Anyone observing the travel routines of high-ranking Russian officials would note a growing number of trips to the Maghreb recently. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov alone has made six visits to Algeria. The Maghreb is not normally thought of as a key strategic region, so the purpose of these visits cries out for an explanation. In this regard, we must remember that Moscow considers the Maghreb important because it is part of the two regions where Russia is determined to gain recognition as a great global power: the Middle East and Africa.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has been showcasing how Moscow pays regular attention to the Middle East and to the Sahel. In fact, we may postulate that the Russians’ high-level visits display Moscow’s deepening involvement and drive to prove that it is, in fact, a resurging global power whose influence must be reckoned with by North African states and other countries with strategic interests there. In other words, Russia wants to minimize Western positions in the Middle East and the Maghreb and fill the ensuing vacuum, as it has done in Syria. As if to corroborate this objective, the Foreign Ministry stated before Lavrov’s last visit in January that, “We are guided by Russia’s fundamental position that the peoples living in this region can and must independently shape their future without any interference from outside, settling internal tasks through a broad national dialogue.”
Russia’s Tools of Influence
Moscow has long sought greater influence in the Maghreb. Its instruments of policy are quite conventional. Moscow is prepared to sell arms to willing customers from Egypt to Morocco, but experience shows that arms sales policy in Russia is collocated with efforts to achieve permanent involvement in regional energy projects. This has long been the case for Algeria, but it is also happening in Libya, where Russia has staunchly supported efforts to reconstitute a Libyan state in order to obtain major influence in the redevelopment of Libya’s energy sector. Apart from permanent influence on key economic and military sectors in North African states, Russia is still working to obtain decisive influence on energy supplies in the Maghreb.
This is not limited to gaining influence over exports from the Maghreb to Europe. In fact, Russia has signed a contract to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Morocco, and a regasification terminal for LNG is under construction in Morocco. This is presumably a gateway for Russia to then export gas to Spain and/or France. Insofar as countries like Spain, France, Italy, and even Greece import energy from this region, a Russian presence in the Maghreb and the Sahel would certainly have repercussions across Southern Europe and the entire Mediterranean Basin.
Russian policy instruments are thus diplomatic, military and economic — though Russia’s economic interests are by no means confined to hydrocarbons. Russia has become a major purveyor of nuclear power to the Middle East and is seeking to expand its exports throughout Sub-Saharan Africa as well. Russia is also looking for critical exports from African countries to replace Western exports that are beyond Moscow’s reach due to the West’s sanctions dating back to the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin also seeks wheat exports from Algeria.
Russia’s economic gambits in the Middle East and Africa are meant to circumvent Western sanctions and financial constraints to gain investment capital for projects that would be of interest to African or Middle Eastern investors, such as state sovereign funds. We should not be surprised if deals emerge between Russia and sovereign funds in Africa and the Maghreb like those we have seen in the Middle East.
Moscow’s Strategic Thinking
These economic deals aim to enhance Russian political influence and economic capacity. But Moscow is also using non-economic vehicles, as its membership in the U.N. Security Council. In that body, it voted to extend the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Western Sahara conflict between Morocco and Algeria. The Russians see it as a way to establish a position as a potential arbiter of the conflict, not unlike what it has done in Syria and Libya. Moreover — and this is not surprising, given Russia’s 300-year obsession with bases in the Mediterranean — it is quite likely that Moscow ultimately seeks to obtain naval or air bases along the Mediterranean in Maghreb countries.
Moscow has a base in Syria; seeks bases in Yemen, Egypt and Libya; has been offered bases in Sudan and Eritrea; is building a facility in Somaliland, and has stated its desire for one in Algeria. Facilities offering the Russian Navy opportunities to replenish its stocks or functioning as actual naval or air bases would clearly constitute a challenge to NATO in the Mediterranean. But Russia wants to be able to deter NATO naval forces from getting to the Eastern Mediterranean, where they can then move into the Black Sea. Such strategic considerations, aligned to Moscow’s great power complex and long-standing obsession with being a Mediterranean power, play a large role in its strategic thinking about the region.
Moscow has made considerable progress in achieving this grand design, as shown above. Therefore, Western governments cannot afford to ignore the Maghreb. For countries like Spain, France, Italy, and the United States, who have vital interests in the region, it is necessary to offer states in the Maghreb compelling solutions to their problems, thereby strengthening the West’s ability to deal with those governments and block the further diffusion of Russian power in the Mediterranean.
Russia has no vision for the Middle East other than to keep the game going while the world recognizes it as a major player. This also applies to the Maghreb. The West has the opportunity to strengthen its position by offering a vision of the future that aligns with local governments’ interests. But until we see the political will and capacity to do so, Moscow will find the Maghreb a receptive region for its trouble-making and selfish pursuit of naked national interest.
Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers, and monographs – specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia, and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.