment to the direction of Ethiopian commanders, Moscow assigned General Vasiliy I. Petrov, Deputy Commander in Chief of Soviet Ground Forces, to coordinate the counteroffensive against Somalia.10

The airlift transferred crated MiG-21 fighters, self-propelled artillery, and modern battle tanks from supply depots across the southern regions of the U.S.S.R. In particular, war materiel stored near the Central Asian city of Tashkent was flown to the combat theater.

Though some Cuban soldiers flew into Ethiopia directly from Havana, hundreds of troops were shuttled across Africa from garrisons in Angola. To this end the existing fleet of Ethiopian airline Boeing 707s proved most useful.11 Not configured for cargo, these aircraft served as “people haulers” in the cross continent hop.


By itself, Mengistu’s plight may not have been sufficient cause to generate the kind of Soviet response that followed. The crisis did, however, present the opportunity for the U.S.S.R. to reassert its presence on the Horn of Africa. Only days before the airlift began, President Muhammad Siad Barre ejected Soviet military advisors from Somalia, closed the port facility of Berbera to the Soviet navy, and abrogated the three-year-old Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. While it is doubtful that Politburo and Ministry of Defense officials had fully assessed the impact of this action, the Somali episode undoubtedly influenced the decision to initiate the airlift. Yet to justify a $1 billion resupply effort, significant factors beyond Mengistu’s battle losses and the Somali expulsion had to be at work.12

ideology and doctrine

The ruling elite of the Soviet Union and Ethiopia profess their dedication to Marxism-Leninism. One Western analyst has suggested that the aging Soviet leadership was greatly inspired by the revolutionary zeal of Mengistu and his cohorts. This view implies that the U.S.S.R. sees the Ethiopian military regime as a fledgling Marxist government dedicated to the destruction of the feudal aristocracy and intent on land reform and the continuation of an Ethiopian class struggle. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko has reportedly described the Dirgue leadership as “young revolutionaries for whom the Soviets would do much.”13

Beyond any shared ideology lies the doctrinal commitment to assist friendly governments in repelling foreign aggression. The new Soviet constitution, accepted by the Supreme Soviet in 1977, “virtually enshrines the Brezhnev doctrine by committing the Soviet state to ‘strengthening the position of world socialism and supporting the struggle of peoples for national liberation.’ “14 It further guarantees the “inviolability of borders” and the “territorial integrity of states.” Throughout the Ogaden war, the U.S.S.R. stressed that its support to the Dirgue was based on an Ethiopian request for military assistance to repel the Somali invaders. The Soviets repeatedly affirmed the Organization of African Unity position regarding the inviolability of colonial borders and indicated that they were firmly supporting an established principle in African international relations.


Despite the moral tone of these arguments, they offer little substantive rationale to explain the 1977 airlift. This ideological posturing only serves to confuse the more basic motives of Soviet foreign policy. In a recent presentation former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dismissed the unselfish” response of the U.S.S.R. to the Ethiopian appeal for assistance and stated that their motives were strictly geopolitical. The Soviet Union, he asserted, was trying “to outflank the Middle East, to demonstrate that the US cannot protect its friends, to raise doubts in Saudi Arabia, right across the Red Sea, in Egypt, in the Sudan, in Iran.”15

During a March 1977 visit to the Horn of Africa, Cuba’s Fidel Castro met in Aden with the leaders of Ethiopia and Somalia. Castro’s intention was to gain acceptance for a Soviet scheme to create a loose confederation of states on the Horn. The concept of confederation would unite the “Marxist” governments of Ethiopia, South Yemen, and Somalia, thereby creating a powerful geographic block surrounding the Strait of Bab al-Mandab.16 Both Moscow and Havana miscalculated the historic animosity between the Ethiopians and the Somalis, and the July eruption of the Ogaden war effectively scuttled all hope for the confederation.

Events in northeast Africa during November 1977 were the cause of extreme concern for the Kremlin leadership. Besides the Somali eviction and the state of Ethiopia’s Ogaden battle, the dramatic diplomatic maneuvers of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat brought into serious question the Soviet Union’s future policy in the Middle East. Had Sadat’s 19 November journey t Jerusalem resulted in the immediate resolution of long-standing Arab-Israeli strife, Soviet leverage on its remaining Arab allies might have been markedly reduced.

These Middle Eastern events may have been a significant factor in the decision to launch the Ethiopian airlift on 28 November. Since the 1972 explusion of military personnel from Egypt and the renouncement of a $4 billion debt, Moscow has been embittered with Sadat’s independent actions. Support to Ethiopia can in part be interpreted as a further attempt to isolate Sadat by bolstering another Red Sea “Marxist” regime.

Perhaps the most touted explanation for the intervention on the Horn of Africa is the Soviet desire to control the sea lines of communication in the northwest Indian Ocean. Clearly a sizable military force based in Ethiopia would be in a position to disrupt the shipping routes carrying crude oil to Western Europe and the Americas. Likewise, this military fore (naval and air) could serve to diminish the threat of U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles which may be operating in the Persian gulf. Despite the array of proponents of this view, the fact remains that if the U.S.S.R. severed these sea lines it would be committing an act of war that could escalate into a major military confrontation. If the act were conducted in isolation, the American reaction would presumably be swift and powerful. If the act were conducted as an immediate prelude to general war, the relative importance of the Horn of Africa would be greatly diminished. Attention would quickly turn to the European theater and focus on NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. While the international waterways adjacent to this region may serve as a genuine pressure point to threaten Western nations, once armed conflict has begun the strategic importance of the Horn of Africa may quickly be forgotten.

political legitimation

Neither ideology nor geopolitics provides a completely satisfactory explanation of Soviet motives in northeast Africa. To gain more insight into the rationale behind the events, one must carefully view the state of Soviet domestic politics in the era of détente. Historian Richard Pipes in testifying before the Senate Armed Ser: vices Committee has suggested that the Soviet political system requires crises in order to sustain itself.17 Because the ruling elite lacks a popular mandate from the people, the regime must appear to be protecting the population from internal and external enemies in order to remain legitimate. This need for political legitimation manifests itself in the foreign sector in the exploitation of targets of opportunity. Through the use of a strategic airlift, the Soviet Union assured the survival of a new-born “Marxist” state despite the combined efforts of “Western imperialists.” The stabilization of Mengistu’s regime can therefore be offered to the people of the nation as another positive step taken by the ruling elite of the Communist party to defend socialism against foreign aggression.

For the last thirty years, the United States has represented in the eyes of the Soviet leadership all the evils inherent in the capitalist system. During this time the repeated confrontations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have provided ample opportunities to be manipulated by the Soviet elite to serve its purposes. The era of détente has brought relative calm to superpower relations. With that calm the number of external crises that could be exploited was reduced. But the need to affirm the legitimacy of the party continues. It now appears that the Soviet Union has focused on the Third World as the next arena to provide the necessary “proofs of victory.” This systemic need for turmoil is a basic characteristic of the Soviet. political process. In spite of détente, demonstrations of the “superiority” of the Soviet state will always be required. It is a logical conclusion, then, that a regular and recurring feature of East-West relations in the 1980s will be episodes of support similar to that seen in the Soviet-Ethiopian liaison.

Where Now?

As 1978 drew to a close, the full impact of Soviet intervention in Ethiopia became clearer. With the weapons provided by the U.S.S.R. and the guidance of Cuban military advisors, the Ethiopian army wrested much of Eritrea from its rebel holders. The November offensive effectively returned the province to the control of Addis Ababa. The U.S. State Department concluded that the Ethiopian gains resulted from the overwhelming arms superiority enjoyed by the government forces.18 This, then, is the lesson of the Soviet-Ethiopian liaison: By providing massive amounts of military equipment to one side of a sputtering military conflict, the U.S.S.R. can tip the balance of power to achieve Moscow’s political objective. Indeed, without Soviet arms Mengistu’s ability to remain in power was questionable. He had been challenged simultaneously by internal political disorder, the Eritrean liberation movement, and the Somali insurgency. Between September 1977 and June 1978 no fewer than nine assassination attempts were made on his life.19 Now, however, his shaky regime has been stabilized through Soviet military assistance.

In the tradition of Soviet/Third World relationships, Moscow signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Ethiopia on 20 November 1978. This treaty served to replace the one abrogated by Somalia the year before. It now complements those signed by the African states of Angola (1975) and Mozambique (1977). But can the U.S.S.R. genuinely assist Ethiopia In improving its economy and better the life of the people? True, the Soviet Union now possesses adequate strength to project military force abroad, but what happens after the political objectives are achieved? The Soviet economic model does not provide a viable alternative for developing nations. The U.S.S.R. may inject massive amounts of military hardware to achieve battlefield success, but in the long-term it fails to satisfy the genuine needs of the client state.

Washington, D.C.


1. Don Oberdorfer, “The Superpowers and Africa’s Horn,” Washington Post, March 5, 1978, p. A10.

2. Morton Schwartz, The Foreign Policy of the USSR Domestic Factors (Encino, California: Dickenson Publishing Co.,” 1975), pp, 42-46.

3. William F. Scott, “The USSR’s Growing Global Mobility,” Air Force Magazine, March 1977, p. 57, quoting Leonid Brezhnev.

4. Ibid., p. 57, quoting Andrey Grechko, Emphasis added.

5. Ibid.

6. Edward T. Wilson, Russia and Africa before World War II (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1974), p. 32.

7. Alvin Z. Rubinstein, Red Star on the Nile The Soviet-Egyptian Influence Relationship Since the June War (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,1977), p. 3.

8. Bonner Day, “Soviet Airlift to Ethiopia,” Air Force Magazine, September 1978, p. 33.

9. Aviation Week & Space Technology, March 6, 1978, p. 9.

10. Bernard Gwerztzam, “U.S. Cautions Soviet Its Action in Africa May Hurt Relations,” New York Times, February 26, 1978. p. 1.

11. Roland Evans and Robert Novak, “Africa: Will Carter Move Too Late?” Washington Post, March 2, 1978, p. A23.

12. For a discussion by this author of the Soviet-Somali liaison see “Soviet Military Presence Abroad: The Lessons of Somalia,” Military Review, January 1979, pp.67-77.

13. Kevin Klose, “Ethiopians’ Zeal Said to Captivate Kremlin Leaders,” Washington Post, November 16, 1977.

14. Peter Vanneman and Marlin James, “Soviet Thrust into the Horn of Africa: The Next Targets,” Strategic Review, Spring 1978, pp. 38-39.

15. “Moscow’s Geopolitics,” Time, May 8, 1978, p. 37.

16. John Darnton, “Turnabout in Africa: Somali Ouster Completes Shift of Soviet Role,” New York Times, November 15, 1977, p. 8.

17. U.S.” Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Hearings before the Subcommittee on SALT, 91st Cong., 2d sess., 1970.

18. “Ethiopia’s Eritrea Gains Attributed to Soviet Aid,” New York Times, December 1, 1978, p. A3.

19. “Ethiopia Tells of 9 Tries on Mengistu’s Life,” New York Times, June 29, 1978.


Captain Gary D. Payton (USAFA; M.A.S., Johns Hopkins University) is assigned to Hq USAFE, Ramstein AB, Germany. He has served as a signals intelligence officer in the USAF Security Service and as an intelligence analyst in Turkey, Alaska, and the National Security Agency, Washington, DC. Captain Payton was a 1979 AFIT student in the Russian Area Studies Program at Georgetown University.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


Studied at Nativity Boys School (Cathedral),Meki Catholic School, Gambo catholic School (N. Nagelle) Mandida Catholic school,Daanno Baroddo (Dandi) Catholic School, Lycee Gebre-Mariam Gari French School, Gen. Wingate School, Nefas Silk, Prince Mekonnen schools, Teachers Training Institute (Asmara), Haile-Sellassie I University, Moscow Statistics Institute (Russia), College of North London, University of North London (now London Guilds Hall Univ), Birbeck College Univ London), Westminster University, University of North London, University of TN. Countries lived in: Oromia/Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Russia, Germany, UK, USA Countries Visited: Poland, Belgium, Holland, Austria, France, Republic of Ireland.
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