Algeria and Russia began their first joint military exercises on Algerian soil amid Western concerns over Moscow’s deepening ties with the North African nation that’s a key energy supplier for Europe.
The Desert Shield anti-terrorism training began Wednesday in the sparsely-populated Bechar province, near Algeria’s border with long-time rival Morocco, the Russian state news service Sputnik reported.
An OPEC member on the Mediterranean, Algeria has been thrust into the limelight of international diplomacy this year as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sends Europe scouring the region for replacement natural gas and oil. French, Spanish and Italian leaders have visited Algiers several times this year to secure or boost shipments.
But as Algeria bolsters its links with Europe it’s also intensifying cooperation with Russia. About 80 soldiers from each country are participating in the drills that’ll last until Nov. 28. It follows similar training in Russia last year, and come a month after joint naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean.
Algeria sells the vast bulk of its oil and gas to Europe and before the war was its biggest supplier after Russia and Norway. At the same time, Russia is Algeria’s biggest arms supplier, with defense ties that go back to the era of the Soviet Union.
The Arab nation gets close to 80% of its weapons imports from Russia and is the third-biggest buyer of such arms after India and China, according to the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, which conducts research on the defense industry.
Algeria is considering signing a new long-term arms deal with Russia worth as much as $17 billion for the purchase of submarines, Su-57 stealth fighters and other warplanes and advanced air-defense systems including the S-400, Russian state channel RT reported Oct. 31.
The 10-year contract may be finalized during a visit to Moscow in December by Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, it said, citing Africa Intelligence, a newsletter published from Paris.
The current tensions “are only pushing us closer together,” said Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Middle East expert, referring to Algeria and Russia. “Algeria is refusing to adopt an anti-Russian stance.”
The US and Morocco earlier this year staged part of their regular African Lion military drills close to the Algerian border.
Aligning itself with countries such as Cuba and China, Algeria abstained twice this year from voting on UN resolutions condemning the war in Ukraine and the annexation of parts of its territory. In turn, Russia has opted for a neutral stance regarding the dispute over Western Sahara — a former Spanish colony that Morocco claims in a stand off with the Algeria-supported Polisario Front.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio and a bi-partisan group of US lawmakers in September urged the Biden administration to impose sanctions against Algeria over the Russian arms purchases.
Russia says the military exercises with Algeria are “routine” and are “not aimed against any third country,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement in September.
Still, the drills are an easy way to “make a pro-Algerian gesture,” said Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow. “Morocco is closely associated with the US and its allies — this costs us nothing.”