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Moscow mounts a military show in the desert

President Tebboune's anti-terror mission with Russian forces unsettles Morocco and European governments 

Sending some important diplomatic signals, Algeria's joint anti-terrorist drills with Russian troops – known as Desert Shield 2022 – in the Bechar region near the border with Morocco will run until 28 November.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova insists the drills are not directed against third parties, a reference to Algeria's Cold War with its neighbour Morocco over the status of Western Sahara.

Algeria, one of Russia's closest African allies since its anti-colonial struggle against France, has repeatedly refused to criticise Moscow's invasion of Ukraine (AC Vol 62 No 6, Mutual distrust & Vol 63 No 9, Navigating through the fog of cold war).

Reports of a US$11 billion arms contract being negotiated between Algeria and Moscow have encouraged western politicians to step up scrutiny of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune's government. The mooted contract prompted 17 European Parliament members to follow the lead set in September by a group of 27 bipartisan United States Congress members and demand sanctions against Algeria in a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The letter warns of 'deep concern' at the North African country's close political and economic ties to Russia, and notes that Tebboune's government is 'among the top four buyers of Russian arms worldwide, culminating with a more than €7 billion arms deal in 2021'.

This is little more than a warning shot by the EU lawmakers. The European Commission in Brussels is struggling to manage its fraying relations with North Africa. Algeria and Morocco, at loggerheads over Western Sahara, share a mutual scepticism towards the European Union.

Morocco benefited from its diplomatic deals over Western Sahara with the US under the Donald Trump administration while its relations with France have deteriorated since 2020.

With its longstanding support for Western Sahara's independence from Rabat, Algeria is also frustrated by the EU's position. Now it is using the energy crisis to ratchet up the pressure.

Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in February prompted several EU officials to travel to Algiers to negotiate gas deals to replace lost supplies from Russia. Last month, EU energy commissioner Kadri Simson said that the bloc had a 'long-term strategic partnership' with Algeria during a visit to Algiers.

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