Geopolitics

Russia in Africa Part II: Russian Influence in the Magreb

June 23, 2020

Louis Tayler

 

This report seeks to offer an assessment on the future of Russian influence in the Maghreb further West than Libya, until 2025, through analysis of key factors, drivers, and scenario generation.

 

 

Key Judgements

 

KJ-1. Russian influence is provided with to potential two factors: regional power vacuums, political instability. If Russia can obtain significant military, economic or political benefits from increasing influence, such potential benefits are drivers for Russian involvement.

 

KJ-2. Tunisia and Morocco are highly unlikely countries for Russia to influence in the next 5 years. Tunisia and Morocco do not have all three above factors, nor are there other significant factors that would predict growing Russian influence.

 

KJ-3. Algeria is a country in which Russian influence already has a presence, and though unlikely, may grow in the future. The three factors above are present in Algeria.

 

 

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Soviet (and thus Russian) influence in Africa collapsed. A resurgent Russia in the near-East and Europe is now looking to Africa as a continent ripe for Russian expansion. In October 2019, Russia hosted its first pan-African summit in Sochi, which discussed trade, security, economic and technical cooperation. This represents the public-facing image that Russia wishes to cultivate to Africa – that of a benevolent power seeking to cooperate with African partners. In the wake of Western sanctions against Russia since 2014, the Kremlin has sought to broaden links to Africa and expand its influence to a near-Soviet extent.

 

 

Current Situation

 

Entering 2020, Russia has a significant influence in several key North African and Middle Eastern countries, the highest-profile of which is Syria. Egypt, under Sisi, is showing signs of wishing to divest from the US sphere of influence and return to the Cold War practice of alignment with whichever great power offers the most positive at any one time – indeed, President Sisi was the co-chair for the Sochi pan-African Summit. In Libya, Russia is exerting significant influence through covert and overt support for General Haftar, as mentioned in previous Grey Dynamics reports and articles (1) (2) (3). Despite the growing influence across the rest of the continent, Russian influence has been limited, going no further West than Libya.

 

 

Important Factors

 

There are several re-occurring factors that provide Russia with the opportunity or motivation to enter the affairs of African and Middle Eastern countries.

 

  • Power Vacuum: The Obama (and now) Trump Administrations’ withdrawal from Africa and the Middle East has left a power vacuum that Russia, China, Turkey, and others are all attempting to fill. This is a long-term trend.

  • Political Instability: Another important factor for Russian involvement is political instability. Civil wars in Libya and Syria have offered entry for Russia into the internal affairs of those countries. Support of embattled regimes outside of civil war, such as Omar Bahsir’s former regime in Sudan, has offered a means of entry for Russian influence.

  • Resources and Other Benefits: A highly important driver for Russian influence is that of resources and benefits. Quite aside from opportunity, the Kremlin needs to perceive a benefit from the intervention in specific countries. In Syria, defence and political goals trump economic considerations; continued access to warm water Mediterranean ports for the Russian Navy is of importance. In Libya, the benefit has yet to be obtained but consists of favourable terms of access to Libya’s substantial economic resources.

 

Russian influence is provided with an opportunity by regional power vacuums, political instability, and driven by pursuit of military, economic and political benefits.

 

 

Future Influence

 

Russia’s current influence in North Africa does not extend further West than Libya. However, given Russia’s growing influence across the African continent, it is possible that Russia will attempt to influence Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco in the future.

 

Tunisia

 

Tunisia is an unlikely target of Russian influence. It has limited political turmoil to exploit, close ties to the US and Europe, and little benefit to offer to Russia. Of all the countries of North Africa, Tunisia above all others has responded best to the Arab Spring. Its regime was removed without a civil war, it has seen several peaceful transitions of power following elections. Tunisia is a relatively stable country, with close links to the United States and Europe, and little in the way of resources or benefits to offer to Russia.

 

Algeria

 

Algeria is a plausible country in which Russian influence may expand, due to relatively weaker ties to the US and Europe, political instability and potential economic benefit to Russia. In Algeria, President Tebboune has recently taken over from the 20-year reign of former President Bouteflika, and the country is undergoing a period of substantial political turmoil, following the inconclusive election results of 2019. Furthermore, Algeria has the 16th largest proven oil reserves in the world, resources in which Russia has a proven interest. Lastly, Algeria’s is still an active user of many Russian and Soviet-era weapon systems (see figure 1) – Russia is an attractive patron for those seeking cheaper arms and maintenance, with few end-user questions asked.

 

 

Figure 1: Algeria’s arms import in 2018

 

 

Morocco and Western Sahara

 

Morocco, as a major non-NATO US ally, has tight links to the West that means Russian influence is unlikely. There are some opportunities and benefits to drive Russian involvement in Morocco and Western Sahara. Morocco, though officially neutral, has historically been aligned with the United States and Europe, and has tight economic, and touristic links (see figure 2, 3). However, a critical, yet unresolved issue is that of Western Sahara, claimed by both the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and Morocco. This is a conflict that could potentially be exploited by Russia, though it currently has no strong position one way or the other. Morocco and Western Sahara have some properties that would incentivise Russian involvement. This includes substantial phosphate deposits and mines, as well as the potential of naval basing rights on the Atlantic. However, Morocco is a major non-NATO US ally, and currently, tight relations with the US, and deep economic reliance on Europe, preclude engagement with Russia.

 

 

Figure 2: Moroccan export destinations, broken down by value

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 3: Moroccan Tourism Figures for Jan-Feb 2018

 

 

Indicators and Scenario for increasing Russian Influence in Algeria

 

  • Indicator 1: Continued Algerian Defence expenditure on buying and servicing Russian equipment, thus deepening pre-existing defence dependency on Russia.

  • Indicator 2: Open, repeated public displays of political engagement between President Tebboune and his government, and Russian politicians.

  • Indicator 3: Opening of Algerian oil economy to the involvement of Russian energy companies.

  • Scenario: Continued Algerian instability leads to repressive crackdowns by President Tebboune. Police repression and perception of human rights violations lead Western nations to withdraw support for Algeria’s government, forcing it to look towards Russia for assistance, thus leading to increasing Russian influence.

Indicators of increased Russian influence in Algeria in the future include Algerian defence expenditure on Russian services and equipment, the public political engagement between the countries’ governments, and Russian companies’ involvement in the Algerian energy sector. Further political instability may also exacerbate Russian influence.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Towards 2025, Russian influence stands the best chance of expansion in Algeria, based on the three identified factors above. Morocco and Tunisia do not provide an opportunity or sufficient benefit to Russia to incentivise any involvement. The consequences of increased Russian influence in Algeria for the United States, NATO and the EU depend on the depth of influence. At its worst, Algeria may offer to host Russian naval bases and reduce the freedom to operate for Russia’s geopolitical rivals. The most likely situation in which Russian influence becomes stronger in Russia is one in which Algeria continues to import Russian servicing and military equipment, as well as limited involvement in Algeria’s energy sector.

 

 

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