The Russian Approach Towards North Africa
(Reasons and Strategic Interests)
Despite the contemporary absence from the international landscape following the collapse of Soviet Union, Russia was and remains a key player in the international relations. Nowadays, It returns to the landscape as an effective actor in the Middle East and North Africa (MENNA), after conducting a comprehensive revision to its foreign policy determinants, and adopting a logical theory through giving the geopolitics factor a major priority. It also replaced its “ideological dimension” (which was subordinated to the Supreme Soviet) by “flexible religious ideology for the purpose of extending its influence into the troubled regions”
Recently, a controversy arose over the nature of the attention and the extended influence of Moscow in the Middle East and North Africa, especially after Putin’s claim that his intervention in Syria, is the outcome of the initial phase of his success in the region. Since he came to power in the year of 2000, Russian President was willing to regain the prestigious status of Great Russia, this ambition led to the development of an integrated vision exceeds the geographic border of the Middle East up to the southern shore of the Mediterranean, as these regions is considered as one of the most important regions that Russia is competing with the European Union and the United States of America for the influence over the aforesaid regions. North Africa constitutes a fundamental pillar in the Russian approach, especially since the Arab Spring 2011, which opened the access to Russia to rethink and engage in balance-of-power games with the international Powers, and to get back again to extend its influence over the African Continent, as well as to reduce the margin of maneuver with the United State of America and to tighten the space on the European Union countries.
Furthermore, Moscow believes that if it guaranteed a foothold in the Mediterranean Sea, it would be a key player at the regional level, therefore; it has recently managed to extend its influence over Port Tartous and established a restricted areas. At present, Russia is willing to access to Africa with the aim of completing the same strategy of the access to the rest harbors located along the Mediterranean, it also aims at expending the scope and the geographic influence.
Moreover, the economic interests is considered as one of the most important motivations, hence, Moscow pursuits to compete with European Union countries for obtaining many economic benefits. It seeks to be the exclusive importer of weapons in the region, it managed to achieve many accomplishments in this regard, through promoting its relationships with Egypt since 2013, up to Algeria which it is the biggest exporter of Russian weapon in the region. Russia, since the first visit of the Russian president in 2006, managed to promote its relationships with the north and south of the African continent, obtained many privileges and investments, and signed many contracts in the fields of energy, nuclear reactors and weapons.
Africa in the Russian perspective (Attention and reasons for returning)
Since the eighteenth century, the African region never stepped out of Russian’s attention. In the Caesarean Empire era and soviet as well (). Russian policies has relied on the ideology factor as a platform for its expansionary policies in the region, it managed to move from czarist Russian to Russian Empire, and became one of the most influenced powers in the region. However, it did not go far enough to realize its full interests in the continent. In the wake of the experience of the strength in the Cold War, Russia has terminated many bilateral partnerships with its partners in the region, the impact of its soft power has declined after giving the internal matters the full attention. By the end of Cold War era, the role of the unipolarity has declined, then Russia has returned to adopt an approach in its foreign expansion. Russia not only relied on the hard power, but also relied on ideological soft strategies, in addition to; it has established military and economic partnership relationships at the aim of regaining its prestigious status in the world.
The geopolitical considerations and the economic interests in the African region have, in fact, acquired a great importance in the Russian foreign policy agendas. The major reason behind this rapid access to the African continent and the Middle East, is perhaps its fears of the exclusion and marginalization attempts made by the major powers and the United State of America that attempts to institute regulatory frameworks for a new international system, which Russia believes that it has the right to participate in establishing it. In the last ten years, The geopolitical transformations in the North of Africa and the Middle East indicate to evident shift in the features of the international policies of the region. Moscow, in its turn, believes that the recent changes, undermined its influence in the region, in particular, in Libya and Algeria, the two former allies for Russia during the Cold War. President Putin strongly believes that the west stands behind the protests in the region to cause the change in the recent regimes through overthrowing some regimes that had a good relationship with his country.
As a result of the fluctuation that occurred in “Obama administration” and the recent administration of the president “Donald Trump”, a kind of attention given to North of Africa region, to quash what became known as “Political Islam Movements”, in addition to; the attention to the natural wealth and the attempt to secure the water and petroleum resources. In Russian point of view, the overthrow of the head of regime in “Egypt, Libya, Tunis, Algeria, and Sudan” would never have taken place without an American desire to formulate a new perspective for the region. Therefore, Russia, in the first years of the popular protests, has taken some time to make clear its position, and has not interfered in the internal affairs and the destiny of these countries. It maintained the slogan of combating terrorism to legitimize its intervention within the margin of maneuver available. It realized that the American attention to the region has not adopted an integrated vision, especially in the term of former president “Barack Obama” who given the nuclear agreement with Iran the priority in exchange for turning a blind eye to other events and the escalated crisis in the region.
With the advent of Donald Trump to the White House, he has pursued a conflicting policies based on the economic profit factor, as he excluded the factors of promoting the stability in the region. Hence, Moscow believes that Trump administration pursues the strategy of chaos management in order to achieve its interests, which reflected US attention to some places at the expense of other regions ().
Accordingly; Putin has taken the advantage of the American vacuum and adopted a new vision to the region, he relied on the pragmatism as a basic determinant in formulating his convergence approach with the North African countries. This convergence approach has been characterized, inter alia, by confronting the major chaos and combating the terrorism with the aim of preventing the access of terrorism to the vital zones of Russian influences in The Caspian Sea and the Baltic, the Balkans, Georgia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe. It has relied on several pillars to build upon, among them, reviving the old agreements which had been frozen since the collapse of the Soviet system, owing to non-payment of the countries to their debts. Russia has cancelled all outstanding debts of heavily indebted countries such as Libya, whose debts amounted to 4.6 billion dollars (), in order to get rid of problems with such countries and revitalize the partnerships relationships with them.
Kremlin’s efforts is perhaps, to compensate the country for the losses resulted from the sanctions imposed on Russia, therefore; it is one of the reasons that pushed Russia to pay attention to the region, because the African continent has diversity in its natural resources, which made the continent in the focus of Russian’s attention to promote the cooperation in a fields such as energy and petroleum industries, as the continent’s overall share of global oil is estimated at 12 per cent (). Russia not only has focused its relations with the continent in energy sectors, but it also paid more attention, as a high priority, to arms exports and opening a new markets. It pursues to impose itself as a major source of weapons in the continent, especially for Egypt and Algeria. This diversification is developed by Russia to compete with US and European countries, which perceive the region with the same considerations that Russia focused, and recently led to the increase of margin of maneuver and competition in North Africa that are experiencing internal political crises.
The Geopolitical Interests of Russia in North Africa
In 2006, after quarter century of absence, Algeria and Morocco received the first visit of Russian side to their countries, this visit was a qualitative shift in the Russia-African relationships (), and indicated to a remarkable change in Russian relations, which focus on the interest considerations. Therefore, the President of Russia, signed a series of agreements with the president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, worth USD 7.5 billion in exchange for the cancelation of Algeria’s debts amounted to USD 4.7 billion(). Both sides, in a date earlier to this visit, had been reached to a strategic partnership between them. After the consolidation of bilateral relationships, Algeria became the largest importer of Russian weapons in the continent, as it receives more than 80% of its military equipment from Russia, in addition to, it has obtained a developed weapons such as the anti-craft Alexander system 400 (S) system, which are able to face the western aircrafts.
Economically, Russia raised its presence in Algeria, as it is the third largest gas provider to Europe, hence Russia obtained a contracts for exploration of petroleum and neutral gas through the Russian company “Gasprom”
The cooperation was not restricted to the economic and military filed, but included the security and intelligence field through information exchange over the terrorist groups in all north African countries, as a result of this cooperation, Algeria became an effective ally for Russia to play an effective role in the region’s issues. Since the events of 2011, both visions of the two countries was consistent, especially in Libyan and Syrian issues. Accordingly, the coordination between them, according to the nature of the mutual interests, has increased to high levels for the purpose of settling the conflicts. Algerian efforts was evident when it attempted to settle the Libyan crisis as mediator, or a supporter to held a meetings between the political factions under Russian sponsorship, as in 2017 in the meetings that brought together Algerian officials with their Libyan counterparts, such as Abdul Rahman Al-Suweihli, the Chairman of the High Council of State, Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, the Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, and Khalifa Hifter, the Commander of Libyan National Army, with the aim of reaching a common understandings lead to pass through the transitional phase. Between the year 2018 to 2019, Algeria attempts has repeated, however; these efforts have fallen far short of a ground that enables Moscow to build upon, owing to the large number of influential player in the African scene, those player such as France, Italy and Britain have a role more effective than Russia’s role in the region.
As for Egypt, Moscow pays a particular attention to Egypt, it considers it the gateway towards the north of Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, up to Sudan. That is probably because of the fact that, Egypt is located in the middle of the Arab World. It should be noted that, the Egyptian-Russian relations, have returned to the warm atmosphere, after a long absence from the Egyptian landscape extended to the seventies of the last century. Russia returned to Egypt, following the advent of president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the power, and following to his coup against Egyptian legitimacy in 2013 during the rule of the late president Mohammed Morsi, therefore; Putin felt that there is a remarkable opportunity towards the rapprochement with Egyptian president, to renounce the Islamic groups, that Putin wants to cut its limbs and preventing them from communicating with Islamic groups exists in the North Caucasus, “the vital area of Russian influence,” Putin seemed that he has chosen the suitable time to enter on the Egyptian line, through his exploitation to the state of confusion that affected the American-Egyptians relations during the rule of the former president Barak Obama, who ceased the annual military aid of USD 1.3 billon to Egypt. Putin in his turn, before resolving the differences between the both sides, has sent his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who led a high-level delegation to Egypt, with the aim of promoting the partnership relations. The visitation enabled both sides to reach to an agreement for arms deals worth more than USD three billion, besides signing an agreement allows Moscow to build the first nuclear plant in Egypt. At present, the value of Russia’s weapon exports to Egypt in 2018 reached USD 15 billion, according to Russian sources. At the same time, both sides signed new agreements for the year 2019 worth USD 20 billion, including contracts for the MiG-29, and Sukhoi 35 with a number up to 100 aircraft().
With the raising frequency of arms deals between the both sides, which came at Egypt’s wish to diversify the sources of its military equipment, and not to rely on the US as a single-source for weapons. In the year of 2017, both sides conducted a military exercises known as “Defenders of Friendship”, and at the same year Egypt allowed Russia to deploy its troops at a military base exists in the areas adjacent to Libya borders, for the purpose of assisting the military led by “General Khalifa Hufter”. The cooperation between both sides also led to the use of Egypt’s airspace to Russia’s aircrafts pursuant to an agreement signed between both parties in 2017().
Economically, the trade exchange value between both sides reached more than USD 70 billion, according to the statements of Russia’s Foreign Minister “Sergei Lavrov” in 2019(). At the political level, the views of both sides are fully consistent in some dossiers relating to the region, especially the Russian’s view about the Syrian and Libyan crises, which the Egyptian role became compatible with Russian role. In particular, after the support that the Egyptian president received from his Russian counterpart, to his domination for presidency. Putin was the first president to receive President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, in 2014, and gave him the support, in order to stand with a strong position on the international scene.
In the light of the above, Moscow has achieved an evident breakthrough in Egypt, at the expense of the rollback of American role, which the American president Donald Trump attempts today, to restore the American-Egyptian relations again. Therefore, the White House received the Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi on more than one occasion. He praised his efforts in fighting the terrorism(), and gave him logistical and military support in combating the terrorist organizations existing in Sinai Peninsula. He also reactivated the annual military aid for Egypt, all with aim of creating a balance among international powers, and not to provide a broader space for Moscow to strengthen its influence, however, There is no certainty that the policies of the current administration has managed to cause a rift in the Russian-Egyptian relations. Hence, the most probable description is that the return of American-Russian rivalry, not only in Egyptian case, but also throughout all Maghreb regions.
To complement the Russian strategy in Middle East region, Moscow is currently trying to extend its influence in Libya, it also trying to reactivate its old agreements() that it concluded with the government of the late Muammar Gaddafi. The fall of Gaddafi’s regime led to the loss of the influence in regions relating to Russia. However, the rise of “General Khalifa Hufter” to the forefront of Libyan events, besides his attempts to indulge Russia’s support in his raging battles in east of Libya, enabled Russia to play two roles. Militarily; it has provided a logistic and military support, as well as a consultants for Hufter. Politically; it has tried to play a mediator’ role between the two sides of the conflict, as it had met with them more than one time in Moscow to bring views closer together, for the purpose of producing a political solution away from the American’s efforts that sponsor the peace.
The main objective behind Russia’s role in Libya, is to obtain some Petroleum concessions from rich-oil eastern region, it also seeks to set a foot in port of Tobruk, with the aim of completing its primary strategic objective to extend its influence in the warm waters. At the same time, the economic factor cannot be neglected as it desires to compete with foreign companies over the exploration of gas and petroleum, besides it aims at achieving a geopolitics objective that is considered very important to Russia, if it extended its influence along the south shore of Mediterranean, it would be tightened the grip around the European countries’ throat, which are fear of illegal immigration that 90 per cent of such coming from the Libyan coastline off Europe ().
In Arab Maghreb, Russian-Maghreb relations have enhanced since the first visit of King Mohammed VI to Moscow in 2016, as he desired to indulge Russia to play an effective role in the disputed issue with Algeria “Sahara”. The Moroccan orientation came after it felt that the American administration would not introduce any positive role in favor of Morocco. The reason that pushed Morocco to enhance its relations with Moscow is not limited to playing a role of meditation in Sahara crisis, but for the fact that Morocco like the rest African countries, wishes to diversify the economic and investment partnership, in order to achieve a kind of balance with the major powers, besides it attempts to attracts Moscow in favor it in regard to its dispute with Frente POLISARIO as it the proxy of Soviet in the cold war. Consequently; Russia exploited Morocco’s concern, and involved in the meditation in Sahara issue, for the purpose of booming its economic cooperation with Morocco, that began from weapon deals to the export and import diversification.
The strategy pursued by Russia in North Africa can be noted through the engagement by Moscow in the region, which has already began from the partnership relations and the mutual benefit that helped Russia to impose itself as effective and influential power in the North Africa. In particular, the region’s countries such as (Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Libya) shown their desire to cooperate with Russia to create a kind of political balance with the US.
Results and consequences
There is no doubt that Russia is attempting to come back again to the African continent, it strives to extend its influence in the worm waters, to restore its prestigious status in the regional system, with the aim of reviving its historical legacy during Soviet era. Although its influence become evident through imposing its strong presence in Syria, besides knocking the Africa’s doors, but such influence remains at risk amid state of uncertainty in the region. The current transformations in the North Africa are not ended yet, and it is unclear how it could benefit amid many major powers in the region, as all of them are striving to extend its influence over the region and extract political and economic gains, which led to the increase of the influence and competitiveness among all of them, due to the interfered interests. In Syria, Russia still in the state of uncertainty that threaten it in its vital areas, as it has so far failed to gain its political benefits, and extort an official confession in the areas that it exists. That is because, Its presence in Syria, in the international perspective still perceived as illegitimate, besides it is subject to extortion, from time to time, from the rigid positions of the west that prevent Russia to stabilize its influence over Syria.
In North Africa, the political landscape is still fluctuated since the wave of change that hit the central institutions in in Sudan, Libya, Algeria and Egypt. As the factors of security and community stabilization still absent in these countries, with a difficulty in crisis management and a failure in all sides that could move from the chaos to the stability. Any observer to Russia’s approach in the region would observe that the percentage of Russia’s influence equals the percentage of risks and there is an uncertainty in the region’s future, due to the following considerations:
- The escalation of security risks in the region, resulting primarily from the unwillingness of major powers to establish a qualitative stability leads to ending the conflicts. Moscow, in its turn, is taking the advantage of the status quo, building military and economic partnerships without the desire to resolve the conflicts and implement reform projects that promote the values of democracy and human rights, which means that Moscow is ultimately unable to establish security and stability in the Middle East and North Africa.
- The escalation of internal political concerns in the region, as Moscow relies on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs, and simply play the role of meditation in some countries, which could not end the popular protests. Therefore, its continuation in these countries may be reflected on the current decision makers in the region, and ultimately affect Moscow’s interests in the region, which are linked today with those who lead the current landscape through the military institutions, which claim that they share the rule with the civil movements. Moreover, Moscow’s position could contradict with the regional positions with regard to the increase of Moscow’s influences, because the European Union countries fear of the escalation of security risks in the region, and want to stabilize the stability factors to limit illegal immigration. With respect to natural gas, European Union countries pay attention to prevent Russia to put pressure on them in relation to the topic of exportation of natural gas, as Moscow exports to European Union countries about 46 % of gas, while Africa exports to European Union countries about 30 % of gas, therefore, Europe want to diversify the sources of importation and not to rely on the Russian source. It is likely the competitiveness between both of them tends to escalate over time, based on what mention above of interest contradiction, which would exclude any intention to promote the stabilization factors besides the absent of any frameworks to produce political solutions, this could be reflected on the privileges of Moscow in the region.
Based on what mentioned above, Moscow through the strategy of return to the Middle East and North Africa. Politically, it strives to achieve series of economic and geopolitics objectives by using the soft power in the path of diplomatic relations, play the mediation role in the conflict management, and benefit from its activities to diversify the Russian markets in the region. It managed to achieve multiple economic partnerships with oil-producing countries, through concluding investment contracts to explore petroleum and gas, and in nuclear and petrochemical fields. It also concluded many military deals to gain further profits in order to boost the internal economy. Geopolitically, it strives to the permanent presence in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, with the aim of restricting the European Union, especially in light of the tension in the current relations, which was generated by the escalation of crises within Europe.
Internationally, Moscow still aspire to come back again as an effective player in the regional system, In order to restore its historic role during the Cold War era. However, all the accomplishment made by Russia in the last years remain in the margin of maneuver and influence compared to other roles played by European countries, in addition to, there is a widespread belief that Russia is exploiting the contradiction and lack of effectiveness in the American policy in the region, which became an essential pillar in the influence and expansion strategy of Russia in the North Africa. Which means that the emergence of any integrated American strategy for the region, would limit the ability of Russian influence and force it to retreat to its areas of influence in In Central Asia and Eastern Europe, but this prospect unlikely to occur in the current perspective, especially in the light of the sharp divisions escalated within the American institution under the current administration of President Donald Trump.
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