Modern Diplomacy
Algeria-Russia: A Long-Standing Friendship to Be Cemented

A real strategic agreement between Algiers and Moscow could have an impact on the GDP of both countries, and reinforce Russia’s influence in the Western Mediterranean, in the Arab World and in Africa. It will confirm in a concrete way the friendship and common vision, which the two countries and two peoples have shared for more than 60 years.

Moscow and Algiers, despite their geographical distance, share a common “historical DNA” and a vision of what the world should become.

Despite a friendship that has lasted more than 60 years, this relationship has never yielded a beneficial alliance for both peoples and both economies. The launch of the SMO is an opportunity for Russia to sort out its international relations.

Here are a few ways to understand why it never worked well between the two countries, and how to strengthen the relationship.

Modern Algeria’s attitudes can only be understood by examining its history: namely, its 132 years as a colony of France.

Its bloody war of liberation against the French occupiers made it reluctant to align itself with a large bloc. Its primary principle is working for peace and balance in the world.

This is a common point between Algeria and Russia, a glorious past and a will to change the world.

After its independence in 1962, Algeria enjoyed immense prestige and continues to enjoy it to this day.

This prestige comes from two factors:

  • It is inscribed in history as a nation that made a sacrifice and defeated a world power. It joins the Vietnamese in the Third World historiography of sacrifice
  • The National Liberation Front (FLN) won the diplomatic and propaganda war against France, even though its poorly armed and trained guerrillas had been almost defeated.

Algeria’s relationship with France, and by extension, with the West has never been good because of its colonial past and the refusal of the former metropoles to apologize to the Third World.

Since independence in July 1962, it has been possible to describe power in Algeria as resting on a tripod comprised of the army, the intelligence services and the presidency.

From independence to 1988, the FLN was the heart of the Algerian political system, and was inspired by a non-aligned socialist ideology quite similar to that of Yugoslavia. The Army adopted the model of the Warsaw Pact armies, relying on the USSR for equipment and training its officers there.

During the two decades following independence, Algeria played a leading role in the call for a new world made up of a majority of countries of the South, who did not want nuclear conflict or submission to one bloc or another.

As a socialist country, Algeria experienced the fall of its own Berlin Wall on October 5, 1988, after demonstrations calling for an end to single-party rule and for economic and political liberalization. Two years later, Algeria refused to participate in the coalition against Iraq and supported Baghdad by opposing the idea of the United States being a “global policeman”.

At that time, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the relationship between Algiers and Moscow remained good but very timid. Russia’s military industry was down and Algeria was suffering from a serious economic crisis and political unrest.

What perhaps defines the DNA of the Russian-Algerian relationship can be summed up in a little-known historical episode that took place in 1960. Two years before Algerian independence, Nikita Khrushchev explained to General de Gaulle that he favoured keeping Algeria in the French sphere of influence after independence rather than in the American sphere of influence.

Contrary to popular belief, the USSR did not support the Algerian independence fighters at the beginning of their struggle, unlike China or Yugoslavia. It took six years for Moscow to recognize the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA).

This mainly had to do with France’s status as neither pro-Russian nor pro-American, and the presence in the country of a powerful communist party. Moscow had hoped to soften Paris and prevent its alignment with Washington.

This idea of Algeria remaining in the French sphere has remained until today despite the emancipation of Algeria from its former colonial power and its transformation into a Third World leader of anti-imperialist struggles, and then a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

However, like many progressive countries, the USSR trained many of the young Algerian state’s executives and equipped its army, which had an air force and a navy on the day of its independence, partly thanks to Moscow’s support. It has been the Russian academies that have accompanied the transformation and professionalization of the Algerian army. Between 1961 and 2023, more than 60,000 Algerian soldiers passed through Russia or the USSR. Thousands of hydraulic, mechanical and electrical engineers were trained in Ukraine, Russia or Kazakhstan. Hundreds of Algerians returned to their country with a Russian wife and had children with them.

Today, there is a third generation of Algerian nationals who speak Russian or have received an education with a Russian focus. It’s estimated that there are more than 1,000 Russian women still living in Algeria and several thousand descendants, and they keep Russian culture alive in Algeria despite the absence of Russian cultural centres and the fact that Tolstoy’s language is being taught less and less in the country every year.

Since President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Algiers in 2006 and the economic recovery of the North African country, the Algerian army has become one of the largest customers of the Russian military industry. Since the conversion of Algeria’s $2 billion in debt into a mega arms contract in 2007, Algeria’s arms imports have averaged $2-4 billion annually. In 2018, following the end of several contracts, Algeria was the largest importer of Russian arms in the world, ahead of Egypt and India.

Despite the tens of billions of dollars in arms and military technology purchases, Algeria has never obtained local manufacturing licenses or technology transfers from Russia.

This has not been the case for other partners such as Italy, China or Germany, who quickly understood that in order to obtain a market share in Algeria, it was necessary to rely on technology transfers and the localization of production. This allowed Germany to open several weapons factories and obtain contracts worth ten billion dollars, as did Italy, which built a helicopter factory and wrested this strategic sector away from Russian industry.

In terms of hydrocarbons, although Algeria and Russia are both members of OPEC + and coordinate on the quantities to be produced, as was the case on April 2, 2023, the two friendly countries are actually competitors in the field of natural gas, with Algeria strongly hindering Russian efforts to regulate supplies to Europe. Algeria has four operational gas pipelines supplying Italy and Spain and plans to build more, and is also a global player in LNG. During the special military operation, Algeria was one of the great beneficiaries of the increase in gas prices and became a go-to partner for Western Europe in terms of deliveries. As a result, Russia missed an opportunity to assert its dominance in this market.

Russian oil and gas companies have never been able to settle in Algeria or Libya and take advantage of their experience to conquer these huge production markets. This economic opportunity has always lacked strategic support from the Russian political leadership; Russian diplomacy has never accounted for this and hasn’t integrated this approach into its strategies in North Africa.

Russia will have to choose

Since the beginning of the Special Military Operation, Russia has faced an international community divided between those who unconditionally support the West regarding Ukraine, the collective South that demands a new multipolar world and refuses the Western diktat, and countries that support Russia, including during UN resolution votes.

In North Africa, the only country that openly supports Russia and refuses to vote against it is Algeria, it is also the only country that has not sent military aid to Ukraine, either voluntarily or under duress.

Algeria is the only country in North Africa that does not receive military aid from NATO or the United States. It should be noted that Tunisia and Morocco are major non-NATO allies of the United States. However, in its economic and diplomatic choices, Moscow has never taken Algerian interests in the region into consideration and has even opposed its regional strategy regarding the Libyan and Sahel issues.

The most important issue for Algerian diplomacy is the decolonization of the Western Sahara, which remains occupied by Morocco despite a self-determination process signed by the parties concerned at the UN.

Russia and the USSR have gone through several phases in their management of the issue: during Soviet times, between 1975 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Moscow considered Algeria and Libya as ideologically friendly countries and systematically opposed Western influence in the Maghreb region. Soviet support materialized in the form of indirect shipments of arms and equipment to the Polisario rebels through Libya, Cuba and Algeria.

A cease-fire was signed between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which represents the Saharawi people, in 1991, under the aegis of the UN. This signing was supposed to be the first step towards the organization of a referendum on self-determination, which should have seen the Sahrawi people decide whether they wanted to become independent or join Morocco.

Between 1991 and 2006, Russia completely detached itself from the issue and saw its influence in the region diminish. Nevertheless, the Russian delegate to the UN voted in favour of two resolutions on the Western Sahara issue, in 2004 and 2006. Moscow also voted in April 2004 for UN Security Council Resolution 1541, which validated the idea of a return to the concept of autonomy and added to the resolution the phrase “optimal solution based on an agreement between the two parties”.

The visit of the King of Morocco to Moscow in 2002 and the signing of a declaration on strategic relations between the two countries produced a huge economic rapprochement between the two countries. Rabat has become Russia’s largest trading partner in Africa and the Arab world (excluding the arms sector). The balance of trade is in favour of Moscow in this exchange and unlike with Algeria, there are efforts that are made by Russia, and many facilities.

After 2006 and the rapprochement between Moscow and Algiers, Russia played a balancing act in addressing the Sahrawi issue by privileging the debate (and not the resolution of the conflict) at the level of the UN Security Council. It ignored the Western initiatives that led to the US recognition of Western Sahara as part of Morocco under Donald Trump in December 2019, followed by Spain in March 2022. The US decision accelerated the resumption of fighting between Morocco and the Polisario and the end of the ceasefire. It has also provoked a campaign of drone bombings that have killed Sahrawis, Algerians and Mauritanians, which has meet with indifference among the international community, including Russia.

Russia has troops on the ground as part of the UN mission (MINURSO), which was seized by the Algerian authorities and did not react to Algeria’s requests for investigations after three Algerian civilians were killed in a Moroccan drone strike on the territory of Western Sahara.

There has been a return to the cold war between Algeria and Morocco: Algeria shut down the gas pipeline that passed through Morocco, then closed its airspace to Moroccan aircraft, then fully severed diplomatic relations between the two countries in August 2022. The cold war that coincided with the start of the SMO served as an opportunity for Morocco to call on its Western allies to accuse Algeria of supporting Russia, going so far as to say that Russian instructors from CHVK Wagner were training the Polisario, as well as Iranian soldiers and Hezbollah volunteers.

Morocco is behind propaganda campaigns about Algerian purchases of Russian arms, and has mobilized its US-based lobbyists to launch a sanctions campaign against Algeria. In September and October 2022, a group of US senators led by Marco Rubio begged David Blinken to sanction Algeria for its proximity to Russia, calling for the implementation of heavy economic and political sanctions. Rubio received $445,000 for lobbying on behalf of Morocco. Although it’s unclear whether it was voluntary or not, Morocco has sent T-72 tanks to Ukraine.

The Wagner case

Another subject of discord between Algeria and Russia is Libya and the Sahel. In Libya, Algeria supports the Tripoli Government and opposes Marshal Haftar; it also opposes the presence of militias and non-Libyan forces in the conflict.

The responsibility for the mismanagement lies mainly with Algeria because of the lack of strategy and vision at the time of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. The Algerian President at the time, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, had just had a stroke and the state focused its efforts inward, towards the search for stability and continuity. Between 2012 and 2019, the beginning of the “Hirak” popular revolt that led to Bouteflika’s impeachment, Algeria turned away from Libyan and Sahelian issues and other international problems, maintaining a minimal effort regarding security on its southern and eastern borders.

It should be understood that before 2010, there was no military threat to the south of the vast Algerian Sahara, no rebellion on the borders, no Western base within 1,000 km, no capable air force, and the activity of terrorist groups was minimal.

After the destabilization of Gaddafi and the start of the civil war, however, thousands of weapons from the Libyan army’s huge stockpile fuelled rebellions from Sudan to Mali and caused a chain reaction that led to an international intervention that ended in failure and France’s departure from Mali.

The acceleration of events in the region and the absence of an Algerian strategy provoked an allergic reaction from the Algerian authorities to any foreign intervention in the region, especially if it involves non-government units and is done outside the UN.
Events in Algeria: Potential Scenarios
Samuel Ramani
Although Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s departure is a seminal moment in Algeria’s recent history, the Algerian military’s growing assertiveness and ongoing unrest have raised the risk of prolonged political instability in Algeria. In this uncertain climate, Russia should uphold a policy of strategic non-alignment and discourage foreign interference that could spark a cascade of violence in North Africa.

This is why Wagner’s presence in Libya on the side of Haftar was not appreciated. Algeria continues to oppose the PMC’s presence, as well as its activity in Mali and other countries of the Sahel.

The future of Mali is a major concern for Algeria. The departure of the international coalition, the reduction in the role of the UN Mission (MINUSMA), the putsch in Bamako by Colonel Assimi Goïta in May 2021, and finally the arrival of Wagner in the country have added to the instability of Algeria’s neighbour, and have caused the fragile balance that existed in northern Mali to be broken.

However, Algeria has many assets to solve the problem of Mali:

  • It negotiated the Algiers Agreements between the belligerents of the North and the Malian Government and has established the only political de-escalation process in the last ten years.
  • It has a military force capable of contributing to the stabilization of Mali and the fight against terrorism.
  • It has a regional military mechanism that brings together the Sahel countries and the CEMOC (Joint Operational Staff Committee).
  • It has allies on the ground among all the communities in the North and South.
  • It has offered to help the development of Mali economically and socially and lift a large part of the country out of extreme poverty.
The arrival of a new team in power in Algeria after 2019 marks an Algerian willingness to find solutions to all these problems and to develop a strategy which reflects a clear position on the various issues. This represents a real opportunity for a rapprochement between Algeria and Russia and a sharing of views, especially since it is noted that Moscow is changing its strategy in Libya fallowing the appointment of Aidar Aghanin as Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Tripoli and its willingness to take an interest in Libya as a whole.

What solutions are there which could yield a genuine strategic partnership?

The May 2023 visit of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to Moscow to partake in the country’s Victory Day celebrations presents the ideal opportunity to revive cooperation between Algeria and Russia and move towards a real strategic partnership, which is beneficial for both countries.
On the political level: Russia must facilitate Algeria’s access to the BRICS and strengthen its neutral and non-aligned positions.

Russia should relay and support Algeria’s anti-colonialist narrative regarding Western Sahara, or at least support the opening of a real debate at the UN on the implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement and the organization of a referendum on self-determination.

Algeria and Russia could organize an international summit on Mali and terrorism in the Sahel with human and material aid to the countries concerned, in order to develop their anti-terrorist capacities and their economies. Such a summit would promote political reconciliation mechanism based on the 2015 Algiers Agreements.

Algeria, Russia and Turkey could organize a reconciliation summit in Libya to provide for a real peaceful solution, an equitable sharing of power and wealth, and the exit of foreign forces.

With regards to the military, Russia should transfer part of its military production to Algeria by creating joint ventures with Algerian companies. It should also rely on Algeria to create an industrial base, maintain military equipment, and conduct training in Africa.

In terms of social and cultural relations, the two countries should pursue a visa-free regime. They should facilitate transportation by opening more airline routes linking several cities in both countries, and facilitate university enrolment and language teaching in Russian, Arabic and French. They should encourage tourism by training tourist guides in Russian and Arabic. They should encourage religious exchanges between the two countries and jointly seek out strategies to fight religious radicalization.

Russia should encourage the teaching of the Russian language in all Algerian universities and open Russian cultural centres in cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants.

On the economic level, Algeria should set up a legal and fiscal framework allowing the investment of Russian companies, and help Russian companies to take advantage of Algeria’s strategic position and infrastructure to produce and export to Africa, Arab countries and Southern Europe. Russia and Algeria could coordinate their efforts to dominate the supply of natural gas to Europe. A strategic alliance between Gazprom and Sonatrach could be envisaged for gas exploration in Libya and the construction of gas pipelines to Europe. Russia could invest with Algeria in the construction of the Nigeria-Algeria gas pipeline or even build a network to connect the gas fields of the Middle East and Egypt to the Southern European network via Libya and Algeria and bypass the Eastern European networks.

Gazprom can also invest in the exploitation of shell gas in Algeria, which holds the third largest potential in the world in this field.

The exchanges between the two countries can also be extended to agriculture; Algeria is the fourth largest importer of wheat in the world, but imports only a small part from Russia. It mainly buys from France, Canada and the USA, and should pursue a strategic agreement with Moscow and shift its orders to Russia. Algeria is also a major producer of fruits and vegetables, including dates and oranges, which could be sold on the Russian market.

On the financial level, Algeria should integrate its banking system with that of Russia by adopting the Mir system and by exchanging directly in rubles.

In summary, a real strategic agreement between Algiers and Moscow could have an impact on the GDP of both countries, and reinforce Russia’s influence in the Western Mediterranean, in the Arab World and in Africa. It will confirm in a concrete way the friendship and common vision, which the two countries and two peoples have shared for more than 60 years.

Modern Diplomacy
The End of US Hegemony and the Russian-Algerian Relations
Akram Kharief
The end of US hegemony and the rise of a multipolar world has led to significant changes in the international system, with countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Algeria, playing a crucial role in shaping the future. Algeria’s strong ties to Russia are helping to counterbalance US dominance and promote a more stable and equitable world order, where multiple actors have the ability to shape global events and influence the future, writes Algerian political journalist Akram Kharief. This article was prepared for the 12th Middle East conference of the Valdai Discussion Club.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.