Algeria-Russia: Tebboune and Putin, lifelong allies?

By Farid Alilat
Posted on Friday, 23 December 2022 19:03

Handshake between Algeria's Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Russia's Vladimir Putin, with Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the background in Berlin on 19 January 2020. © FABIAN SOMMER/DPA via AFP

Forged in the fires of a pre-independence world, the unique relationship between Algiers and Moscow has never wavered, not even after the fall of the Soviet Union. Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s next Russian visit, against a backdrop of the war in Ukraine and large military contracts, aims to further strengthen those ties.

For the first time since former Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 2008 trip to Moscow, an Algerian head of state is expected for an official Russian state visit. While the official date and main subject matter for President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s visit to Russia remains to be seen, it is almost assured that the war in Ukraine and the potential for new geopolitical, economic partnerships will be a topic for discussion, along with the possibility for new arms deals.

Algeria’s relationship with Russia and the Soviet Union date back to before Algeria’s independence and continues through today, particularly through military and cultural cooperation. Almost every prominent former lead Algerian military officer—beginning with Saïd Chengriha, incumbent Army Chief of Staff—received training in Soviet schools, with many Algerian secret service officers having KGB experience.

Russian aid workers have a long history of work in Algeria, particularly in the health sector, while thousands of Algerian students, some of whom have been elevated to the post of minister, have attended former Soviet universities and institutes. In fact, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramtane Lamamra, undertook his first diplomatic internship in Moscow during the Cold War era.

One moment in particular embodies the strength of the Algeria-Russia relationship: in September 1978, then-President Houari Boumédiène confided in two of his ministers, Bouteflika and Taleb Ibrahim, that he was suffering from prostate cancer and wished to be treated abroad. For historical reasons, Boumédiène eliminated France, then rejected the United States, fearing that his illness would be revealed by the American media.

Enter the Soviet Union—old friends, allies, and expert keepers of secrets. With the Soviet Union as the final choice, President Boumédiène reached Moscow on 29 September and was treated in the area’s best clinic for nearly fifty days before returning to Algiers.

We support the Algerian initiative to draw up new terms for a bilateral partnership.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Soviet doctors and other specialists, President Boumédiène’s illness proved incurable, but nevertheless, this episode demonstrated why Algerians and Russians maintain unique ties through the present.

The first post-Bouteflika Summit

The last time an Algerian head of state visited Moscow, Algeria received a $7.5bn arms contract with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in exchange for a partial forgiveness in up to $4.5bn in debts contracted with Moscow from the 1970s.

Now, more than 14 years later, the same Putin has now invited Bouteflika’s successor to visit him in Moscow. A new strategic partnership—one to build upon that which had been signed in 2001—is intended to be established.

“We support the Algerian initiative to draw up new terms for a bilateral partnership,” explained Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia, during his visit to Algiers in May 2022. “Our political dialogue is actively in development, along with economic, military, and technical cooperation, as well as continued humanitarian and cultural ties.”

Algeria has seen two Bouteflika visits to Moscow, one Putin visit to Algiers in March 2006, one Dimitri Medvedev visit to Algiers in October 2020, several trips by Algerian ministers of defence to Moscow, and now a Putin invitation to President Tebboune.

In the midst of a changing global power structure with diplomatic relations hanging on by a thread elsewhere, Algeria and Russia have maintained strong ties. Even as the international community, led by the United States, continues to condemn Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Algeria cautiously refuses to take a stand.

Algeria’s stances have extended to the United Nations: after abstaining from a 02 March 2022 UN resolution vote demanding Russia’s cessation of force against Ukraine, Algiers submitted no vote on the UN General Assembly’s 07 April 2022 decision to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council (HRC), and again abstained from the 12 October 2022 resolution concerning the “illegal” Russian annexation of four Ukrainian regions.

Sanction threats

These abstentions did not go unnoticed by the European Commission, however. 17 MEPs, in response to Algeria’s voting abstention, asked the Presidency of the European Commission to impose sanctions against the Algerian authorities, especially after the Algerian purchase of Russian arms were viewed as a financing strategy for the political and logistical support for the invasion of Ukraine.

Previously, 27 members of Congress in the United States expressed the same desires to the Secretary of State, advancing the same arguments as their European counterparts.

Is Algiers a Moscow ally in the Ukrainian offensive? Due to its conciliatory attitude towards Russia, Algeria has also seen fit to take advantage of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict to become a key energy player for Europe, allowing it to escape criticism for its approach.

“The war in Ukraine has twice boosted Algeria among the international community,” analysed Adlene Mohammedi, Scientific Director of the AESMA Strategic Research Centre and a Russo-Arab geopolitics researcher.

“For Moscow’s adversaries, Algiers’ role as a hydrocarbon supplier is reaffirmed. For Moscow, Algeria—like other African and Arab countries—illustrates this impasse between the ‘West’ and the ‘rest of the world.’”

If Algiers is a Moscow ally, this is best-seen in the military field. Trade between the two nations, amounting to $3bn in 2021, consists mainly of military equipment flowing from Moscow to Algiers.

Since its independence, the Algerian People’s National Army has been supplied mainly by the Russians, of which it has become the third-largest customer behind the Chinese and Indian defence industry. From combat aircraft, air defence weapons, armoured vehicles, naval supplies, and missiles, the Algerian military cache is essentially Soviet/Russian-made, even with the recent addition of Turkish, South African, Italian, and German supplies.

“Between 2017-2021, more than 80% of Algeria’s purchased weapons were of Russian origin,” said Adlene Mohammedi. “This dependence dates back to the Soviet Era and also to the early years of President Bouteflika. It is difficult to explain this level of dependence.”

President Tebboune’s next Russian visit, against the backdrop of an increased military budget of $23bn for the upcoming year, could lead to the signing of new weapons deals with the Russian Federation. Negotiations are expected to last a while, but results will not be confirmed by Algiers or Moscow any time soon.

In the meantime, Algiers can count on Moscow’s support in their quest to join BRICS, the organisation currently populated by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Special Representative of the President of Russia for the Middle East, was not shy in welcoming Algeria’s November 2022 candidacy.

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