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How long can Algeria's neutrality in the Ukraine war last?

Algiers has interests in keeping good relations with Moscow and the West, but Putin prolonging the conflict could change the calculation.

Analysis | Europe

Rooted in a 1970s-era approach to global affairs based on non-alignment, Algeria’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unsurprising.

While wanting to upset neither the Kremlin nor the West, Algeria has been neutral in this conflict. The situation in Ukraine, which dangerously escalates tensions between Russia — Algeria’s strategic partner and main arms supplier — and the North African country’s Western partners, is a major test for Algerian non-alignment on the international stage.

When Washington sought to rally the international community against Moscow at the United Nations General Assembly in early March, Algeria was the one Arab state that abstained from the US-drafted resolution. Subsequently, the Algerians have taken neutral positions at the UN on other votes concerning the Russian invasion.

“Algeria’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was tepid,” Geoffrey Porter, the CEO of North Africa Risk Consulting, told Responsible Statecraft. “It does not view itself as a party to the conflict and therefore it has not staked out a position.” Although this approach has effectively served Algerian interests, the longer this conflict rages on, Algeria will find neutrality harder to maintain.

Some Western pundits and lawmakers in Washington accuse Algeria of backing Russia in this war. Although Algiers and Moscow maintain a robust Cold War-era partnership, Algeria has not aligned with Russia and the two countries do not see eye-to-eye on the conflict.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stating in May that Moscow understands Algeria’s stance, rather than expressing support for it, illustrated this point. According to William Lawrence, a professor of political science at American University, the statement “means Algeria was privately critical of what was going on but wasn’t going to go any further than private criticism."

Algeria’s state and society are highly sensitive about maintaining independence on the international stage. Although the Russians do not want to see Algeria uphold its energy agreements with European powers (let alone help them amid the ongoing global energy crisis), Algiers is choosing to play a role that is useful to Western powers amid this war. Algeria, unlike Iran and North Korea, has in no way supported Russia’s rogue behavior in Ukraine. By the same token, Algeria has not bowed to Western pressure to end its dealings with Russia, nor taken official stances against Moscow over Ukraine.

“Algiers has an opportunity here, and to some degree pursued it, to really kind of explore and signal to Europe and Western capitals what neutrality looks like,” Lawrence told Responsible Statecraft.

The extent to which Algeria has maintained close ties with Moscow is not an outcome of Algiers necessarily having any affinity for Russia. Rather, it is about widespread suspicions among Algerians toward France and other NATO members’ intentions.

The Western Sahara issue is always central to Algerian foreign policy decision-making. Algiers views growing Western support for Morocco on this front as problematic and reason to safeguard strong relations with Russia despite Moscow not necessarily being too supportive of Algeria on this file. Algiers believes it must continue buying Russian arms while feeling increasingly threatened by the situation in Western Sahara and Moroccan-Israeli normalization.

The Ukraine war has in some ways served Algeria’s interests. Europe’s post-February 24 energy dilemmas have increased Algeria’s strategic importance to the West while EU members work to wean themselves off Russian hydrocarbons.

Algerian natural gas exports to Italy have risen 20 percent this year. Earlier this month, the Italian energy giant ENI stated that it expects a doubling of Italian imports of Algerian gas by 2024 and a 50 percent increase in Algeria’s gas exports to France is possible.

Slovenia too has turned to Algeria for help staying warm this winter. Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon and Infrastructure Minister Bojan Kumer went to Algeria earlier this month to secure a deal between Sonatrach (Algeria’s national state-owned oil company) and Geoplin (Slovenia's largest distributor of natural gas) whereby Algeria will cover one third of the Central European country’s gas needs for the upcoming three years beginning on January 1, 2023.

Yet, this hasn’t harmed Algerian-Russian relations. “It is being feted by European capitals like never before and this is with its ongoing ties to Moscow,” said Porter. “Algeria has been a beneficiary of the conflict without having to compromise its foreign policy principles.”

Algeria’s refusal to align with the West against Russia, however, has caused some officials in the United States to call for imposing sanctions on Algiers. In September, Republican lawmakers led by Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.) demanded that the United States punish Algeria under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. McClain accused Algiers of “diplomatic support for Putin's tyrannical regime.” While the official reason is Algeria’s large purchases of Russian weapons, American officials are also unhappy with Algiers’ support for rehabilitating the Syrian government and opposition to the Abraham Accords.

Yet, the Biden administration likely would not take such action against Algeria, which cooperates with Washington on counterterrorism and other areas.

“There is a distinction between legislators in Washington and foreign policy professionals,” explained Porter. “The latter are more familiar with the peculiarities of Algeria’s foreign policy engagements. They place Algeria’s foreign policy in a broader geographic and historical context and are less likely to respond to temporal developments. As for lawmakers, they are more prone to trying to score quick political points rather than forge lasting ties that advance U.S. foreign policy interests. For that reason, their calls for sanctions on Algeria will fall on deaf ears in President Biden’s State Department.”

Lawrence said the only way these sanctions would move forward “is if Algeria materially helps the Russian war in Ukraine, which they are not going to do.” 

Moreover, it’s unlikely that U.S. sanctions would change Algeria’s relationship with Russia. Instead, it could breed growing Algerian suspicions about the United States and mounting concerns about the influence of Moroccan lobbyists in Washington. “Algiers will remain close to Moscow,” Dalia Ghanem, a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told Responsible Statecraft. “The sanctions [imposed by] the United States, if they pass, will not change anything. On the opposite, this will antagonize Algeria further and this will not be good news for the United States which still needs [Algeria as an] ally in the Sahel and in the counterterrorism field.”

Nonetheless, Russia can’t take for granted Algeria’s refusal to downgrade relations with Moscow or even criticize Putin’s government, particularly if Russia decides to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. One legacy of France testing them in Algeria between 1960 and 1966 and causing irreversible contamination in the region, which has negatively impacted the Algerian public to this day, is Algeria’s strong stance against nuclear weapons.

It wouldn’t necessarily take nuclear weapons to make Algeria shift its position on the war in Ukraine. The conflict prolonging with continued Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure and innocent Ukrainians could perhaps cause Algeria’s perspective on the conflict to evolve. There is an inherent contradiction between Algeria’s sovereigntist governance doctrine, which rests on the principle of standing up for nation-states’ sovereign rights, and its refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion and theft of Ukrainian land.

Within this context, growing sympathy for Ukrainians — especially the country’s Muslim minority — could trigger some sensitivities among Algerians that may later manifest in either official or unofficial positions that are more supportive of Kyiv. As the Arab country that is most involved in the UN as an international institution, more documentation of Russian atrocities in Ukraine could prompt Algerian officials to call out Russia for its rogue conduct.

Lawrence pointed to the history of Algeria’s positioning toward the 1992-95 Bosnian civil war — another European conflict that impacted Islamic sensitives in Algeria — as possibly a guide when considering how Algiers might evolve its stance on the war in Ukraine.

Ultimately, Algeria would welcome peace in Ukraine, but Algiers has thus far refrained from making comments against Moscow. Yet, as the Ukrainian civilian death toll continues rising with fears of this conflict further spilling into other European countries, the possibility of Algeria beginning to publicly condemn Russian aggression can’t be ruled out. For now, however, Algeria has focused on ways of increasing its geo-economic importance to the West without antagonizing Russia, believing that continued non-alignment serves Algeria’s national interests.

Image: alexfan32 via shutterstock.com
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