With the world’s attention focused on the question of Russian influence in the United States and the European Union, the Kremlin is quietly making inroads in another region critical to both the United States and Europe: the five North African states of the southern Mediterranean shore.
Russian and Algerian officials gathered at a St. Petersburg shipyard last month to shatter a champagne bottle on the first of two so-called Black Hole submarines built for the Algerian navy. The same day, news broke that Russia had deployed special forces and drones to a Soviet-era base in western Egypt to bolster a militia leader in neighboring Libya. Late last year, the secretary of Moscow’s national security council traveled to Morocco, where the king invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to repay the visit he had made to Moscow earlier in the year. And in Tunisia, where Russian tourism jumped tenfold in 2016, the Kremlin signed a deal last autumn to build a nuclear power plant.
Egypt, the world’s largest Arab state, was the jewel in the Soviets’ Middle East crown until it defected to the U.S. camp in the late 1970s, serving as Washington’s most important North African ally ever since. Cairo, however, began systematically expanding its ties with Russia soon after General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The administration of Barack Obama, wary of Cairo’s heavy-handed tactics to stamp out dissent, kept some distance from Sisi, who then turned to Russia to help fill the void. In 2015, Putin traveled to Cairo, where the streets were lined with banners bearing his image, and he returned the favor by presenting Sisi with a new Kalashnikov.
In October 2016, Egypt voted with Russia against a UN Security Council resolution that sought to end air strikes in Syria—a vote denounced across the Arab world as a bid to curry favor with Moscow. Weeks later, the two nations held their first-ever joint military drill, which they named Defenders of Friendship. Now, Cairo and Moscow are said to be weeks away from finalizing an agreement on a nuclear-power reactor outside of Alexandria. Russia is slated to begin delivering nearly 50 Alligator attack helicopters to Egypt this year and a similar number of twin-engine Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter jets in 2020—the largest such deal since the two countries’ Cold War alliance.
Next door in Libya, Russia’s policy centers on General Khalifa Haftar, a strongman whose eastern-based Libyan National Army is aligned against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), other Islamist militias, and the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. Haftar has taken multiple trips to Moscow over the past year to seek Russian military support, and in January he took the unusual step of boarding Russia’s lone aircraft carrier as it sailed home from Syria. Onboard, he reportedly signed an agreement with Russian officials to allow their forces to operate in areas of Libya under his control—as they apparently did last month. According to General Thomas Waldhauser, the top U.S. commander for Africa, Russian troops’ presence in Libya is “undeniable”: “They are on the ground, they are trying to influence the action, [and] we watch what they do with great concern.”
Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the Tripoli-based rival government, also visited Moscow last month to meet with Russia’s foreign minister, but the Kremlin is clearly throwing in its lot with Haftar, a general under former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Putin opposed NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, favoring the reliable despotism of Qaddafi to a power vacuum that emboldens rebel groups whom he uniformly dismisses as terrorists.
Moscow also has economic interests in Libya. Igor Sechin, the chairman of Russia’s state-owned Rosneft energy giant and a close ally of Putin, met in February with the head of Libya’s state oil company and agreed to cooperate on rebuilding the country’s war-ravaged energy sector. Libya has Africa’s largest oil reserves—before the 2011 civil war, it produced 1.65 million barrels per day, most of which was exported to Europe.
No less important, Libya is a major point along the central Mediterranean route through which migrants reach Europe. According to the European Union, as many as 90 percent of migrants to Europe today come through Libya. With its increasingly tight bonds to Libya, Moscow can use mass migration as leverage against Europe. Turkey—another refugee gateway—raises the prospect of a refugee influx into the EU to wring concessions from Brussels, and Moscow could play the Libya card the same way.
To Libya’s west, Tunisia may seem to have little to offer Moscow. But after flights from Russia to Egypt and Turkey were halted following the downing of a Russian civilian airliner and a military jet in those countries, the diminutive nation became a popular alternative for tourism. Russia is now Tunisia’s top source of tourists, and a vital income stream for a country dependent on the tourism industry but that is still reeling from the 2015 terrorist attacks.
There is, of course, nothing nefarious about Russian holidaymakers in Tunisia, but a tourist influx does pave the ground for Moscow to make economic inroads. Restaurant menus in Cyrillic are increasingly common in Tunisia and local hotel workers are learning Russian. According to Russian media, the two sides have even discussed conducting bilateral trade in rubles and Tunisian dinars rather than dollars or euros. Last year, in addition to the nuclear reactor deal, Russia promised to provide Tunis with helicopters to fight Islamic State and al Qaeda.
Neighboring Algeria, a longtime buyer of Russian weapons, is another growth market for the Kremlin. In 2014, the two sides signed an estimated $1 billion deal in which Algeria would use kits from Moscow’s state arms supplier to build 200 tanks. One Russian military expert described the agreement as “possibly the largest export contract for main battle tanks in the world.” Last year, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra welcomed his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Algiers, which has already begun receiving an order of 14 Sukhoi SU-30 fighter jets. Finally, Algeria will accept two Russian Tigr-class corvette ships armed with Russian cruise missiles this year,and next year, it will receive the two Black Hole submarines.
Last on Russia’s North Africa charm offensive is Morocco, Washington’s most important North African ally after Egypt. Morocco’s king visited Putin last year, signing a declaration of “Deep Strategic Partnership” and agreements on counterterrorism and energy, and—in the Kremlin’s odd phrasing—“cooperation in Islam.” Then in December, the secretary of Russia’s national security council—a close Putin ally who formerly headed the FSB intelligence agency—visited the kingdom, during which the king extended a personal invitation for Putin to do the same. Morocco aims for a fivefold rise in Russian tourism over the coming years, and in February a close adviser to the king told Russian media that Rabat seeks closer cooperation on the migrant crisis.
None of this suggests that Russia is engaged in geopolitical subterfuge—like Washington, it seeks to exert its diplomatic, economic, and security influence wherever it can. But amid the migrant crisis, the threat of international terrorism, and the lingering turbulence of the Arab Spring, North Africa is a region of the utmost consequence to Washington and its European allies. For the new U.S. administration, a comprehensive Russia policy will have to grapple with a Kremlin flexing its muscles not just in the United States and Europe but increasingly on the Mediterranean’s southern shore.