The winds of crisis are blowing in Europe and the world. The current crisis in the East has not been resolved and everything suggests that, whatever happens, the aftermath will last for years or decades. Russia's gamble will undoubtedly not help the West regain confidence, if it ever had any, in a country that every day seems more and more like the heir to the Soviet Union or even the tsarist empire. Perhaps because its aspiration is something akin to a mixture of both eras. But what cannot be denied is that the extent of the consequences of what, even today, as we write these lines, is yet to happen, cannot yet be calculated. But everything suggests that it will be decisive and that it will contribute to a new configuration of the world's geopolitical landscape.
And while there are those in Spain who believe that Ukraine, the Donbas and Russia are a long way from us, we should not allow ourselves to be carried away by this illusion. The consequences will be felt in this corner of the Mediterranean as much, if not more, than anywhere else. It has been repeated many times that conflicts are interconnected in one way or another, the communicating vessels between them are frequent, and economic consequences often flow through one of these vessels.
One thing that cannot be overlooked is that Spain's geographic location gives it a fundamental geostrategic character, with all the positive aspects that this entails if one knows how to play this trump card well, and with the negative aspects when it comes to receiving the impact of apparently distant crises. In this scenario, the long-standing alliance between the former Soviet Union and Algeria, maintained and subsequently strengthened by Russia, is of vital importance in the current scenario.
While military cooperation has been the traditional focus of relations between the two countries, economic relations have undergone a discreet evolution in line with common priorities and interests. These relations date back to Soviet times, although the Soviet Union was cautious in the early stages of Algeria's independence. A clear example of this early stance is Nikita Khrushchev's statement to the first president of an independent Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella: "We cannot maintain a second Cuba; you have a good partner, General de Gaulle, keep him".
A decade later, Algeria, despite remaining among the group of "non-aligned" countries, already had very good relations with Moscow, which were mainly manifested in the supply of Soviet military materiel in the context of high tensions with Morocco. By the end of the 1970s, 90% of Algeria's military equipment was of Russian origin.
But relations between the two states went beyond the mere acquisition of weapons systems. The Soviet Union contributed to the development of Algeria's mining sector and financed the opening of training centres and universities that attracted not only young Algerians but also young people from other Arab and African countries. As a result, large numbers of engineers and professionals of all kinds, including army officers, benefited from the training provided by the Soviets, and this was accompanied by a significant cultural exchange in the form of intermarriage and language learning.
Over time, the remnants of this USSR influence have dissipated and have become increasingly rare. However, professionals trained in this way rarely constituted part of the country's elite. To take just one example, the presidency of Sonatrach, an oil company founded in 1963, was regularly held by US-trained engineers. Meanwhile, in the armed forces, the presence of high-ranking officers trained in the former USSR was significantly high. The current chief of staff, Said Chengriha, trained at the Voroshilov academy in the 1970s, and his predecessor, Ahmed Gaid Salah, who died in 2019, became the country's strongman after the latest popular uprisings (Hirak) and triggered Bouteflika's departure, also trained in the Soviet Union. The conclusion is that, of all Algeria's centres of power, it is in the armed forces that Soviet influence has lasted the longest.
To fully understand Russian-Algerian relations in all their complexity, beyond the myths of an unbreakable alliance, it is essential to look at three key sectors: energy, economic and trade, and arms, as well as two key issues, their common geopolitical stance and Russia's position on Hirak. This text aims to focus on the energy sector.
As far as oil is concerned, relations between Algeria and Russia can be reduced to relations between the Kremlin and OPEC, which are conditioned by two contradictory co-existing realities: on the one hand, a constant pulse fuelled by the role attributed to the organisation in the fall of the USSR, when in the 1980s it considerably increased production, causing a drop in prices that further undermined the Soviet Union's battered situation. And, on the other, the spectre of Russian membership. Since 1993 Russia has participated in OPEC meetings while reaffirming its independence; but the trust required for full participation has never materialised.
It is important not to lose sight of a very important fact that conditions Russia's behaviour in many scenarios, which is also related to its medium- to long-term aspirations in the Arctic area, taking into account that for Moscow to make oil extraction in this region profitable, the price of a barrel of crude oil must be above 80 dollars. As long as this is the case, dialogue with other oil-producing countries and the exchange of information is more than enough for Russian interests. However, until the outbreak of the current crisis in Ukraine this has not been the case, with prices dropping below $50 due to the fall in demand due to COVID 19 and the underlying crisis it has created, increasing the usual tensions between the organisation and Russia. But it is clear that at least as far as crude oil is concerned the situation has changed, and the same is true for gas.
Algeria is, like Russia, a major gas producer, and both have Europe as their main customer. This, although at first glance it may seem to make them competitors, transforms them into allies. Although in recent years it has been taking steps to exploit fracking gas, for which it has even had the support of US companies, Algeria has shown a certain anxiety when it comes to multiplying its prospecting in search of this coveted resource and exploiting those already found, which has led it to relax legislation with the intention of attracting foreign investment from Europe and the US, but also from Russia. An example of the latter is the collaboration protocol signed in 2020 between Sonatrach and the Russian company Lukoil, although it is also true that this has not yet materialised into anything concrete.
Looking again at what is happening in Eastern Europe, and the implications of these relations, two scenarios can be established initially:
On the one hand, the diversification of Russian investment outside the orbit of countries that might at any given moment lend themselves to support the sanctions imposed on it for its actions in Ukraine is a smart move that could help Moscow to partially circumvent the consequences of these; taking into account the Russian mentality and how events have been unfolding, it cannot be ruled out, but rather is likely, that it is all part of the same plan. On the other hand, Russia needs to strengthen its economic relations, especially in the energy sector, in a country that traditionally belongs to its orbit and owes it so much, and which needs its support in its struggle with Morocco to be the dominant regional power, given its role as the second largest gas supplier to Europe. Russia can not only use Algeria as a disruptive element in US policies in North Africa, which rely mainly on Rabat, but can also, in a sense, take control of almost 90% of the gas supply needed by the European continent.
To better understand how Europe is linked to Russian interests, it is worth describing its current energy location. It is important to bear in mind that Europe lacks non-renewable sources of its own, which has led it to acquire a whole network of gas pipelines that make Russia its 40% supplier. In other words, Moscow is practically the sole supplier of all gas in countries such as Sweden and Finland, and of more than half in Central European countries.
Russia's energy expansion on the European continent began with South Stream, a pipeline that by 2018 could have exported 63 billion cubic metres per year to Western Europe, running under the Black Sea from the Russian port of Beregovaya to Bulgaria. The aim of this construction was precisely to be able to dispense with Ukraine as a transit country, but this initiative was never carried out, blaming the European Union for not having authorised the plan. After South Stream came the expansion of North Stream, which doubles its previous capacity with 12,000 km of pipeline and 55 billion cubic metres of gas per year. Thanks to this infrastructure crossing the Baltic Sea, Russia intended to secure its dependence on Germany, the main supplier.
Following Russia, the second largest gas supplier in the European Union is Norway, with 34.1% (Eurostat, 2016), while the third largest supplier - and the largest supplier to Spain, with 59% of gas, and other neighbours such as Portugal, Italy and France - is Algeria. Algeria is also the ninth largest gas exporter in the world, and has become a strategic partner for the European Union by forging a relationship of interdependence. However, this possible alternative to Russian gas presents a basic obstacle: the limitation of current infrastructures that prevents it from reaching the centre of the continent through underground pipelines. This is not the only challenge posed by Algerian gas, as its conflict with Morocco has led to the closure of the Maghreb Europe gas pipeline, from which 74% of the gas that Spain received used to arrive, leaving the Medgaz infrastructure as the only alternative at present.
Europe is therefore left without many more options for supplies, given that the gas from Iran and Azerbaijan that flows through Turkey, in addition to having a small percentage and being affected by the sanctions on Iran and the disputes between Turkey and Greece over gas fields, does not have a fully consolidated infrastructure for it.
Considering the consequences of the Ukraine-Russia war on gas supplies to Europe, it is important to analyse which countries are most likely to be affected in a scenario in which the pipeline from Russia is shut down. Finland and Latvia would lead the way, buying 94% and 93% respectively. Estonia, with 79%, and Bulgaria, with 77%, would also be in a delicate situation. However, what is most worrying is the impact this could have on the continent's most important economy, Germany, as it is Gazprom's main customer.
The European continent's proven energy dependence, mainly on Russia, makes Europe hostage to its needs, leaving it in the hands of a power whose economy depends in turn on the income it receives from oil and gas supplies. It is a spiral that could be seen as diabolical in the current circumstances, for while harsh sanctions are imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, countries such as Germany continue to buy Russian gas, thereby helping to sustain its economy. Similarly, Russia, in whose hands would be the possibility of creating serious difficulties, not for the population of much of Europe especially in winter, but for its own industry, would not be able to stop selling gas in retaliation for sanctions because of its need for such revenues. This is precisely where the other interests fuelling the conflict in Ukraine come in.
On top of all this, Russia's economic situation is not exactly the best. On the one hand, there is its excessive dependence on energy exports. On the other hand, its GDP per capita in 2020 was 67th in the ranking with 8,846 euros, which indicates that its inhabitants enjoy a standard of living that is not very favourable in relation to the rest of the 196 countries. If we take into account other data such as the Human Development Index or HDI, which is produced by the United Nations to measure a country's progress, it places Russia in 52nd place.
Therefore, any competitor in the supply of oil, but mainly gas to the European market, could have devastating effects on the Russian economy, and this is exactly where Ukraine comes into the equation, as it is the rapprochement to NATO, but mainly to the EU, that motivated the 2014 clashes, so the subsequent occupation of Crimea and eastern Donbas has much more geo-economic than any other background.
As can be seen in the graph, the entire eastern part of Ukraine, as well as the Black Sea area closest to the Crimean peninsula, is home to important deposits of all kinds of resources, mainly, once again, gas.
In a hypothetical scenario where a Ukraine free of Moscow's pressures would interact with the EU and with a horizon of EU membership, in the medium term it is clear that the possibility of putting oil and gas supplies on the table would be a fixed variable due to the benefits for Ukraine and what it would mean in terms of diversification of suppliers for the EU. In such a hypothetical situation only one element would be the clear loser: Russia. Add to this the possibility of future membership of the Atlantic Alliance, the scenario for Moscow would be untenable.
Putting all of the above into context, it is easier to find a more solid explanation for what is happening in Ukraine. The main elements of the conflict are the nationalist rhetoric, the appeal to patriotic sentiments with the return to better times and the unification of all Russian peoples, NATO as an aggressive organisation that does not live up to its commitments and seeks to override Russia by reaching its borders, and the economic motivation based on the possibility of losing huge amounts of revenue and the energy dependence of several countries.
The question that now needs to be answered is what the possible collateral damage might be. To this end, if we leave aside the possible consequences of the conflict itself, with the danger of escalation involving NATO as an organisation in the worst case scenario, the impact of this situation on North Africa and therefore on Spain cannot be ignored.
As discussed in the opening section of this paper, Algeria, a country of vital importance for Spain due to its proximity, its influence in controlling migratory flows, its essential collaboration in anti-terrorist matters and its status as our main gas supplier, is a country that can be considered to be in Russia's orbit. By contrast, Morocco, which is also key for Spain from a geopolitical, economic and security point of view, can be said not only to belong to the US orbit, but also to be a "preferential partner" of this country, although at the same time both are declared enemies. The unresolved issue of Western Sahara, which took an unexpected turn with the clear US position in favour of Morocco's thesis and an even more surprising one with the change in Spain's position, has kept the two countries at loggerheads for decades. But even more serious is the underlying confrontation between the two countries to establish themselves as the hegemonic regional power in North Africa. These tense relations have clearly deteriorated in recent years, leading to the start of a local arms race, which should be of serious concern to Spain.
All this suggests that, in the current context, Russia will have to use all its resources to continue fighting the Western bloc beyond its borders and those of Ukraine. Whatever the outcome of the current confrontation, it will continue to be active in other theatres, as it was during the Cold War years. In North Africa, a number of factors combine to make it the perfect scenario. Given the above, the ramifications of the conflict suggest that, due to Russia's interest in increasing its presence and influence in Africa, it will delegate control of gas supplies to Europe to Algeria, which is a country that is both akin to and at odds with Morocco, a loyal ally of the United States, and which could also lead to a more frequent presence of ships, and a hypothetical access to Algerian ports that would allow it to ensure its presence in the Mediterranean. On the other hand, instigating a confrontation between Algeria and Morocco by financing and arming the former so that it in turn transfers equipment and weapons to the Polisario Front would be another way of confronting the US and stopping it from gaining a foothold in North Africa.
Although the possibility of Algeria cutting off gas sales to Europe at any given moment is remote or practically impossible in any given scenario, a decrease in the flow of gas is possible, and such a simple decrease could have devastating effects both for our country and for the entire continent. It is also important to note that Russia is a master at the game of destabilisation, and there are numerous known actions carried out to influence European electoral processes, through the creation, instigation and financing of anti-system and pro-Russian movements within Western societies, so that in the current situation a fundamental objective for Russia will be to re-create as much dissension and discord as possible within the EU, which is a liability when it comes to decision-making within the Union. And in recent years it has been shown that one of the most influential and destabilising factors is irregular migration. Moreover, fostering instability in North Africa and the Sahel will, among other things, lead to a new massive flow of migrants to Europe, the gateway to which will undoubtedly be Spain.
These are just a few examples of a possible drift of the current conflict between Russia and the West. Because, although the war is being waged on Ukrainian soil, the reasons for it go far beyond Kiev, Mariupol or Kharkov. And the consequences of the war, even if hostilities cease, may have as their epicentre our natural sphere of influence, on whose development and stability we depend.
This article was originally published in Global Affairs and Strategic Studies (GASS) of the University of Navarra.