by Adlene Mohammedi
Originally published on Limes n. 8/2023, Africa contro Occidente
1. To speak of an alliance between Algeria and Russia is hyperbole. From the popular uprising (Hirak) in 2019 to the war in Ukraine, relations between the two countries have been solid. But their limits should not be overlooked. For the Algerian government, foreign policy is first and foremost a means of survival and an alternative source of legitimacy in the face of internal contestations. This approach does not envisage joining a bloc or a system of alliances, but aims to maintain good relations with all major powers. This flexibility contrasts with the domestic rigidity created by the climate of political repression and an increasingly agitated regional context.
Relations between Algeria and Russia are often described as an inseparable alliance dating back to decolonisation and the Cold War. In this regard, some clarification is in order.
In the late 1950s, the Soviet Union was not the major sponsor of Algerian independence. On the contrary, Moscow’s position appeared relatively moderate, favourable to a Franco-Algerian solution. In his book Autopsie d’une guerre: l’aurore, Ferhat Abbas tells of a mission to Spain in 1957: ‘At that time Spain, after Yugoslavia and Switzerland, was the most hospitable country for us’. That same year, Senator and future US President John F. Kennedy gave an important speech in which he criticised American support for France and spoke in favour of Algerian independence. Once independent, Algeria turned this heterogeneity of supporters (Franco’s Spain, for a while; Tito’s Yugoslavia; neutral Switzerland; a future US Democratic President) into ‘all-out’ partnerships in which Moscow figured as an actor, certainly a central one, but an among other actors. Upon its separation from France, the Algerian government inherited both political clandestinity (the cult of secrecy) and diplomatic flexibility (the ability to seduce very different actors) from the liberation movement.
Moscow did not actually recognise the provisional government of the Republic of Algeria until 1960. Algeria’s independence in 1962 was met with the same coldness. Nikita Khrushchev is said to have told the first president of independent Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella: ‘We will not be able to support two Cubas; you already have a good partner: General de Gaulle, hold on to him!’
An initial rapprochement with Russia in the Ben Bella years led to the military agreement of 1963. However, offering oneself completely to the Soviets was out of the question for Houari Boumédiène (President from 1965 to 1978), despite the occasionally stormy relations between Algiers and Washington – see the break in diplomatic relations from 1967 to 1974, following the Six-Day War. In parallel with the agreement with Russia, hundreds of Algerian officers were trained at the French military academy in Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan. From 1968 onwards, military cooperation with Paris was further strengthened in the areas of organisation and war equipment supplies. Algeria was clearly implementing a strategy of diversification in a context of ‘non-alignment’.
However, this diversification did not obscure the undeniable Soviet preponderance in military matters. According to French military authorities, in 1963 Boumédiène – then Minister of Defence – obtained 1.1 billion francs (about 1.7 billion euros) in credits for war supplies from Moscow. Sources, also French, attest that the value of equipment delivered by the Soviet Union to Algeria between independence and April 1967 amounted to 1.64 billion francs (about 2.3 billion euros). This dependence was never questioned in the following decades. And post-Soviet Russia was able to take advantage of it.
In the late 1970s, 90% of Algeria’s military equipment came from the Soviet Union. Moscow also contributed to the development of the mining sector and opened its training centres and universities to young Algerian graduates, as well as to other Africans and Arabs. Many managers, engineers and officers of the young republic benefited from Soviet training, which was accompanied by matrimonial and cultural ties. Today, although the universities remained open to Arab and African students until the fall of the USSR, the traces of this influence – challenged by French and British influence – are imperceptible. Managers trained in the Soviet Union are not always the most appreciated. In the energy sector, for example, the presidency of the oil giant Sonatrach, founded in 1963, is regularly entrusted to US-trained engineers.
In contrast, USSR-educated leaders are still present at the top of the army. The current Chief of Staff, Saïd Chengriha, was trained at the Russian Academy in Voroshilov in the 1970s. His predecessor, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, a strongman during the first months of the Hirak and architect of the ousting of Abdelaziz Bouteflika – to whom he was close – was also trained in the Soviet Union. The same applies to General Ali Ghediri, former director of human resources at the Ministry of Defence now in prison for ‘undermining the army’s morale in peacetime’. Ghediri wanted to ‘challenge the system’ – his words – by running for President of the Republic. Of all the power centres in Algeria, the Russian imprint seems to persist most in the army, which remains at the heart of power. However, the generals of the new generation are less Russophile than their predecessors, at least in cultural terms.
Having overcome the serious crises both countries experienced at the end of the last century, relations between Russia and Algeria strengthened in the early 2000s. Besides the evolution of the international context and internal transformations, Russians and Algerians still have common representations, instincts and interests. The war in Ukraine offers the opportunity to reinforce them, but also to see their limits.
2. After the end of the Cold War, Moscow and Algiers followed similar trajectories. While post-Soviet Russia turned the war in Chechnya into a war against political Islam and terrorism, Algeria plunged into the so-called black decade, during which clashes between the army and Islamist groups alternated with massacres. In the early 2000s, both countries gradually put their respective civil wars behind them, with two new presidents – Vladimir Putin and Abdelaziz Bouteflika – leading systems in which official oligarchies colluded with security and intelligence services. Finally, during that decade, Russia and Algeria benefited from rising hydrocarbon prices, which contributed to the consolidation of their supplier-customer relationship.
In addition to the legacies of Algerian-Soviet relations, from this period onward, the foreign policy of the two countries began to take on the same semantic and conceptual content. Thus, today Algeria and Russia publicly attach particular importance to national sovereignty and the principle of non-interference; they place the same emphasis on the idea of a multipolar world and use the same securitarian rhetoric. Moreover, both governments risk suffering the consequences of transnational Jihad: the ‘anciens d’Afghanistan’, the jihadist veterans who fought against the Red Army in the 1980s, arrive in Chechnya as in Algeria.
In the 1990s, the Algerian government was frowned upon worldwide, so much so that a heavy embargo was placed on the army, while Russia was severely criticised for its operations in Chechnya. But then, 9/11 seemed to confirm the anti-terrorist theses of the two governments, whose narrative of the attack was identical. From that moment on, Russia and Algeria presented themselves to Washington as key players, if not even partners, in the fight against terrorism.
Despite these similarities, Moscow did not consider Algiers a privileged partner in the early 2000s. In his first term (2000-04), Putin mainly looked to the United States and Europe. His diplomatic offensive in the Arab world only began during his second term (2004-08). His visit to Algiers in 2006 acquires special significance because it took place some thirty years after the last visit by a Soviet leader. On that occasion, the Russian President announced the extinction of Algeria’s debt to the Russian Federation, which amounted to $4.7 billion. At the same time, Algeria pledged to spend $7.5 billion on Russian arms.
3. Today, in strictly pecuniary terms, relations between Russia and Algeria mainly reflect the weaknesses of the Algerian economy and the limits of the partnership between the two countries. An analysis of all trade between Russia and the Maghreb illustrates the one-sided nature of economic relations with Algeria.
Several conclusions can be drawn from available data. Firstly, Algiers is undoubtedly Moscow’s main client in the Maghreb. However, at least as much attention should go to the growth over twenty years of trade relations between Russia and Morocco: in 2021 they exceeded $1.6 billion, whereas at the beginning of the century they were practically non-existent. Finally, to the Russian Federation, Algeria exports practically nothing, while it imports considerable quantities of goods, not only weapons. By contrast, in 2021, Moroccan exports to Russia were more than twenty times greater than those of Algeria and eight times greater than those of Tunisia. Tunisia and Morocco not only export many more agricultural products (especially fruit) than Algeria, but also some industrial goods. For Russia, Algeria remains first and foremost a customer, with a huge appetite for military equipment, but not only.
Algeria shares the same fears about food security as its neighbours. Population development, climate change and the impact of the war in Ukraine on grain supplies are also sources of concern. Like Morocco, Algeria is a major importer of Russian grain. Russian news agency Interfax claims that Algiers has almost quadrupled its purchases, from 330 thousand tonnes in 2021 to 1.3 million in 2022. Such dependence on Black Sea wheat is a geopolitical vulnerability.
According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), there was a sharp drop in arms imports by Algeria in the period 2018-22 (-58% compared to the years 2013-17). However, this figure should be read in the light of the announcement made at the end of 2022 of a ‘$12 billion mega-contract with Moscow’, in the wake of a sharp increase in the defence budget by the Algerian government (over $22 billion in 2023, more than double that in 2022).
Between 2015 and 2019, Algeria was the world’s sixth largest arms importer and Russia’s third largest customer, after India and China. As for arms transfers, according to SIPRI data over twenty years, from 2002 to 2022, almost 76% of Algerian imports came from Russia. This percentage is certainly lower than the 90% recorded in the late 1970s, but diversification remains limited. On the other hand, the government prefers Russian Beriev multi-purpose aircraft even in the civil sphere, when it comes to facing one of the main current threats to Algerian territory: fires. As with wheat, the war in Ukraine and the sanctions against Moscow may be an obstacle to the regularity of Russian arms supplies.
In the energy field, three points deserve particular attention. The first goes beyond Russian-Algerian relations and concerns the relationship between Moscow and the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). With the start of the war in Ukraine, a convergence of intentions and a determination to resist American pressure have prevailed in the Saudi-led OPEC, as evidenced by the decision to decrease oil production in October 2022.
The second point concerns Algiers’ ability to replace Moscow as the main gas supplier to Europe. The project encounters two major limitations: Algeria’s growing domestic energy demand and its limited production capacity.
The third stems from this last point. To solve its production inefficiency, Algeria needs a partner and the choice seems to fall on the United States. By changing the law to attract foreign investment, the Algerian government is targeting US companies. In a conversation with the American ambassador in April 2022, the Minister for Energy and Mines insisted on the ‘investment and partnership opportunities offered by the sector for the exploration, development and exploitation of hydrocarbons, hoping to see American companies take part in the next tenders and benefit from the advantages provided by the new law’.
4. These arguments demonstrate the solid, yet unbalanced and limited nature of the Russian-Algerian partnership.
When the popular uprising challenged power in Algeria in 2019, accelerating the ousting of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Moscow did not expose itself internationally. There was no doubt that Algerian leaders could rely on the benevolence of their Russian counterparts, but the latter limited themselves to the bare minimum. At first, this was because support for a practically moribund president could not arouse overflowing enthusiasm; later, because the Algerian government could count on the favour of all world and European powers. In a very different context from that of the so-called Arab Springs – where authoritarianism and military grandees, coupled with a myopic vision of stability, reassured many – Moscow has preferred the strategy of counterrevolution and the stifling of protest, as have Washington, Paris, Beijing, and Ankara. In other words, unlike the Syrian government, the Algerian government did not need the support of anyone in particular: it could count on the support of all powers.
When it invaded Ukraine, Russia came up against the NATO’s relative solidarity with Kiev. While in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Arab world, Moscow could see that its usual partners – even those closest to Washington – did not turn their backs on it. In the face of the Russian offensive, Algeria has in turn failed to distinguish itself. For instance, by adopting the same behaviour in UN bodies as Morocco. The current context appears to be favourable to both flexible partnerships and authoritarian powers, which are numerous enough to have the assent of Moscow and Washington at the same time.
In the final analysis, the Algerian government is operating a ‘compartmentalisation’ rather than a ‘diversification’ of relations. Political power fails to make its voice fully heard at home, as evidenced by repression and political prisoners. Regionally, the echo of Algerian power is halved by its poor relations with Morocco. Consequently, Algeria must secure the support of distant powers, implying a degree of openness to Russia’s or China’s influence, depending on the dossier, but also to America’s. Thus, friendship with Russia is only one symptom among many of the Algerian authorities’ domestic vulnerability.
This privileged relationship is not a binding alliance. According to their respective foreign policy doctrines, neither Algeria nor Russia adheres to the logic of blocs. Although certain general principles and, above all, certain interests unite their foreign policies, each strives to develop other independent partnerships. Two relatively recent examples confirm this. In Libya, the Algerian government is not aligned with Moscow’s unofficial position in favour of Khalifa Haftar. In Ukraine, Algeria has not turned its back on Russia, but the deterioration of Russian-American relations does not prevent Algerian leaders from systematically reassuring Washington.
(Translated into English by Mark A. Sammut Sassi)