Russia and Algeria are conducting joint military manoeuvres from 16 November to 28 November in the Hammaguir region of Bechar in northwestern Algeria, just over the border with Morocco, meaning that the Russian military is conducting activities on the doorstep of southern Europe at a time of proxy war between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the country presided over by Vladimir Putin sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Military ties between Algiers and Moscow have been intensifying in recent months with various military exercises between the two nations and with other countries, and are continuing to develop with the latest military manoeuvres in Bechar, which officially take the form of tactical anti-terrorist training, just 50 kilometres from the border with the Moroccan kingdom, which is Spain's neighbour and is located in the vicinity of the gateway to southern Europe. Moreover, it is a symbolic space because it is located on a former French army base on Algerian territory that was used for the development of ballistic weapons.
Western and NATO concerns were triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine decreed by President Vladimir Putin in February and have continued throughout these months as the conflict has continued. But concern may grow even more with the presence of Russian troops at the gates of southern Europe, while Russia continues to harass the eastern front over Ukraine.
Algeria comes into the picture here as possibly the most destabilising element of Russia's international concern. The phase of military cooperation between the North African country and Russia goes back a long way. In October 2021, the two countries conducted joint military exercises in North Ossetia, in which an Algerian contingent participated. In September 2022, a unit of 100 soldiers from the Algerian army took part in the Vostok 2022 exercises in the Russian Far East, involving a total of some 50,000 troops, 5,000 heavy weapons units, 140 aircraft and 60 ships. In addition, naval military exercises between the Russian and Algerian armed forces have been conducted regularly over the past two years.
Russian-Algerian cooperation is intense, the latest example being the military exercises in Bechar. Shortly before these exercises, the head of Russia's Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, Dmitrii Chougaev, travelled to Algeria where he met with the chief of the General Staff of the Algerian National People's Army, Saïd Chengriha, on 10 November 2022.
This visit consolidated relations between the two armies, as it took place against the backdrop of the 120 per cent increase in Algeria's defence budget, from 10 billion dollars to 23 billion by 2023, which, according to Moroccan media, turns the area into a "powder keg". This could also have been an important attraction for Russia, which may see Algeria as a prominent military partner and an important source of income to be able to obtain part of this budget from the sale of Russian arms, income that could be earmarked for the war campaign in Ukraine, as various experts have pointed out.
According to various experts, the concern is widespread because the exercises in Bechar would send a message from Moscow to the West that Russia is capable of deploying its forces close to Western interests in the western Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, the Russian-Algerian partnership may differ from the official Algerian discourse that has been advocating non-alignment and neutrality as there is cooperation with a country that is currently at war in the heart of Europe and has faced opposition and sanctions of all kinds from much of the West and the international community.
Russia can use its presence in Algeria, a short distance from the gateway to southern Europe, as a threat and a demarcation line between the Western zone of influence and that of the former socialist clan; here it is worth recalling that, in the Cold War era, Algeria was a country aligned with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as it had a single party system as in the communist countries of the Soviet orbit.
Algeria's alignment with Russian positions is seen from various quarters as detrimental to Western geopolitical interests. Western countries should therefore review their strategies and partnerships with Algeria. The North African country is playing both sides of the Atlantic because it continues to benefit from its energy contracts with the West, as it is a major global gas supplier, while at the same time it continues to increase its military cooperation with Moscow.