Avoid at all costs giving the impression of taking sides while making sure not to alienate either of the protagonists; such is the principle adopted by the three countries of central Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia), from the very start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. This tenuous strategy was confirmed on 2 March when the UN General assembly adopted a resolution demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces and the “immediate” cessation of the use of force on Ukrainian soil.
The Maghrebi vote on this non-binding text came as a surprise to observers. Algeria, traditional ally of the former USSR and a major purchaser of Russian weaponry was among the 35 States to abstain, but not among the four which, in addition to Russia, voted against the resolution: North Korea, Belorussia, Eritrea and Syria. Morocco, though a faithful partner of the European Union (EU) and the United States, simply avoided taking part in the vote. As for Tunisia, it forsook its usual diplomatic caution and joined with the 140 nations that voted in favour of the text. A few days later, on 24 March, the same pattern was repeated with the resolution presented by Kiev on the “humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine”: Algeria abstained, Morocco was absent and Tunisia voted in its favour.
Each of these positions has an explanation and enables us to understand the reactions of the participants in the conflict, direct and indirect (Russia, Ukraine, European Union and the United States). And, above the pressures they have brought to bear on the Maghrebi authorities. In the case of Algeria, its diplomats’ first argument was that they have no wish to take a stand in a conflict which does not concern their country. But they soon came up with a very conventional rhetoric about “their commitment for peace and the search for a negotiated solution.” Actually, Algeria sees itself as a leader of the Arab contact group, composed of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Sudan, plus the general secretary of the Arab League. At the beginning of April, a delegation led by Algerian Foreign Minister, Ramtame Lamamra, met in Moscow with the head of Russian diplomacy, Sergei Lavrov, and in Warsaw with Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba. The result of these talks was encouragement for “direct negotiations” between the two belligerents.
When questioned, a high-ranking Algerian diplomat referred to the concept of “pragmatic neutrality” A pragmatism which considers an important reality: his country’s extensive military cooperation with Russia. Between 2017 and 2021, 81% of the purchases of weapons and defence material for Algeria’s armed forced were supplied by Moscow. Enough to modernise the country’s equipment and enable Algeria to have a range of intervention covering all North Africa, the Sahel and part of Southern Europe. At the same time, Kiev is not one of Algeria’s significant trade partners even if since 2019 the Office algérien interprofessionnel des céréales (OAIC) has been considering importing Ukrainian wheat to be less dependent on France. For a country where defence expenditures constitute 7% of the gross domestic product (GDP), a quarrel with Moscow is inconceivable without jeopardising the country’s defence capacities. A prospect which the regime refuses even to contemplate when the tensions with Morocco are at their highest since 2020.
Yet at the same time, Algiers’s realism forces it to treat its Western partners with kid gloves. France, Italy and Spain are among its principal gas customers and suppliers of its capital goods. Whence Algeria’s abstention at the UN rather than an outright pro-Russian vote such as was cast by Syria or Eritrea. In an international context marked by the multiplication of Western sanctions against Moscow, the Algerian authorities have repeatedly stressed the fact that their country is “a dependable supplier of gas for the European market”. Implying that Sonatrach, the State-owned gas and petroleum company, is prepared to make up for any interruption in the delivery of Russian hydrocarbons to Western Europe. On 11 April, Algiers and Rome signed a contract for the delivery of an additional nine billion cubic metres of gas.
This role of loyal and responsible provider of energy has made it possible for Algeria to make up for its refusal to bow down to the urgent appeals from Western powers which would like to see it break with the Russians. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken (30 March), Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi (11 April) and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (13 April) took turns travelling to Algiers. While they failed to obtain any major change in the Algerian position, they were reassured concerning gas supplies for Europe.
Worries in the Kremlin
However, it is hard to satisfy one side without antagonising the other. On 8 April at the UN, anticipating the Kremlin’s annoyance, Algiers had already abandoned its abstentionist position by voting against a General Assembly resolution excluding Russia from the Human Rights Council. “In spite of the cruelty shown by certain images of Ukrainian cities which must be condemned in the strongest terms possible, and the resultant presumption of extremely serious crimes, it is imperative to allow the competent UN mechanisms to investigate the facts on the ground neutrally and impartially in order to do justice to all the victims” was the declaration made at the time by Nadir Larbaui, Algerian ambassador to the United Nations. On 18 April, the official Algerian Press Agency (APS) reported that Presidents Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Vladimir Putin had had a phone conversation – at the latter’s initiative – which enabled them, among other things, to “express their mutual satisfaction with the progress achieved with their bilateral cooperation in every area.” It has proven impossible to learn more, yet there is no doubt but what the repeated Algerian expressions of goodwill vis-à-vis the European Union had begun to worry the Kremlin, whence that phone call from its touchy tenant.
And it followed logically enough that Sergei Lavrov should also travel to Algiers on 10 May to sign “a new document serving as a basis for bilateral relations between Russia and Algeria” and replacing de facto “the declaration of strategic cooperation” adopted in 2001. There is no doubt about it: Moscow, which pays tribute in passing to Algeria’s “wise and objective position regarding developments in Ukraine” has decided not to relinquish the Algerian territory to its adversaries. President Tebboune has in fact been officially invited to Moscow by his Russian counterpart. This being the case, two questions come to mind: in the event this war should be a lasting affair, will Algeria be capable of durably replacing Russian gas? And if so, how long will the Kremlin tolerate this activity?
The stakes in Western Sahara
If Algeria must reassure its Russian partner, Morocco feels obliged to do the same vis-à-vis the Western powers which did not appreciate Rabat’s empty chair policy in the two UN General Assembly votes. While that strategy was viewed as a laughing matter for many Moroccan net surfers – “Every time there is a vote, our ambassador is stuck in the lift or the loo” – one of them posted on 8 April after Russia was suspended from the Human Rights Commission – , but it also forced Rabat to speak out, but without really giving any explanation. On 2 March, the date of the first resolution, a joint press release from the Foreign Ministry and the community of Moroccans abroad, stated that this failure to vote should not be interpreted in any way. The kingdom “recalled its firm commitment to the principles of territorial integrity, sovereignty and national unity of all the member states of the UN” and its diplomats stressed the fact that their country’s decision was that of a “sovereign nation” and that it would “contribute financially to the humanitarian efforts” of the UN. In the wake of these declarations, several officials put forward the notion of “positive neutrality” taking account first and foremost of Morocco’s strategic interests.
These are what prevents Rabat from alienating Russia, for at least two reasons. The first involves the issue of Western Sahara. It is essential for the Kingdom to keep on good terms with Russia to prevent its throwing all its weight behind the Algerian position. True enough, Sergei Lavrov has repeated often enough that his country opposes “any unilateral decision concerning the conflict between the Polisario Front and Morocco” and that Russia has no intention of falling into line with the United States which, under Donald Trump, recognised the Sahara’s “Moroccan character”. But what Moroccan diplomacy does not want is that Russia should firmly support the Algerian initiative aimed at reviving the UN process for settling that dispute with a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi peoples or a Moscow veto against the proposal that Morocco hopes to see one day adopted by the UN, definitively enshrining its control over the Western Sahara (autonomy but under Moroccan sovereignty). In other words, the idea is to avoid driving the Russians into Algerian (and Polisarian) arms.
The second reason is economic. Since the beginning of the new century, globalisation has upset the Maghreb’s trade balance. While for many years the private preserve of Western interests, especially French ones, the area has now considerably varied its sources of supply. As the years go by, Russia has become one of the Kingdom’s vital suppliers of raw materials. In a country where agriculture accounts for 14% of the GDP, they have no way of doing without Russian organic and mineral fertilisers, paper pulp or petrochemical products. Armaments to the side, Morocco is Russia’s number one trade partner, the latter displaying a surplus of 780 million dollars in their bilateral exchanges. Not a good idea to antagonise a supplier of that order whose products are felt to be more vital for the Kingdom’s industrial diversification as they are cheaper than those of their Western competitors. And it is just too bad if this annoys the Ukrainians, who have a long history of trade with the Maghreb, especially supplying it with grain and other food products. President Volodymyr Zelensky is fully aware of this and has dismissed Oksana Vasilyeva, his country’s ambassadress to Morocco. “There are those who work to help Ukraine defend itself and fight for its future and those who waste their time clinging to their jobs. I signed a first decree recalling such a person, our ambassadress in Morocco,” the Ukrainian chief of State declared in a video message posted on 30 March.
Rabat has also been criticised by Western diplomats like Pekka Hyvönen, the Finnish ambassador in Rabat who tweeted on 24 March that he regretted the absence of a Moroccan vote at the UN. “Mauritania voted in favour of the humanitarian resolution. Morocco was absent as for the vote condemning the Russian invasion. History will show that justice will prevail.” This angered many Moroccan net surfers and the ambassador was obliged to remove his message.
Finally, the United States also attempted to alter the Moroccan position. Wendy Sherman, Undersecretary of State and Anthony Blinken both went to Rabat (respectively on 8 and 29 March), but it made little difference. Their Moroccan counterparts were inflexible as regards the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, while emphasising the concrete advances accomplished in relations between the Kingdom and Israel. A subject which ought to be worth some indulgence from the US. As for their relations with Europe, the Sahara issue remains the key to that equation. In the words of foreign policy chief Nasser Bourita, Rabat demands of Europeans a gesture which would involve coming out of their “comfort zone”. Otherwise, Morocco will stick to its line of “positive neutrality” towards Moscow.