For the last decade and a half, Russia has sought to regain influence in North Africa. To strengthen its presence in a region that more commonly interacts with the United States and the European Union (EU), Moscow has shown an ability to seize opportunities through military cooperation, energy diplomacy, and trade.
Cooperation in the military-security sphere is particularly advanced between Russia and North Africa. Russia has increased its military expenditures in the region, and remains an attractive and affordable supplier of weapons to its countries, most significantly Egypt and Algeria. Algeria, a longstanding ally of Moscow, is among the top five clients for Russian weapons, with more than 80 percent of its equipment being supplied by Russia.
In 2006, Moscow and Algeria settled a $4.7 billion debt owed by Algeria to the former Soviet Union. This allowed Algiers and Moscow to improve their relationship and expand political and economic ties. The same year, Algeria signed an agreement with Russia for tanks, jet fighters, and a missile system, among other equipment, for a value of $7.5 billion. By 2016, Algeria accounted for 10 percent of Russian weapons exports. Indeed, between 2012 and 2016 there was a 277 percent increase in the value of all weapons sold to Algeria, making the North African country the world’s fifth largest arms importer, with Russia as its primary supplier. Two-thirds of the trade between the two countries—which rose from $700 million in 2007 to $4 billion in 2016—involved military material.
Next door in Egypt, military cooperation has also been important. Since 2014, Egypt has purchased $3.5 billion in Russian military material. The two sides are currently discussing the delivery of additional equipment. In 2015, Egypt and Russia established a joint commission for military-technical cooperation, and a year later they conducted joint counterterrorism exercises under the name “Defenders of Friendship—2016.” More recently, in 2017, the states signed a preliminary agreement under which Russian military aircraft would be allowed to enter Egypt’s airspace and use its military bases. If the agreement is concluded, it would be the most substantial deployment of foreign forces in North Africa since the 1970s.
Russia has also been improving its economic relations with the Maghreb countries. Libya is a case in point. While Russia had impressive economic cooperation with Libya before 2011, this changed after the uprising there, when all previous contracts were rendered null and void. Moscow recognized the National Transitional Council in 2016, and began simultaneously working actively with its opponent, Marshal Khalifa Haftar. In 2016 and 2017, Haftar visited Russia several times, and in January 2017 he was received on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. At the same time, Russian sappers were sent to Cyrenaica at the invitation of the Libyan Cement Company to remove mines from an industrial facility, and Moscow helped the government in Tobruk make up for its liquidity deficit by printing money on its behalf.
Russia and Libya seek to expand their economic cooperation. In 2017, the turnover in trade between the two countries doubled to $135 million, when compared to 2016, driven mainly by the export of Russian grain. In the first quarter of 2018 the list of products expanded, despite a slight reduction in grain shipments (which represent 47 percent of total Russian exports to Libya). Also, metals and metal products accounted for one-third of Russian exports, while chemical products accounted for some 10 percent of exports.
Egypt, in its turn, is one of Russia’s top 20 trading partners globally and the largest importer of Russian agricultural products. In 2017, total trade between the two countries reached $6.73 billion, and mainly included hydrocarbons, ferrous metals, and cereals. That same year, half of the wheat imported by Egypt—around 11.2 million tons—came from Russia. The two countries have also discussed creating a Russian industrial zone in Port Said. “I see it as a hub. I believe it is a first stage in shaping basic platforms for spreading Russian goods in African countries,” is how Russian Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Georgy Kalamanov described the project.
Russian trade with Morocco is also substantial, with 97 percent of Moroccan exports to Russia representing food products. In addition to being Russia’s largest supplier of frozen sardines, Morocco is also a leading supplier of tomatoes and citrus fruits. In terms of value, the trade between the two states exceeded $3 billion in 2017, though the trade balance is greatly in Russia’s favor.
Russia has also extended its cooperation with North African countries to the energy sector. The Kremlin has signed several agreements relating to civilian nuclear energy, a way of securing its regional footprint for the long term. In October 2017, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation (ROSATOM) signed a memorandum of understanding on the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes with the Moroccan Ministry of Energy, Mineral Resources, and Sustainable Development. The same month, ROSATOM signed another memorandum of understanding with the Algerian Atomic Energy Commission, and the two countries are planning the construction of a nuclear power station with a pressurized water reactor for 2025. In November 2015, Russia also signed an agreement for the construction of a nuclear power plant in Egypt, which was complemented in 2017 by a long-term contract for maintenance of the plant.
Finally, tourism is becoming important in Russia’s advance in North Africa. While Egypt had been a destination for Russian tourists for years, with some 3.1 million tourists visiting in 2014, this changed dramatically after the October 2015 bombing of a Russian airliner by an Islamic State affiliate. Moscow banned direct flights to Egypt for two and half years, redirecting the flow of its tourists to Tunisia, where their numbers rose to 515,000 in 2017, more than double what they had been in 2014. Through tourism and its impact on the Tunisian economy, the Kremlin is paving the way for greater Russian influence in the country.
Russia is in the process of greatly diversifying its ties in North Africa. While energy cooperation remains uncertain due to excessive costs and the time involved in projects, military cooperation is likely to continue. However, the Kremlin’s sway should not be exaggerated, as North Africa is not a Russian priority. That said, both the EU and the United States will certainly have to adapt to the Kremlin’s expanded North African presence in the years ahead.