On Sunday, first lady Jill Biden became the latest Western official to travel to Ukraine and show her support for its people.
The Ukrainian people deserve such attention. While the White House at first encouraged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to flee ahead of the Russian onslaught, the former comedian-turned-reformist leader stayed and showed himself to be truly Churchillian, in sharp contrast to those in Washington and Berlin. Ukraine’s resistance has come at a tremendous cost, although the price of liberty and freedom is always worth paying. The Russian war machine has inflicted tens of billions of dollars in property damage upon Ukraine. Russian bombardment has killed thousands of Ukrainians and displaced millions. Russian forces summarily executed Ukrainian men, women, and children, often after inflicting brutal torture and sexual abuse. In Mariupol and elsewhere, Russia has engaged in a deliberate campaign of starvation.
That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s megalomania, paranoia, and vengeance have taken a huge human toll is apparent. There should be no moral equivalence: Castigating human rights abuses should be black and white.
Unfortunately, a comparison of the genocide in Tigray shows that it is — but for the wrong reasons.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is a zealot. African leaders and diplomats with whom he has met say he has a messiah complex. While the Norwegian Nobel Committee once brought his reformist rhetoric at face value, it was naive. Like Putin, Abiy’s background is in intelligence and the secret police. While ascendant but before becoming prime minister, Abiy bragged to diplomatic visitors about the new technology that he had acquired to track dissidents.
The Tigray War erupted in November 2020 after Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province defied Abiy’s decree that it delay elections, ostensibly because of the coronavirus pandemic. Its defiance of the prime minister, while rooted in the law, led Abiy to accelerate his efforts to disenfranchise the region. Abiy apologists say the Tigray People’s Liberation Front started the fight when it attacked an Ethiopian army post. But this is disingenuous: Ethiopia had already mobilized troops and prepared for a campaign against the defiant province’s leadership before skirmishing erupted.
There are other parallels. As Putin sought to dehumanize his adversary and justify aggression by calling those in Ukraine’s democratically elected government and its Jewish president Nazis, Abiy and his apologists suggest the Tigrayans with whom Abiy once worked in coalition were collectively guilty for past Ethiopian abuses. This is not to whitewash the TPLF —successive Ethiopian governments have fallen short on human rights — but there is a difference between targeting those who abused their positions and an effort to punish collectively an entire province and ethnic group.
For more than a year before the start of the Ukraine conflict, though, this is what Abiy has done. What Putin does to Mariupol, Abiy has sought to do to an entire province. His famine threatens millions. Just as Putin counts on Western naivete to believe his promises of humanitarian corridors, Abiy allows an occasional United Nations convoy to feign cooperation, but he stops the trucks as soon as the cameras move on.
To President Joe Biden’s credit, he has sought to raise the diplomatic profile of the Tigray crisis from his first weeks in office. He has also appointed a succession of envoys, though no one has succeeded or, indeed, lasted more than a year. While the Tigrayan forces curtailed their own offensive to allow negotiations to occur, Abiy, like Putin, approached talks in bad faith.
The war in Ukraine will shape freedom’s future not only in Ukraine itself but also perhaps in Russia and Eastern Europe. The fight in Tigray will do the same not only in Ethiopia but also in the broader Horn of Africa. It is time Tigrayans receive the same support, including high-profile visits, weaponry, and humanitarian assistance, that Ukrainians do.
That the West effectively ignores a slaughter on a scale greater than in Ukraine should cause introspection in every Western capital.
Michael Rubin ( @mrubin1971 ) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.