Russian President Vladimir Putin recently invited Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to visit Moscow from 13 to 17 June 2023. During the visit, the two discussed pathways for strengthening bilateral relations. This visit is of particular importance because it had been postponed on multiple occasions due to the COVID-19 pandemic after it was initially announced in May 2020. The two sides signed various agreements and declared their intentions to expand their strategic partnership. The visit occurred amidst increasing global unrest and concerns about the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. As a result, Algeria could find itself subject to pressure from the US and West, which hope to discourage further development of Algerian-Russian ties during the coming period.
Signs of Rapprochement
There are various indications of the scope of the recent rapprochement between Algeria and Russia across various spheres, including the following:
1. Growing Diplomatic and Political Ties: In May 2023, Algeria announced that it was preparing a new draft agreement for this strategic partnership in order to bolster cooperation with Russia across various spheres that had not been included in the initial agreement between the two sides in 2001. Officials from both countries have spoken positively in recent months about the expansion of political ties. Ramtane Lamamra, former Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated in November 2022 that the two countries had long-term plans for cooperation within the context of this important bilateral partnership.
Official meetings between the two sides also indicate expanding political relations between Algeria and Russia. These meetings have included a phone call between Tebboune and Putin in January 2023 to discuss strengthening bilateral ties as well as a meeting between Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and his Algerian counterpart Ramtane Lamamra in September 2022 during the 77th session of the UN General Assembly. In May 2022, Lavrov also visited Algeria to discuss bolstering Russian-Algerian relations.
2. Algeria Avoids Criticizing Russian Intervention in Ukraine: The Algerian stance at the UN with regard to the war on Ukraine clearly indicates the former’s interest in drawing closer to Russia. Algeria has abstained from voting in five different UN General Assembly sessions on resolutions condemning Moscow’s involvement in the war on Kiev. The West sees Algeria’s stance as evidence of its diplomatic and political support for Russia.
3. A Strong Economic Partnership: Russia considers Algeria to be one of its three top economic partners in Africa. Bilateral trade volume reached $3 billion according to 2021 data, while Russian exports to Algeria were estimated around $1.48 billion. Meanwhile, Algerian exports to Russia were around $17.3 million. Moscow indicated in June 2023 that it was holding talks with Algeria to develop a mechanism for transferring funds between the two countries, which would be linked with the Russian banking system.
The two sides agreed to work together through the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) and OPEC+. Algeria also recently announced that it would stand with Russia in rejecting Europe’s natural gas price caps. Like Russia, it views EU measures in the energy sector as unilateral, which suggests that Russia and Algeria are on the same page with regard to the global oil market.
4. Expanded Military Cooperation: Military cooperation is a pillar of Algerian-Russian relations. This expanding cooperation has included joint counterterrorism exercises with Russian and Algerian forces in November 2022 at the Hammaguir base in Algeria. The Algerian ministry of defense denied that these exercises took place, although Russia’s Lavrov confirmed in a February 2023 interview that the exercises had occurred in Algeria’s Béchar province. Algeria also hosted Russian naval forces in October 2022 to conduct joint naval exercises.
A February 2023 meeting between General Saïd Chengriha, Chief of Staff of the Algerian People’s National Army, and Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, further attests to both countries’ commitment to bolstering bilateral military cooperation.
Russia is also one of Algeria’s top arms suppliers. A March 2023 report issued by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicated that Algeria is the third largest importer of Russian weapons after India and China. Moscow was likewise the top backer of the Algerian army in terms of weapons and military systems, and had supplied more than 50 percent of Algeria’s armaments. Reports indicate that Algeria has received 76 percent of its arms imports since 2002 from Russia.
Objectives of Algeria’s Visit
The primary reasons behind Algerian President Tebboune’s visit to Moscow include the following:
1. Pursue a Complete Strategic Partnership: Before the Algeria president’s trip to Russia, there was increasing talk about both countries’ efforts to sign a strategic cooperation agreement, which would mark a major leap forward in bilateral ties. This is particularly true since the agreement opens new horizons for political, economic, and military cooperation, which will be developed further through future agreements between the two countries.
Russian President Putin and his Algerian counterpart Tebboune signed several agreements on 15 June 2023 during their meeting in Moscow in order to strengthen their bilateral strategic partnership. According to the Kremlin, the two presidents signed a series of agreements and declared their intentions to expand the partnership further.
2. Expand Economic Diplomacy: Tebboune hopes to pursue further cooperation with Moscow in the fields of oil, energy, and natural gas extraction technologies, and to benefit from Russian expertise on cybersecurity, cultivation of cereals, and the tourism market, including bringing more Russian tourists to Algeria. He also aims to learn from Russian expertise in industrial investment in order to best utilize the iron mine in Gâra Djebilet in southwestern Algeria. Russia possesses the technological capability to remove phosphorus from iron ore, and this particular Algerian mine contains high levels of phosphorus in its iron.
3. Facilitate a New Russian Arms Deal: According to reports, one of the key goals of President Tebboune’s trip to Moscow was to pursue a new arms deal between the two countries valued at between $12 to $17 billion. This will contribute to replenishing Russian coffers, which have been depleted by the ongoing war in Ukraine. The Algerian army announced its largest military budget thus far, totaling around $23 billion. It is expected that Moscow will benefit from Algeria’s increased military spending, since Algeria largely depends on Russia for its arms. Although this deal has not been publicly announced, a 15 June 2023 statement from the Kremlin indicated that Russia and Algeria intended to give special attention to bilateral cooperation in the military sphere.
4. Seek Membership in BRICS: Algeria is trying to ensure Russia will back its bid to join BRICS, which has recently been a priority for the Algerian president. Tebboune announced Algeria’s intention to join BRICS in November 2022. Moscow had seemed to previously indicate it would back Algeria joining the bloc, which is important for Algeria’s efforts to expand its economic prospects and pursue partnerships with BRICS countries. This would enable it to diversify its economy, which in recent years has primarily depended upon oil revenue.
5. Develop Closer Ties with Eastern Axis: President Tebboune’s trip to Moscow also reflects his interest in partially disengaging from the West in favor of developing ties with the Moscow-Beijing axis. In recent years, Algeria has rejected Western strategic stances. It opposed Western intervention in Mali, Libya, and the Sahel, and refused to condemn the Russian war in Ukraine. This might be due to Algeria’s concerns about Western influence in critical spheres in the region, particularly in light of Algeria’s efforts to strengthen its regional clout in Africa. As a result, Algeria has played off tensions between the West and Moscow in order to pursue its own interests amidst current international strife during the crisis in Ukraine.
6. Gain Support in the Western Sahara Conflict: Algeria is also trying to convince Moscow to support the Algeria stance on the Western Sahara conflict, and to push for broader talks in the UN on implementing a ceasefire agreement and holding a referendum on the fate of this region. Moscow has taken a balanced stance between Morocco and Algeria this issue in order to preserve its strategic interests with both countries.
Algerian President Tebboune stated after his 15 June meeting with the Russian president that the two leaders had held forthright and productive talks on bilateral ties and regional issues of importance to both countries. He added that they had similar stances on the Western Sahara conflict and the Sahel region.
President Tebboune’s trip to Russia is likely to have various repercussions for both countries, including the following:
1. Increasing International Pressure on Algeria: It is likely that the US and the West will exert increasing pressure on Algeria to discourage it from developing closer ties with Russia. The West believes that Algeria’s visit aims to demonstrate its support for Russia in overcoming international isolation, and to arrange bilateral arms deals. Such deals would result in an influx of money to Moscow, which could use these funds in its war in Ukraine. This situation could lead to increasing calls for Western sanctions on Algeria due to its expanded ties with Russia. In September 2022, 27 members of Congress asked US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to use the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) of 2017 to impose sanctions on Algeria because of its close relations with Moscow.
2. Mutual Support in the International Arena: Russia has sought Algerian support in international forums to defend its stances on various issues, or at least encouraged the latter not to side with the West, particularly regarding the crisis in Ukraine. This is particularly true since Algeria will be a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for two years starting in January 2024. In return, Algeria hopes to ensure it will have Russian support in joining BRICS before the end of 2023, and perhaps also convince Moscow to change its neutral stance on the Western Sahara conflict to instead back Algeria during the coming period.
3. Bolstering Russian Influence in the Sahel: Moscow seems to be trying to use Algeria as an entry point to strengthening its presence in North Africa, especially the Sahel region. It hopes to coordinate with Algeria in the Sahel and the Sahara so that it can operate with Algerian political and potentially also logistical backing in order to counter Western and French influence there. At the same time, the Algerian government has warned Mali about the spread of Russian Wagner Group security forces in Mali, since it is concerned about growing security threats on its southern border.
4. Ending Russia’s International Isolation: Moscow might also be using Tebboune’s most recent trip to Moscow to send a message to the West and to Washington that it is still able to strengthen its international presence and to diversify its ties with international partners. It wants to make clear that Western and US sanctions will not discourage Russia from ramping up its activities in strategic regions, especially in Africa.
5. Heightened International Competition in North Africa: It is likely that Russian-Algerian rapprochement will result in various international powers, especially the US, France, and the EU, trying to push Russia out of North Africa, a region of particular geopolitical importance. There are concerns about growing Russian influence there, and that Russia could pose a threat to European security if Moscow gains the upper hand on certain strategic issues that it could use to pressure the West. These issues include terrorism and irregular migration, particularly in the Sahel and Western Africa.
6. Escalating Regional Tensions in West Africa: There is a growing regional rivalry between Algeria and Morocco, as well as rising tensions regarding the Western Sahara. This has led Algeria to ramp up the arms race between these two countries. Algeria has just expanded its military budget to $23 billion and is likely to also receive a huge Russian arms deal. Reports indicate that Rabat is also increasing its military budget for the Moroccan army to around $4.8 billion. This could exacerbate regional polarization over western Morocco, and prolong tensions between the two sides, which will make discussions about stability unlikely in the medium term.
In conclusion, as the international community tries to penalize Russia for its war in Ukraine, Algeria is instead seeking to strengthen ties with Moscow. Algeria could find itself caught up in heightened international and regional polarization as the West and US react to Algeria’s recent efforts to expand ties with Washington’s adversary. The West will maintain that the Algerian government needs to change its neutral stance on the crisis in Ukraine. This could result in increasing international pressure on Algeria to rethink its stance on rapprochement with Russia during the coming period.