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Lukas Jansen

MA in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics – School of Slavonic and East European Countries, University College London. MA in History of Philosophy – Sorbonne Université, RIAC intern

One of Africa’s longest frozen conflicts made headline news in December when Donald Trump recognized the sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara. The Western Sahara conflict started in 1975, when Spain in the aftermath of Franco’s death left its colony to the south of Morocco and the West of Mauritania. After the Madrid Accords were struck the same year, the territory was split between Morocco and Mauritania. The local population, which had gathered under the banners of the Polisario Front, decided to take up arms and fought with both countries. Algeria supported the Polisario Front, providing it with weaponry and extending its political support.

In November 2019, renewed hostilities broke out as the Polisario Front tried to block the road which Morocco had built in 2016 in the buffer zone controlled by the UN. The Moroccan military quickly intervened and evacuated the road, to which the Polisario Front responded by declaring that the 1991 ceasefire was ‘liquidated’. The following month, the U.S. broke its neutral stance and declared that it recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Quite like China, Russia has always supported the UN in endorsing the referendum and called for the respect of the ceasefire agreement. The Russian government has received all sides to the conflict in Moscow over the years and maintained its ‘positive neutrality’. At the UN, Russia has been part of the ‘Group of Friends of Western Sahara’. Additionally, Russia has played a key role in the conflict, as it signed strategic partnership agreements with both Algeria in 2005 and Morocco in 2002.

Russia has vested interests in the region, and they are far from being negligible when considering prospective arms transfers to Algeria. However, Russia may not need to influx its arm trade policy to Algeria, as Morocco has arrived at a nadir in relations with the EU and, possibly, the U.S. Morocco could then naturally turn towards China and Russia.

The lack of support of Morocco’s traditional allies could be used by Russia to foster long-term economic ties. This will only be possible if Russia does not endanger Moroccan national security by transferring top-tier military equipment to Algeria. If Russia pursues this policy over the coming years and becomes a major economic partner for Morocco, Russia could then become a major power broker in the region.

Should Russia review its arms sales policy to Algeria considering its increasingly closer ties with Morocco and the recent flare-up of tensions in Western Sahara? This piece evaluates Russia’s interests with Algeria and Morocco and argues that Russia needs to review its decade-long arms sale policy to Algeria by evaluating what it transfers. The transfer of the most up-to-date weapons could antagonize Morocco, with which Russia is developing substantial economic ties. A successful review would allow Russia to be a major power broker in the region.

Should Russia review its arms sales policy to Algeria considering its increasingly closer ties with Morocco and the recent flare-up of tensions in Western Sahara? This piece evaluates Russia’s interests with Algeria and Morocco and argues that Russia needs to review its decade-long arms sale policy to Algeria by evaluating what it transfers. The transfer of the most up-to-date weapons could antagonize Morocco, with which Russia is developing substantial economic ties. A successful review would allow Russia to be a major power broker in the region.

Recent developments in the Maghreb

One of Africa’s longest frozen conflicts made headline news in December when Donald Trump recognized the sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara. The Western Sahara conflict started in 1975, when Spain in the aftermath of Franco’s death left its colony to the south of Morocco and the West of Mauritania. After the Madrid Accords were struck the same year, the territory was split between Morocco and Mauritania. The local population, which had gathered under the banners of the Polisario Front, decided to take up arms and fought with both countries. Algeria supported the Polisario Front, providing it with weaponry and extending its political support. Mauritania withdrew after several years of fighting, and a ceasefire was established in 1991 between the Polisario Front and Morocco. The ceasefire was mediated by the UN, and both parties agreed to hold a referendum. The UN sent an international peacekeeping force, the MINURSO. However, the referendum was never held, as both parties could not agree on its terms. There have been attempts by both sides to settle the conflict without success.

In November 2019, renewed hostilities broke out as the Polisario Front tried to block the road which Morocco had built in 2016 in the buffer zone controlled by the UN. The Moroccan military quickly intervened and evacuated the road, to which the Polisario Front responded by declaring that the 1991 ceasefire was ‘liquidated’. The following month, the U.S. broke its neutral stance and declared that it recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This decision was part of an international deal where Morocco re-established ties with Israel. The Trump administration pursued a policy of normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab countries.

Morocco, in its turn, has been pursuing a policy of international recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara. This policy has been successful, with as many as 20 countries having opened consulates or set to open consulates in Western Sahara in the Moroccan-controlled territory. Senegal has been the most recent nation in this regard. The Trump administration declared that they would open a virtual consulate. Morocco felt that it could assert a much more assertive policy in the Western Sahara now that it had U.S. support.

However, this was one of Trump’s final foreign policy decision in office, and it is unclear at this time of publication what the Biden administration would do, especially when considering that the Polisario Front has only recently demanded a UN seat for Western Sahara. The potential for a conflict to break out now depends on Biden’s decision.

Indeed, as Polisario is supported by Algeria, a conflict with Morocco seems very likely. The Algerian constitution was changed in November 2020 to effectively let the Algerian army operate outside of its borders. Algerian military officials have been quite explicit that Western Sahara remains a major strategic issue. It has been considered by the population as a national cause, while Morocco’s rapprochement with Israel has led the country’s officials to develop a danger narrative of ‘a Zionist entity’ at Algeria’s border.

Quite like China, Russia has always supported the UN in endorsing the referendum and called for the respect of the ceasefire agreement. The Russian government has received all sides to the conflict in Moscow over the years and maintained its ‘positive neutrality’. At the UN, Russia has been part of the ‘Group of Friends of Western Sahara’, which is ‘an informal assembly comprising the U.S., France, the UK, Russia and Spain that aims to coordinate positions on the issue’. Additionally, Russia has played a key role in the conflict, as it signed strategic partnership agreements with both Algeria in 2005 and Morocco in 2002. Its relationship with Algeria has revolved around arms trade.

As Algeria has been supporting Polisario with weapons and has traditionally been hostile to Morocco, is it still in Russia’s interest to continue its arms sales to Algeria? Indeed, there have been incidents involving Polisario and Russian military hardware. Should Russia review its arms sales policy to Algeria considering its increasingly closer ties with Morocco and the recent flare-up of tensions in Western Sahara? Russia could well antagonize and lose its strategic ally, Morocco, by providing arms to Algeria, now that both countries are on the brink of war. Besides, Russia could further ignite the conflict by precipitating an already existing arms race between the two countries. In order to assess this, there is a need for a careful examination of Russia’s interests with both countries.

Morocco-Russia: current and future market

Russia’s relations with Morocco have mainly relied on bilateral trade. Morocco is Russia’s 65th trade partner in terms of export quantity with $579,5 million, according to the IMF Direction of Trade Statistics, which further indicates a main focus on agricultural goods as of 2020. Morocco has been Russia’s 52th trade partner for Russian imports with $576.29 million in 2020. Russia has thus had a positive trade balance of approximately $3 million. Morocco is Russia’s second biggest African trading partner in terms of imports and 5th in terms of exports. Morocco will remain a key economic player in the region. Morocco is building the Dakhla Atlantic port in Western Sahara which will be a major commercial facility. China has invested through its Belt and Road initiative in several infrastructure projects, such as the expansion of the Tanger Med, potentially rendering Morocco a crucial economic player in the region for the foreseeable future.

Russia has developed economic ties in coherence with its general Africa strategy. This strategy has been focusing on developing infrastructure, winning new markets for Russian manufacturers and exploiting more resources.

Russia has been interested in building nuclear power plants, and the Russian truck manufacturer Kamaz has established a factory in Morocco. Morocco has also increased its coal imports by 30% in one year so that Russia has become its main provider of coal. Besides, Russia has shown its interest in developing nuclear energy to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Morocco in 2017 on developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. In 2020, Morocco and Russia signed an agreement which allowed Russian ships to fish in the Moroccan Exclusive Economic Zone. This zone was expanded in 2020 to include the waters off Western Sahara. Moreover, Morocco has been Russia’s largest provider of phosphates, which are used in agriculture. Morocco would like to further its exploitation the resources in Western Sahara, as it has consequential phosphate reserves. While Russia stays officially neutral in the conflict, it has also furthered its economic interests in the contested region.

Morocco has been a traditional U.S. ally, though. It helped the U.S. during the war on terror and has held regular military exercises with the U.S.. Nonetheless, Vladimir Putin visited Morocco in 2006, and King Mohammed VI visited Russia in 2002 and 2016. An extensive relationship with Morocco has been in the interest of Russia, since it allows to get closer to a key U.S. ally. As the U.S. tries to counter Russian foreign policy, this has allowed Russia to have additional leverage against the U.S. Inversely, this has allowed Morocco to have some leverage in its relations with the U.S. In this regard, it seems that the relationship has benefited both countries.

This can be also observed in the case of the EU, with which Morocco traditionally maintains close ties. Recently, Morocco’s relationship with the EU countries has soured. It has suspended contacts with Germany in retaliation to Germany’s position on Western Sahara, as Berlin was very critical of Trump’s decision. Morocco has tried to pressure Spain into accepting its position on Western Sahara, with one of its strongest allies, France, refusing to follow Trump’s lead in recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Finally, the European Court of Justice has judged that Moroccan exports to the EU cannot originate from Western Sahara. This rift in the Morocco-EU relations may well benefit Russia, as Morocco tries to develop relations alternative to the EU. As the EU countries have established a confrontational policy with Russia, indicated by the recent sanctions linked to the Navalny case, such a development can also be in the benefit of Russia.

On the multilateral level, Morocco, like Algeria, is part of the African Union, the Arab League and is a full-fledged member of the UN. The relationship allows Russia to further its ties with a member of the Arab League, and gives Russia more relevance in the African Union. Indeed, Morocco rejoined the African Union in 2018. Finally, all this has allowed Russia to possibly enlist additional support at the UN General Assembly. While all these economic and political interests are at stake, the relationship has not materialized through an effective arms trade policy.

One of the only major transactions to date has been the sale of 2S6M Tunguska mobile AD systems in 2005. This is complicated by the fact that the majority of the Moroccan arsenal is French and American. In 2016, Morocco was interested in buying SU-34 bombers and Amur-1650 submarines. However, these sales were complicated by the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) which sanctioned businesses with links to the Russian defense industry. However, Russia keeps presenting its weapons capabilities in Morocco, signaling Russia’s interests in selling arms. Additionally, Morocco is trying to build up its own defense industry. Russia could become a major partner if it ties arms sales to technology transfers in the future, something Morocco could use for its domestic production.

Russia has therefore vested economic interests in the region, and they are far from being negligible when considering prospective arms transfers to Algeria. However, Russia may not need to influx its arm trade policy to Algeria, as Morocco has arrived at a nadir in relations with the EU and, possibly, the U.S., should Biden decide not to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Morocco could then naturally turn towards China and Russia.

RIAC and Africa Business Initiative Union Joint Report
Africa-Russia+: Achievements, Problems, Prospects

Arms transfers to Algeria: the backbone

Russia has been Algeria’s key security partner and the country’s main provider of arms in the region. From 2010 to 2020, Algeria has been Russia’s third biggest buyer of arms. The Russian ambassador to Algeria recently stated that arms exports were the ‘backbone’ of the relationship. These ties went back to the USSR, resulting in a large share of equipment supplies of the Algerian People’s National Armed Forces (ANP) being of Russian origin. In April 2001, President Putin and the former President of Algeria Bouteflika signed a ‘strategic partnership agreement’. Algeria is 15th trade partner for Russia, with $6,683 billion in exports, while it is Russia’s 109th partner in terms of imports with $12,13 million in 2020, according to the IMF Direction of Trade Statistics. In 2018, 66.78% of trade commodities were not specified, which can indicate military hardware. This leaves Russia with a positive trade balance of more than 6$ billion dollars and renders Algeria as Russia’s first African export destination.

Russia has provided weapons to all the three branches of the ANP. Algeria bought SAM-300 systems, SU-30 fighter jets, T-90 tanks and Varshavyanka submarines. In 2017, Algeria received four 9M720 Iskander-E short range ballistic missiles trucks with 25 Iskander-E missiles, 220m multiple rocket launchers (MRL) TOS-1A and 25 BMPT Terminator armored fighting vehicles. The Iskander-E missile is the exported version of the Iskander with a range of 280km. This highly prestigious short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) potentially allows Algeria to attack Marrakech, one of its long-term rival's major cities, from its borders (the Algerian border is approximately 250km away from Marrakech). Additionally, the TOS-1A was the most up-to-date version of the TOS-1 MRL flamethrower system equipped with incendiary missiles and supposed to support tanks and infantry in ground combat. It is used by the Russian army. In 2019, it ordered 16 SU-30MK and 14 MiG-29. The MiGs were ordered to replace Algeria’s aging fleet and were received in December 2020.

Alongside with that, Algeria’s is the UAE’s third biggest buyer of arms over the 2010 to 2020 period. Russia and the UAE announced in 2017 that they would build a joint fighter aircraft. While there have been no developments in regards to this initiative, which has been considered a means of pressuring the U.S., Algeria may well be a future customer for this fighter aircraft, if the project is finalized. These sales show Russia’s trust in Algeria as it transferred top-tier equipment to the country.

One of Russia’s key motivations in selling arms to Algeria has been economic, as it remains one of main customers of the Russian defence industry which Russia needs to support. Additionally, the Russian defense industry is regularly impacted by U.S. sanctions. This was seen during the Crimean crisis and in March 2021 when sanctions were taken by the Biden administration in response to the Navalny case. These sanctions are to affect the Russian air and space industry. It is thus in Russia’s interest to keep its key customers while its industry is affected. This was the case during the Crimean crisis, as Algeria opted to buy Russian fighters as a sign of support for the Russian defense industry.

Russia has also kept close ties to Algeria as it can be an alternative provider of oil and gas for the EU. The Algerian national state-oil company Sonatrach signed an MoU with Gazprom in 2006, a step followed by an exploration and production contract in 2008. It also signed an MoU with Lukoil for possible joint exploration of resources in 2020. Besides, Russia offered to expand the Algerian nuclear sector in line with its African nuclear strategy. Moreover, Russia, contrary to Algeria, has not been part of OPEC but has closely coordinated with OPEC to lower or raise the production of oil to stabilize prices. Algeria has been struggling with the recent drop of oil prices and its loss to the U.S. as Spain’s main LNG provider. This has affected Algerian arms procurement, as a vast part of Algerian defense expenditure is naturally tied to the state’s revenues which are, in turn, dependent on natural resources. Russia thus needs to balance its short-term economic interests in oil and its demand for the defense industry. Although Algeria could present a viable alternative to Moroccan phosphate supply in the future, as China signed an agreement with Sonatrach to increase output to 10 million tons. This could then benefit the defense industry in the long term.

Russia’s arms sales are also motivated by security. Algeria allows Russia to project its military power in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic in a more efficient way. Indeed, back in 2010, Russia tried to gain access to the Algerian Mers el-Kebir naval base, while Algeria refused this access. Nevertheless, Russian warships were spotted in Algerian ports in March 2021, as part of military cooperation between the two nations. The presence of these ships can be read as a sign of support to Algeria in regards to Western Sahara.

In addition, Algeria has security issues on each of its borders. The Western Sahara conflict, the Libyan conflict, the French intervention in Mali and terrorist incursions in the country remain major challenges for Algeria. Algeria has needed sustained support from its partners, just as Russia has needed a stable partner in this unstable region both for its influence and its defense industry [1]. Moreover, since Algeria is one of the few secure countries in the region, it makes the country a key partner for the EU. With this mind, it could be argued that Russia wields additional leverage on the EU.

However, since 2019 Algeria has been subject to certain domestic instability with the Hirak protest movement. This anti-regime protest led to the resignation of President Bouteflika as well as to constitutional reforms instigated by the new president Tebboune. Nonetheless, Russia supports the regime and the military. Indeed, the military orders Russia’s military equipment and is dependent on Russia for maintenance and parts. In addition, many military officers were trained in the USSR, resulting in close ties between Algeria’s military and that of Russia. Finally, the recent appointment of major-general Boumediene Benattou as special advisor in defense and security to the President Tebboune in March 2021 gives credence to the idea of Algeria seeking enhanced Russian support. Mr. Benattou wrote his PhD thesis on arms contracts and technology transfers to Southern countries, which makes him an expert on arms transfers, something that will have a clear impact on prospective or currently existing arms contracts.

Although Russia’s continuing relationship with Algeria is still very much dependent on arms trade, it seems unlikely that this will change in the near future, especially in the light of the current economic and political climate. However, Russia can also decide which type of equipment it transfers, as Algeria needs Russia’s support. This could be a policy option to prevent future disputes with Morocco.

Future predictions

Russia could antagonize Morocco by providing top-tier equipment to Algeria to complement its A2/AD capabilities. There have been reports that Algeria signed a deal with Russia for the SU-57 stealth fighter aircraft. However, these reports seem to be simple rumors, as the Algerian legislature requires the fighters to be tested on Algerian soil before being bought, which is a rather far-fetched possibility. While covert flights are still possible, Russia needs to deliver the SU-57 to its own forces, making a short-term transfer unrealistic. Nonetheless, Russia has signaled at the International Defense Exhibition 2021 that it has potential buyers for the SU-57 without mentioning Algeria explicitly. Moreover, Russia has recently denied that it would provide SU-34 planes to Algeria despite earlier reports confirming the transfer. These signs could be read as a sign of support towards Morocco in the international community, which could potentially affect the conflict.

Relations with Russia will certainly see improvement, as Morocco tries to leverage the EU and the U.S. in supporting its claims. Indeed, the U.S. and the EU will hardly recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara but the rest of the international community will continue to open consulates in Western Sahara as a sign of support to Morocco. This will lead the EU and the U.S. to negotiate a renewed political settlement which will largely be beneficial to Morocco. The lack of support of Morocco’s traditional allies could be used by Russia to foster long-term economic ties. This will only be possible if Russia does not endanger Moroccan national security by transferring top-tier equipment to Algeria. If Russia pursues this policy over the coming years and becomes a major economic partner for Morocco, Russia could then become a major power broker in the region. Russia will concordantly need to review its arms trade policy.


Bibliography:

1. Donaldson, R. H. and Nadkarni, V. (2019) The Foreign Policy of Russia: Changing Systems, Enduring Interests. 6th ed. New York, Routledge.


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