The Moscow-Algiers axis emerges
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has not only excluded it from Europe’s security agenda. It has also triggered a fundamental reorientation of Russian international policy priorities.
Africa, Asia and Latin America have become the primary foci of its attention so that it can continue to assert itself globally as a great power, aggravate regional conflict situations in these continents and thereby ultimately force the West to deal with Russia on Moscow’s terms.
In this context, the exploitation of long-running unresolved border and conflict issues has emerged as a heaven-sent opportunity for Russia to intervene in those issues so that it can achieve these objectives. At the same time, states caught in these conflicts or that seek a greater status for themselves in the less-developed world eagerly solicit and welcome Russian arms, mercenaries, economic deals and diplomatic support.
Algeria, which clearly craves this enhanced status and has long been in conflict with Morocco over the Western Sahara, therefore has become an emerging Russian partner.
Algeria has taken advantage of the war in Ukraine to sign energy deals with Italy and Greece and is being sought after by many other European governments. But it has also made many gestures to Moscow that have been reciprocated. Algeria has agreed to finance the operations of Moscow’s private military forces, PMC Wagner, in Mali.
In addition, Algeria abstained on a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Algeria also opposed subsequent UN resolutions suspending Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council and on Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory.
Since then, Algeria and Russia have maintained high-level foreign policy and military contacts. Last May, Algeria’s ambassador to Russia announced that Russia and Algeria were preparing a new strategic partnership document to strengthen cooperation in areas not mentioned in their earlier 2001 document. In addition, Algeria has now formally applied to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economic-political organization, much to Russia’s delight.
In the military sphere, in November the two countries held talks on military cooperation and began joint counterterrorism exercises near Algeria’s border with Morocco. That choice of location was no coincidence given Algeria’s rivalry with Morocco. In October, the countries’ navies conducted joint exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, and in September, Algeria took part in the Vostok-2022 strategic command and staff military exercises.
Both sides’ objectives are clear. Algeria seeks Russian support to oust Morocco from the Western Sahara and to enhance its standing throughout the Middle East and Africa. Russia seeks permanent leverage as a great power in Africa, some form of leverage over key economic assets, including oil and gas, and a naval and/or air base on the Mediterranean. Indeed, Russia’s defense minister acknowledged this in 2014, and there is no reason to believe Russia has recanted on this point.
Therefore, it is no surprise that this axis, along with other Russian interventions in Africa, has increasingly angered Western governments. French President Emmanuel Macron has publicly denounced Russia’s “predatory” African policies. Several European members of the European Parliament are now demanding a review of the EU agreement with Algeria due to its links with Russia.
In the U.S., Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has called for sanctions on Algeria under U.S. law due to its 2021 $7 billion arms deal with Russia. In the House, Rep. Linda McClain (R-Mich.) is leading several of her colleagues to demand sanctions on Algeria for the same reason.
Thus, throughout the West, Algeria has begun to reap the harvest of its ill-considered effort to invite Russia to help it destabilize Morocco and North Africa generally. There is also no doubt that Moscow is simultaneously seeking to circumvent the Western sanctions regime through North Africa, among other places.
Algeria is a willing partner in such schemes and in Moscow’s overall African gambit.
It should be held accountable for its policies by both Europe and the U.S. More importantly, such Western actions should provide an impetus for the West to pay more attention to and invest more resources in Africa. Doing so would checkmate Russian strategy and strengthen Western interests and African resilience.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.