Naval Expansionism: Russian Naval Base in Eritrea

Russian Naval Base Eritrea

Scenario Generation

This report examines the geopolitical context in the Red Sea and the potential implications of a Russian naval base in Eritrea. Using both diagnostic and predictive analysis, the author assesses the current situation and delivers predictive judgements regarding potential developments. The timing for prediction has been set for five years. For collection and processing, the author used OSINT and GEOINT, therefore the report is safe to be further distributed.

Key Judgements

KJ-1. Russia is competing with both China and the Western powers to spread influence on the African continent. To advance its military and economic interests, Russia uses three main leverages: weapons sales, military assistance and energy contracts. It is likely that in the next five years, Russia will establish a logistical base in Eritrea, followed by investments in infrastructure and the energy sector.

KJ-2. In the likelihood of Russia building a logistical navy base in Eritrea, there is a realist possibility that the base will benefit from similar equipment as the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria. This would likely include missile corvettes, supply vessels, and patrol boats.

KJ-3. Petroleum exports from Russia account for the largest share (24%) of Suez southbound petroleum traffic. Russia is likely to build a naval presence in Eritrea’s waters to safeguard its shipments and to further advance its exports.

Strategic Context: Russia’s Need for Warm Water Naval Bases

To become a global power, Russia needs a strong navy with access to warm-waters. This will highly likely enable Russia to boost its trade and to establish a military presence on other continents.

Warm-water ports have long played an important role in Russian foreign policy. None of Russia’s ports allows for easy access to the Mediterranean Sea – Europe’s naval hub for commerce and, through the Suez Canal, the access point to the southern international waters. This leaves Russia with an economic and military incentive to expand toward warmer waters.

For example, Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war is due, among others, to its goal to preserve its presence in the Tartus port. The Russian naval base lacks large-scale repair facilities and a command-and-control capability, which would allow Russia to oversee operations from Tartus. However, it is able to accommodate all Russian naval vessels except for the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier and offers a means of offloading arms and personnel.

Strategic Context: Increased Chinese Military Presence in Djibouti

Russia is highly likely to attempt entering a naval competition with China, France and the US in the Red Sea, to build its global power status. To do so, one of Russia’s goals is to establish a military base and naval port in Eritrea, Djibouti’s long-time rival state and neighbour. 

China’s PLA naval base in Djibouti was opened in 2017. It is aimed at enhancing China’s global influence and better protecting its security interests in Africa and the Indian Ocean. The number of PLA personnel deployed in Djibouti is uncertain, but it is likely small. While some speculate the number of personnel is 10,000, diplomatic sources indicate that it is at most 2000. This is a bit higher than the French deployment (1450) but less than half the size of the US deployment (4500). The PLA Navy anti-piracy escort taskforce makes around ten port calls per year in Djibouti, but the PLA contingent prefers to remain discreet. After initially publicising its training exercises, in 2018 it stopped doing so.

The US deployments to Camp Lemonier in Djibouti have been focusing on ensuring freedom of maritime movement from its leading role in anti-piracy patrols and keeping the 15-mile-wide chokepoint at Bab al Mandab open during the continuing civil war in Yemen.

Eritrea’s two ports, in Massawa and Assab, occupy strategic points along the Red Sea. Although the stated purpose of an agreement signed between Russia and Eritrea was to invigorate trade and business deals between the two countries, it is likely to allow the Russians to collect intelligence on shipping going through the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and the Arabian Seas. This would include U.S. and Chinese warships sailing to, or from, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

How Would Eritrea Benefit from Russian Military Bases?

Russia’s initiative to build a logistical base in Eritrea is likely to be perceived by the Eritrean government as an opportunity to pursue a close relationship with Russia in order to develop the country’s economy and defence sectors.

Military cooperation is the quickest and most easily implemented sector. As the second weapons producer in the world, Russia is a major supplier of arms to Africa: according to think tank SIPRI, 13% of Russian arms are sold to African countries. The weaponry sold is mainly second-hand equipment, such as combat helicopters, aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems. For example, at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Sergey Lavrov, began negotiations with the Eritrean government, in order to establish a logistic centre in the strategic Horn of Africa region.

The energy sector is crucial for the development of many African countries that are still suffering from inadequate infrastructure and continuous blackouts or load shedding. For instance, Russia’s national nuclear corporation, Rosatom, was one of the major actors in Sochi, signing agreements to build nuclear advanced reactors in Ethiopia for 12,000 MW and a centre for nuclear technology in Rwanda by 2024.

Eritrea has major deficiencies in energy supply, roads, telecommunications, and ports. The country ranked forty-seven out of fifty-three countries across the continent in the 2013 Africa Infrastructure Development Index, due to poor road networks, water and sanitation, energy, and ICT (information and communications technology) deficiencies.

Eritrea has failed so far to take advantage of the country’s unique geostrategic location and long coastline to advance the economy, allowing neighbouring Djibouti to monopolize all the opportunity produced by one of the world’s most important international trade routes (almost one-third of all shipping in the world passes by the two countries’ shores). Furthermore, Eritrea has one of the lowest tourist arrival figures of any non-island in the world, despite its immense tourism potential and location.


A military naval base in the Red Sea is likely to enable Russia to adopt a stronger stance in any forthcoming negotiations regarding the nuclear deal with Iran and any conflict concerning the Persian Gulf.

On 14 August 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed an online summit with the other UN Security Council members (United States, United Kingdom, France and China), Germany and Iran, in a bid to avoid confrontation and escalation at the United Nations. The call came after the White House announced it intends to extend the arms embargo on Tehran.

Russia, Iran’s ally in the Syrian civil war, called for the leaders to discuss establishing reliable security and confidence-building measures in the Persian Gulf. Although Russia does not have a strong military presence in the Persian Gulf, the country is likely to engage in coordinating talks between the interested parties, in order to boost its influence in the region.

A Russian base in Eritrea would also be advantageously located between the rival states of Egypt and Ethiopia and therefore in the most logical role to mediate between them. The inclusion of Russia into this format could endow Moscow with the potential to balance between them and their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners.

Military Capabilities: Eritrea’s Current Naval Capabilities

In April 2018, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the country’s ambition to develop its own navy force, despite Ethiopia being a landlocked country. To do so, Ethiopia signed in 2019 a military agreement with France, who vowed to invest 2.8 billion Euros in Ethiopia’s forces. Although relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea improved considerably following the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war (1998-2000) and the peace agreement signed only in 2018, it is likely that Eritrea perceives Ethiopia’s plan to build its naval forces as a threat to its security.

As of August 2020, Eritrea’s navy forces consist of 1,400 strong-force and an air force of about 800. It is responsible for the security of the entire coastline of Eritrea, (over 1,100 km) as well as the Eritrean territorial waters. The Eritrean Navy was formed from the remnants of the Ethiopian Navy, all of which was based on the Eritrean coast. In recent years, the Eritrean Naval Force has been seriously weakened by the continuous defections of its officers to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Mismanagement and tyrannical system of the PFDJ regime is the main cause of the mass defection.

As of 2005, the navy had one missile craft, along with seven inshore patrol boats, and three amphibious vehicles of unknown serviceability. The Eritrean navy is headquartered in Massawa. Eritrea also has former Soviet bases located on islands off the coast. Naval bases include Assab (incorporating ship repair facility); Embaticalla (former marine commando training school); Massawa (traditional EPLF naval HQ); and Dahlak.

Russian Military Equipment & Weaponry Likely to be Shipped to Eritrea

In the likelihood of Russia building a logistical navy base in Eritrea, there is a realist possibility that the base will benefit from similar equipment as the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria.

According to the Russian government, Russia tries to significantly expand its military bases in war-torn Syria. President Vladimir Putin ordered his Defense and Foreign Ministries to hold talks with Bashar Assad’s government over obtaining maritime access in Syria, as well as further military facilities and additional real estate on land and at sea. Both the Tartus and Latakia bases are set to be expanded to allow Russian armed forces higher levels of performance and functionality.

Reporters on a trip to Syria organized by the Russian Defense Ministry could see a missile corvette sailing off on patrol and a group of navy divers practising at the Tartus harbour. Captain Sergei Tronev, the chief of the Russian navy command in the area, said in addition to two submarines moored at the harbour, Tartus now also hosts two missile corvettes, three patrol boats and three supply vessels.

Tronev added that along with the ships in Tartus, the navy’s force in the eastern Mediterranean currently includes the guided-missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov, which has sailed from its Arctic base of Severomorsk, and the guided-missile frigate Admiral Makarov detached from the Black Sea Fleet.

Military Supremacy in the Red Sea

To attain the status of a super-power in the Red Sea, Russia will have to compete with the US, French and Chinese naval forces, the most well-equipped navies in the area.

Camp Lemonnier is the centrepiece of a network of US drone and surveillance bases stretching across the continent and serves as a hub for aerial operations in the Gulf. The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) officially consists of around 2000 US military service members as well as personnel from allied countries. In 2017, it was reported that up to 4000 military personnel were temporarily based in Djibouti. The base has housed a broad range of US ground, air and naval units over the years. For example, in October 2011, in 2016, F-16 combat planes and air tankers were deployed to Camp Lemonnier as fighting intensified in South Sudan and Yemen.

French forces are deployed at several sites in Djibouti city, including Djibouti–Ambouli International Airport, a naval base, and Chabelley Airport outside the capital. The naval base plays an important logistical role in supporting French and allied navies in the region and is strategically important for France’s ability to send its nuclear attack submarines into the Indian Ocean. The garrison is equipped with helicopters and a squadron of Mirage combat jets, as well as heavy equipment to support infantry units.

China’s military base in Djibouti is located immediately south-west of the Doraleh Multipurpose Port and the PLAN is reported to have exclusive access to a dedicated berth in that port. Combined, these options are believed to enable China to berth multiple ships in Djibouti, including all but the largest PLAN vessels.

The base has barracks, a paved area and eight hangars for helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and naval facilities. Since the base opened, expansion has continued with the construction of a 450-metre pier that can accommodate naval flotillas, including large warships.

Satellite images from May 2020 indicate that China is continuing work at the fortified Support Base in Djibouti. The images show that the pier is now substantially complete, so it should be able to accept ships in the next year.

In 2012, it was reported that Israel maintained small naval teams in the Dahlak Archipelago and Massawa and a listening post on Mount Soira (Amba Sawara) in Eritrea. Israel’s presence is intended to gather intelligence and monitor Iran’s Red Sea activities. In 2017, a spokesperson for the Houthi rebel movement accused Israel of participating in the Saudi Arabian-led coalition fighting in Yemen and indicated that Israeli bases in Eritrea could be the target of missile attacks.

Economic Aspects: Russian Oil Exports in the Red Sea      

Petroleum exports from Russia account for the largest share (24%) of Suez southbound petroleum traffic. Russia is likely to build a naval presence in Eritrea’s waters to safeguard its shipments and to further advance its exports.

The Suez Canal and the SUMED Pipeline are strategic routes for Persian Gulf crude oil, petroleum products, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments to Europe and North America. Located in Egypt, the Suez Canal connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, and it is a critical chokepoint because of the large volumes of energy commodities that flow through it. A naval base in Eritrea would enable Russia to secure the safe passage of its shipments through the Red Sea, reaching the Indian Ocean.

Russian Naval Base in Eritrea

Economic Aspects: Eritrea Economically Benefit from Russian Military Bases?

Eritrea main exports are livestock, sorghum, textiles and food. Its main export partners are Italy, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, China, the United Kingdom and Egypt. Thus, Eritrea is highly interested in the security of the Red Sea, so that its shipments can safely reach the destination country.

As the Russian navy base will serve as a logistical facility, it could also ensure the Eritrean navy disposes of the necessary equipment and support to defend its commercial ships.

Intelligence Cutoff Date (ICOD) 01-09-2020

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