Is Wagner driving a wedge between Russia and Algeria?

The two countries’ relationship goes back decades and they often see eye-to-eye, but on the issue of Russia’s mercenary activities in Algeria’s southerly and easterly neighbours, they are at odds.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune deliver a statement following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 15, 2023.
Mikhail METZEL / AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune deliver a statement following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 15, 2023.

Is Wagner driving a wedge between Russia and Algeria?

Having held important government and diplomatic positions since the 1970s, Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf has been around the block. Now, at the age of 70 and still at the heart of power in Algiers, he knows when it is safe to say something. He evidently judged it safe to say that Algeria and Russia had spoken about concerns in Algiers about the Russian paramilitary mercenary group Wagner, which remains active in the Sahel, to Algeria’s south, and in Libya, to Algeria’s east.

Although Algeria buys three-quarters of its weapons from Russia, it is steadfast in its commitment to non-alignment, hence its continued refusal to let the Russians use its Mers-el-Kébir naval base. Algeria and Russia have a longstanding and deep relationship underpinned by arms sales. Algeria has one of Africa’s biggest militaries, with advanced Russian technology, including stealth fighter jets and modern air defence systems.

Between 2016 and 2020, Algeria spent $4.2bn on Russian arms. In 2021, after Algeria’s Chief of Staff visited Moscow, it was reported that Algiers would spend $7bn more, including on Sukhoi 57 and Sukhoi 34 aircraft. This led to calls in the US to impose sanctions. It makes Algeria Russia’s third biggest defence client, after India and China. Moscow wants to keep its best customers happy, so it will listen to Algiers' objections to the presence of Wagner fighters near its borders.

Russia in Africa

Putin described Algeria as “friendly” at the Valdai Discussion Club, an international forum, at its recent meeting in Sochi, yet the North African country is worried. It borders seven countries, including several where there has been a recent coup d’etat. In recent years, Moscow has worked to establish special military forces in the heart of the African continent, in part to counter US and European influence there. Media reports suggest that 50,000 trained soldiers could be involved.

More broadly, Algeria objects to any foreign intervention in the Sahel-Saharan region, even under the pretext of fighting terrorism, arguing that all recent examples have been a dismal failure since terrorism remains rife.

Protesters in Agadez against the US military presence in Niger on April 21, 2023.

The argument is made by senior Algerian figures, including Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Said Chengriha, and will likely have been made in Moscow in June 2023 by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune when he met Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Still, it is unusual for someone like Attaf to disclose private conversations between two countries, telling the media that he personally addressed the matter with his Kremlin counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Attaf also revealed that the two countries had agreed to set up a joint mechanism involving diplomats and security personnel to monitor the situation.

It is to be jointly headed by Algeria’s Lounes Magramane, the secretary-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Russia’s Mikhail Bogdanov, deputy minister of Foreign Affairs and Putin's personal envoy. The committee, which is expected to meet soon, will focus on the Wagner Group’s presence in the region. The Algerians think Wagner’s presence may be a threat to stability and development in the Sahel, so they are being proactive.

Reading between the lines

Nour Al-Sabah Aknoush, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Biskra, said Algeria pressing Moscow over Wagner should be seen in a wider context, as it seeks to guard against hostile foreign parties. International powers are intensifying their struggle for influence in the Sahel, but Algeria is determined to keep it under control.

Aknoush thinks the country wants to “frame the limits of (Wagner’s) activity without compromising the security and stability of neighbouring countries”. She said: “Algeria fears that (Wagner) will be employed by parties hostile to the country to compromise its security and stability through means such as drugs, illegal immigration, arms smuggling, etc.”

Aknoush added that “any decision regarding the region's future must be made in coordination with Algeria”, given its historic and strategic role. For her colleague Fouad Jeddou, another politics professor at the same university, Attaf’s statements “can be read from several angles”. One of these is “Algeria’s categorical refusal to grant military bases to Western countries to pursue terrorist groups in the Sahel, especially in Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso”. Algeria fears the bases would attract trouble.

Algeria fears that (Wagner) will be employed by parties hostile to the country to compromise its security.

Nour Al-Sabah Aknoush, politics professor

Problems and interests

The Algerian army already faced challenges securing its land borders, especially in the south, with terrorists and smugglers both innovative. Since the coup in Mali, however, the situation has deteriorated. The two countries' security coordination has ceased. For Algiers, this reflects regional transformations and represents a security threat.

According to Jeddou, it seems that Russia "will not pursue a fait accompli policy" in the Sahel, while Algeria "realises that requesting a formal withdrawal is not possible due to the overlapping interests of Western powers". The military coups in Sahel countries like Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso have "made Algeria deal with the issue with great caution to preserve its national security," said Jeddou.

Others think Algeria seeks to protect its efforts and interests in the Sahel, including development prospects like the Trans-Saharan Highway (TSH) and the Trans-Saharan Fibre Optic Coaxial Link project. While the TSH would connect Algeria, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Mali, and Mauritania, Algeria is also trying to open sea lines for transporting goods with Nouakchott in Mauritania, Dakar in Senegal, and other West African ports.

Some analysts, like Adnan Mahtali, think Algeria's diplomatic overture may relate to the restive Azawad region, where Mali's government and Wagner mercenaries were recently accused of killing unarmed civilians. Azawad is the region that borders southern Algeria, where ethnic Tuareg Berber rebels have been fighting for independence. Algeria has repeatedly warned against foreign military intervention in the dispute.

Profiting from instability

Mahtali said Wagner was "a major threat to the stability of the region" in part because of "the bloody and selective methods it employs" in areas like northern Mali. "The situation may deteriorate further, potentially hindering international mediation." The Wagner Group, a formerly private enterprise now under the control of Russia's military intelligence service (the GRU), is militarily active in up to half a dozen African states, including Libya, with political and/or economic influence in a dozen more.

"It has similar objectives to the French Foreign Legion, and its tasks include the preservation of Russian interests in Africa, particularly in the Sahel," said Mahtali. Now that the Russian state controls Wagner, the group's actions amount to a new foreign entity seeking a foothold in African countries, replacing the security once provided by French forces, Algeria's old colonial masters.

Although the Wagner fighters are often hired to enhance a state's own military provision, the mercenaries have a habit of raising their own parallel army, as they did in the Central African Republic (CAR), with its 5,000-strong force. An astonishing figure published in a study in the Conflict and Health journal last year recorded 5.6% of CAR's population having been killed by fighting in 2022, with Wagner's involvement playing a part in that.

Algeria's rulers want quiet and stable neighbours. They fear that Wagner's involvement creates the opposite. No wonder Mr Attaf felt the need to comment.

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