The Kremlin’s North African Gateway? Western Sahara, Crimea and Russia’s Interest in Morocco

A revanchist Russia, viewing North Africa as a gateway to expanded influence, has started positioning itself as a non-Western alternative for African states.

Morocco plays an increasingly powerful role in Africa, with a modernized military, strategic geopolitical location and the fifth largest African GDP. Consequently, the EU and the US consider Morocco an important conduit between Europe and North Africa, collaborating with King Mohammed the VI on anti-terrorism, anti-trafficking, immigration and trade-related measures. However, a revanchist Russia, viewing North Africa as a gateway to expanded influence, has started positioning itself as a non-Western alternative for African states, trading in arms, energy and security agreements accompanied by minimal conditions. Surreptitiously, and amid discord in US and EU Western Sahara policy, Russia has cemented a Russo-Moroccan strategic framework, purportedly offered Morocco its S-400 weapons system and committed to deeper Russian involvement in the Western Sahara controversy, which, acknowledging Western Sahara’s comparisons to Crimea, could set a dangerous precedent for Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. 

What Russia Sees in North Africa

Traditionally, Russia has viewed North Africa as a gateway from which to spread influence further into Africa, cultivating rapports with former strongmen Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, and current leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. Security ties underscore each relationship, with Russia exporting US$11.5 billion of arms to Algeria, US$4.3 billion to Egypt and US$989 million to Sudan in the 21st century. Meanwhile, the US exported US$2.1 billion and US$6.5 billion of matériel to Egypt and Morocco, respectively, the largest US clients in North Africa. However, upon the ousters of Bashir and Bouteflika, Russia has sought to increase ties with Morocco, concentrating on areas, like Western Sahara, where US and EU support has wavered.

Western Sahara: Establishing Context 

Morocco’s foreign policy focuses on achieving international recognition for its proposed UN autonomy plan over Western Sahara. Under the 1912 Treaty of Fez, Morocco became a French protectorate, and an additional agreement with Spain cemented Spanish zones of influence in the North and the South of Morocco. In 1956, France abrogated the treaty of Fez, and, in 1965, Spain gave up its zones of influence. Mauritania, Morocco and the Polisario Front, who represent the Saharawi people indigenous to Western Sahara, all then claimed the power vacuum opened in the South. However, before a proposed referendum, Moroccan King Hassan II transplanted 300,000 Moroccan citizens and 20,000 Moroccan soldiers into Western Sahara, in what became known as the Green March, declaring Moroccan sovereignty and sparking the Western Sahara War with the Algeria-based Polisario Front. After a ceasefire in 1991, a proposed Moroccan plan that grants the Polisario autonomy over education, healthcare, infrastructure and cultural affairs has lingered in UN security council purgatory. 

Western Sahara: The Root of Discord? 

Western Sahara has caused much discord between Morocco, its neighbours and the African community as a whole. Notably, friction between Morocco and Algeria stems from Algeria’s hosting of the Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic (SADR), the Polisario’s representative government, in southwestern Algeria. Since Algeria’s 1962 independence from France, Morocco and Algeria have only opened their borders to each other for a total of ten years. Moreover, Mauritania and Mali’s recognition of SADR has also impeded regional development, as reflected in Morocco’s much closer ties with Niger and Burkina Faso, who do not recognize SADR’s sovereignty. Finally, in 1984, African states’ recognition of SADR’s sovereignty over Western Sahara contributed to Morocco’s exit from the Organization of African Unity and its successor, the African Union, with Morocco only rejoining in 2017. The frozen status of Western Sahara detrimentally impedes further regional integration. 

The US and Morocco, otherwise deeply committed allies, have diverged on Western Sahara. Notably, the Trump Administration has shown considerable attention to Western Sahara because of John Bolton, the former National Security Advisor, whose work with former UN envoy to Western Sahara, John Baker, instigated Bolton’s extraordinary interest, and partiality to the Saharawi, in the conflict. Consequently, during Bolton’s tenure, the Trump Administration showed the most conciliatory stance towards SADR in many administrations, known as the ‘Bolton Effect’. The Bolton Effect irked Morocco, the first state to recognize the US, but dissipated after Bolton’s tumultuous departure.

The EU and Morocco have also wrangled over Western Sahara, as 2016 and 2018 rulings from the European Court of Justice decreed that EU-Morocco trade and fishing agreements would only remain valid if they excluded goods originating from Western Sahara, contrary to Morocco’s autonomy plan. These rulings jeopardized some aspects of the Morocco-EU trade relationship, but Morocco has retained advanced status under the European Neighborhood Policy, the first designation of its nature. Though US- and EU-Moroccan relations remain healthy, Russia has identified an issue of divergence between the states, seeking to increase bilateral involvement in Western Sahara by evoking its maturing relations with Morocco. 

Russia and Morocco: Changing Dynamics? 

Russian collaboration with Morocco has markedly recovered from the 1980 nadir when King Hasan II of Morocco declared the USSR’s support of the Polisario an act of war. As opposed to the 1980s, the 21st century has seen intensifying Russo-Moroccan collaboration in the energy, security and trade sectors, commencing with King Mohammed VI’s 2002 visit to Moscow and followed by Putin’s reciprocal visit to Morocco in 2006, the first visit from a Russian head of state to North Africa since 1961. In 2016, after another Moscow summit, Russia and Morocco inked 16 agreements concerning counter-terrorism, trade and fishing rights, and a Russo-Moroccan strategic partnership. After the 2016 meeting, rumours then spread about Russia offering Morocco its S-400 defence system, a real and symbolic harbinger of Russian influence in a state, prompting backlash from the US and quick offers for more US-Moroccan security cooperation. Expounding on the budding relationship, along the sidelines of the 2019 Russia-Africa Sochi Summit (to which SADR did not receive an invite), Russia’s development bank agreed to collaborate with Moroccan MYA energy on a US$2 billion refinery at the Mediterranean port of Nador. And finally, the cherry on top, in November 2019, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed ‘Russia’s attitude to deepening political dialogue with Morocco to settle the question of the Moroccan Sahara,’ in a phone call with his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita.

The Kremlin’s pivot towards Morocco in the last decade comes as no surprise. Morocco remains central to Western interests in North Africa, yet maintains a stance of ‘independent diplomacy’, demonstrating a willingness to work with states, such as Russia, that the US and EU could perceive as inimical to their interests. Furthermore, after the convulsions of the Arab Spring and the ‘Arab Spring 2.0’, Russia lost three steadfast, friendly strongmen in Libya, Sudan and Algeria, creating the need for new, stable partners to maintain its strategic gateway in North Africa. 

Morocco’s interest in the S-400 arms system, though fleeting, and the US’s scramble in enticing Morocco back into its arms orbit demonstrate past US indolence in US-Moroccan security cooperation; indolence from which Russia perceived an opportunity to pry Morocco away from the US, adhering to its tactic of plying states faced by Western vacillation with Russian arms deals. Moreover, cooperation on trade measures and signifies a maturing Moroccan-Russian relationship, as Russia usually initiates ties with security offers, then transitions to other sectors as cooperation progresses. 

Until 2020, Russia has not exhibited the predatory behaviour in Morocco reminiscent of its other ventures in Africa, such as the employment of the Wagner Group in Libya, only making flashy arms offers and investments, such as the refinery at Nador, that cheaply advance its influence upon perceived US / EU hesitation. However, Russia’s overtures towards the Western Sahara conflict should cause concern for both Western and African states, given the parallels to Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Crimea and Western Sahara: Similarities and Differences 

Russian and Moroccan justifications for Crimea and Western Sahara share similarities. First, both maintain that they possessed the occupied regions before imperial redistribution. Moreover, the populations of Western Sahara and Crimea each share linguistic and historical ties with populations in Morocco and Russia, respectively. Finally, each state holds that national security depends on the stability of these regions, so they face no choice but to occupy these regions to preempt further violence. However, significant differences exist between the conflicts.

Russia invaded sovereign Ukrainian territory, while Morocco transplanted its soldiers into a power vacuum. Second, Russia held a sham vote upon its occupation of Crimea while the Western Sahara conflict has remained frozen for almost 30 years, with the UN mission postponing a referendum several times. Third, Morocco has proposed a plan that would give Western Sahara a degree of autonomy, while Russia fully annexed Crimea. Finally, a large percentage of ethnic Russians constitute Crimea’s population. In contrast, most of the Moroccan Arabs or Amazigh in Western Sahara, who are different from the indigenous Saharawi people, arrived during the 1975 Green March. Each situation remains highly unique and cannot be conflated. 

One month before the 2019 Bourita-Lavrov call, Russia abstained from a motion at the Security Council that looked favourably upon the Moroccan autonomy plan. Announcing the desire for a deeper bilateral dialogue into the Western Sahara conflict, one month after abstaining on a resolution that passed 13 – 0, demonstrates Russia’s desire for a Western Sahara resolution on Russian terms. Moreover, Russia did not even invite a Saharawi delegate to its Sochi Africa conference.

In the absence of clarified US and EU Western Sahara policy, Russia could recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara while playing down the fact Morocco moved into a power vacuum in 1975, creating a false parallel between Crimea and Western Sahara. Russia could also ignore Morocco’s autonomy plan, nudging Morocco’s actions towards annexation and providing Russia with a post-World War II precedent, from a US and EU ally, for its annexation of Crimea. As France, and occasionally the US, support the Moroccan autonomy plan, Russia’s bilateral recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara could legitimize its illegal occupation of the Crimean peninsula and also undermine the international sanction regime on Russia. 

Russia is already fanning the cold flames of frozen conflicts in Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia to its geopolitical gain. Thus, that Russia could get involved in a frozen conflict to further its interests in North Africa is not farfetched. African and European states and the US must coordinate their policies concerning Western Sahara, and not let the conflict persist.

Implications for the International Community 

At one extreme, Russian recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara would prompt a wave of recognitions by smaller states, portending increased regional integration and further establishing Russia as a strong influence in African affairs. Au contraire, it could infuriate Algeria, embolden African states in their support of the Saharawi and prolong the conflict. Each scenario benefits Russia, the first providing Russia its gateway into North Africa, as it becomes a larger player in North Africa due to its strengthened relationship with Morocco, and the second allowing it to engage in bilateral diplomatic manoeuvrings that sideline the UN and western powers.

Russian recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara would provide both Russia and Morocco short term gains. However, most of the international community would view Russian unilateral recognition as a brash affront to the UN peace process and an influence grab, making it difficult for Morocco to translate Russian recognition of sovereignty into that of the US, EU and the international community.

Resolving the Conflict 

The US, EU and African states must find a resolution to the conflict that respects the rights of Morocco while acknowledging the determination of the Saharawi people. First, the EU and US must clarify policy on Western Sahara while working with African regional organizations with whom they share overlapping interests. Second, a long list of incentives exists that could bring both Morocco and SADR to the bargaining table. Morocco has long wanted to join ECOWAS, but hitches over Western Sahara have proved inescapable. Meanwhile, SADR and Algeria would reap trade, security and health benefits from increased interaction with Morocco. Finally, the UN peacekeeping mandate for Western Sahara cannot extend into perpetuity. The Security Council must agree on voting qualifications for a referendum, one of the most significant obstacles to the resolution, by incentivizing cooperation of Morocco and SADR with ideas mentioned above, while keeping options open for the Moroccan autonomy plan. Interested parties must first take these foundational steps if they wish to advance negotiations. 

The US and EU also need to emphasize their historically strong relationships with Morocco and bring awareness to Russia’s destabilizing influence while respecting Morocco’s desire for independent diplomacy. First, they must emphasize that Russia’s involvement in Western Sahara and potential circumvention of the UN inhibit the goals of lasting peace. Concomitantly, the US and EU must consider that Morocco has deepened relations with Russia in the hope of pressuring the US and the EU, and to bring about an expeditated resolution. Finally, the US, EU and other members of the Security Council should bring clarified EU-US policy on Western Sahara into the Council and invite Russian participation, preempting Russian unilateralism.

Morocco values its relationships with the US, EU and potential African integration. Simultaneously, Morocco values its independence in diplomacy, and the historical importance of Western Sahara. Multilateral diplomacy over Western Sahara must acknowledge these realities. If the US, EU and African states collaborate, they can bring about progress to a 30-year-old conflict, preempt Russian aims at exploiting the conflict, and ensure Russia does not hijack Western Sahara to legitimize its illegal Crimean aims

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