The Algerian Ministry of Defence issued a communiqué on Monday 28 November informing of the cancellation of the “anti-terrorist military manoeuvres” that should have taken place at the former French military base of Hammaguir, in western Algeria, half a hundred kilometres from the Moroccan border in the region of Bechar; a region that has been in a state of permanent tension for 60 years, when the so-called “War of the Sands” took place between Algeria and Morocco over a disputed border and agreements signed between the two countries but not respected.
The suspension of the Russian-Algerian military manoeuvres has given rise to numerous interpretations, all of them biased, and from which often erroneous and fanciful conclusions have been drawn.
Given the importance of the issue and the effects it could have on the security of the western Mediterranean and the region encompassing the Maghreb and the countries of south-western Europe, with Spain and France at the forefront, a few clarifications are in order.
The two extreme interpretations of the cancellation of the manoeuvres are that it was done unilaterally by the Algerian side, so as not to defy its Western interlocutors; or that it was done unilaterally by the Russian side, for reasons yet to be elucidated.
Let us see. If the decision to suspend simple anti-terrorist exercises, in which 180 troops specialised in detecting and suppressing terrorist groups hostile to Algerian national security were to participate, had come from the Algerian side in the first place, it would have been announced either before the exercises began or one or two days later, i.e. on 16 November. However, the announcement of the cancellation was made on 28 November, when the manoeuvres should have been completed. Hence, some media have been quick to say that “Algeria is distancing itself from Russia”, that “the military honeymoon between Moscow and Algiers is coming to an end”, or that “Algiers has begun to make a shift in its defence and security policy, accepting suggestions or pressure from the United States and France to distance itself from Russia”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
None of these arguments hold water. Military and security relations between Algiers and Moscow are 60 years old. The main arms supplier to Algeria has been, remains and will remain for a significant period of time Russia. The structure of the armed forces, their equipment, training and planning cannot be changed from one day to the next.
Throughout its 60 years of independence, Algeria has been under pressure from the West, mainly France and to a lesser extent the United States, which fully understands the contradictions of the Algerian regime, to alter this Russian-Algerian military equation. Paris has offered on numerous occasions to replace Russian equipment – armour, anti-aircraft defence, aviation – which it described as “obsolete” and “unsuitable” for the Algerian armed forces eager to modernise, with French equipment, or equipment manufactured under European and NATO patents. Algeria never accepted it, out of mistrust, caution or the inertia of the military machine itself, that of one of the most important armies in Africa in terms of troops and armaments. With the exception of small consignments of French and American military equipment, and more recently Chinese, German and other NATO countries, Algiers has continued to acquire most of its armaments from Russia. It plans to acquire even more. Of the considerable increase in the military budget for 2023, which amounts to $23 billion, a large part will be for contracts with Moscow. These agreements and contracts are likely to be announced during Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s upcoming state visit to Russia. The Algerian military establishment, specifically the General Staff, headed by General Said Chengriha, wants the visit to take place before the end of the year or in the first weeks of 2023, in order to formalise these contracts and acquire the latest generation equipment for modernisation as quickly as possible.
However, it cannot be ruled out that the communiqué issued by the Algerian Defence Ministry has a different interpretation, and that what has been cancelled are the exercises “as designed”. In other words, joint military exercises have indeed taken place, but they did not follow the planned outline. For tactical and defence secrecy reasons, both sides could have agreed that there were no joint exercises.
As for the hypothesis that it was the Russians who unilaterally decided to suspend the anti-terrorist exercises, it has no credibility whatsoever. Considering the military-economic harassment Russia is suffering, with the Ukraine war raging, and the apparently irreversible intention of the United States to deploy offensive weapons in the vicinity of the Russian/Belarusian border through Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania, Moscow needs to mobilise as much international support as possible, either from countries directly aligned with Russia or from countries that do not agree with US plans, such as the BRICS group, Venezuela, Cuba, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Algeria, Egypt, as well as a large group of Latin American and African countries. We believe that this decision was not taken unilaterally by Russia.
The most likely scenario, and one that is consistent with current geopolitical data, is that if the exercises were cancelled, it was a decision by both sides. Largely because Algeria wanted to give the counter-terrorism exercises a focus and scope that the Russians were unwilling to. Algeria wanted the exercises to be a warning to neighbouring Morocco, which the regime considers “Algeria’s enemy”, and for the General Staff in Rabat to see them as “a threatening scenario”, so that in the event of an armed conflict between the two countries “Russia would side with Algeria against Morocco”.
Considering these intentions, Moscow had declared long before the start of the exercises that they were “not aimed at third parties”, both to send a message to Morocco and to Algeria itself that it was not prepared to modify the scheme of the exercises and that they would appear to be manoeuvres aimed at dissuading possible Moroccan attacks using terrorist gangs in its service.
The same reading has been made in Rabat, where the pro-Royal Palace media have recently highlighted the fact that Morocco has not followed the line dictated by Washington to its allies and has abstained from voting against Russia at the UN. Rabat also recalls that there are important ties between Russia and Morocco, mutually beneficial trade agreements and a dialogue that has remained unchanged despite the current international crisis.
Moreover, it is said in Rabat that the planned visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Morocco in January – as reported by journalist Álvaro Escalonilla in ATALAYAR – could be the occasion for Moscow to adopt a more favourable position towards Morocco in the Western Sahara conflict, giving its support to the formula of advanced regionalisation in the former Spanish colony within a Moroccan sovereigntist framework, something similar to what Moscow intends to do with the pro-Russian regions of southeastern Ukraine, Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporiya. Russia would not exclude a referendum on self-determination, which is a UN formula, but would opt for the Moroccan plan as more realistic.
In short, Algeria remains a strong ally of Russia and China, albeit with a policy of equidistance with the West, a modernised non-alignment so to speak; and it will continue to acquire its weapons from Russia. This does not prevent it from continuing to be one of the main suppliers of gas and oil to Europe, with which it has most of its trade relations.
Morocco, for its part, will remain a strategic partner of the United States and NATO, but will insist on its own policy in accordance with its own interests, which, according to King Mohammed VI, will have the Sahara issue as its “central node”, and around which all its diplomacy will revolve.
As for Russia, not only will it not leave the Maghreb, but by 2023 it plans to intensify relations with the African continent and in particular consolidate ties with the Maghreb, from Mauritania to Egypt, via Morocco, Algeria and Libya.
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