Algeria and Russia are strategic partners. There has been understanding and harmony between the parties since the Cold War and, despite the ups and downs, their relations have always enjoyed a certain stability. The initial political ties eventually gave way to the establishment of security and defence ties. This explains why Algiers has become Moscow's third largest arms customer over the past decade.
In the last three years alone, the North African country has imported more than 80% of its equipment from Russia and has been a regular participant in the Kremlin's military exercises, the most recent of which was organised in September last year in eastern Russia, known as Vostok 2022.
In the arms race between Algeria and Morocco, neighbours at loggerheads over hegemony in the Maghreb and the Western Sahara dispute, Russia opted for its Algerian partner. It took into account the unequivocal backing of the United States for the Alawite kingdom, a preferred ally in North Africa.
But Algeria, jealous of its sovereignty, is trying to establish its own profile in foreign policy matters, and does not seem willing to bow to Moscow's tutelage.
Even less so in a context in which its economy has been strengthened precisely because of the energy disconnection from Russia implemented by its EU partners since the invasion of Ukraine, which has made it a solid gas alternative for Europe.
These factors have not so far had an impact on Russian-Algerian relations, which have remained fluid. Indeed, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had planned to make an official visit to Moscow before the end of the year to meet with Vladimir Putin. But the trip did not take place in time for reasons that the El Mouradia Palace has not detailed, in what could be a further sign that Algiers' and Moscow's agendas are drifting apart.
In an unusual recent interview with the centre-right French daily Le Figaro, Tebboune assured that he would "soon" visit Russia. But when asked about his country's position on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Algerian president replied that he "neither supports nor condemns" the Kremlin's roadmap, proof that Algiers intends to maintain its neutrality in the conflict.
"Algeria is a non-aligned country and I adhere to this philosophy", said Abdelaziz Bouteflika's successor, who took the opportunity to make it clear that "no one can ever turn Algeria into his satellite".
Tebboune did not hesitate to criticise the actions of his Russian ally in neighbouring Mali. "The money that this presence costs would be better placed and more useful if it were allocated to the development of the Sahel [...], if it were invested in economic projects", he said, referring to the presence in the country of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, whose landing in Bamako, in collusion with the Malian military authorities, has further destabilised Algeria's "backyard".
The private military company, closely linked to Kremlin interests, has been implicated in serious human rights violations.
The Algerian leader wanted to send a message to Russia. It is not the first wake-up call the Kremlin has received from its partner in recent months. In November, joint military exercises planned by the two armies in the province of Bechar, near the border with Morocco, did not take place. The Algerian Defence Ministry issued a terse statement on television to announce that the training operation, called Desert Shield and focused on counter-terrorism in the Sahel, had "not taken place".
Russia's state-run Sputnik news agency had reported the launch of Operation Desert Shield. Algiers, which at no point confirmed the manoeuvres, remained silent in early December, when they had allegedly ended, to deny the facts.
Behind Algeria's recent moves may be the hand of France and the United States. Washington's ambassador to the North African country has recently held several meetings with senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Army General Staff, headed by Algerian strongman General Saïd Chengriha. In early December, US diplomat Brett McGurk, the White House Middle East and North Africa coordinator, also visited Algiers and was received by Tebboune himself.