Russia, Turkey, and China in North Africa: a challenge for Europe

The European Union enters 2022 with a dangerously declining ability to set the security agenda along its southern borders in the face of the strategic advances made by Russia, Turkey, and China in North Africa. A house divided, the EU delivery deficit in establishing a sustainable security architecture in the Mediterranean basin, particularly in Libya, created a vacuum that has been filled by the increasing military presence of Russia and Turkey in North Africa. As Russia and Turkey rewrite the rule sets in North Africa, China has also continued to gain strength strategically in the region and will seek to increase its military footprint along the southern rim of the Mediterranean basin.

Here are some of the key developments that have altered the strategic equation and will influence the trajectory of North African geopolitics and Europe’s ability to exercise a strategic impact on security matters along its southern flank.

The Resurgence of Russia power in the southern Mediterranean

The resurrection of the Russian-Egyptian military partnership is Moscow’s most stunning strategic comeback in the Mediterranean.  It is also one of Russia’s most strategically significant regional defence relationships.  Egypt is the largest nation by population in the entire Mediterranean basin and has one of the largest militaries in the region.  In the late stages of the Cold War, the United States had succeeded in peeling Egypt away from its alignment with the Soviet Union, turning Cairo into one of the most reliable American allies in the Middle East.  But that tight relationship frayed in the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising in Egypt that toppled the country’s long-time strong man Hosni Mubarak when U.S. President Barack Obama embraced the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood-led government. The 2013 ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian military with popular backing and former General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ‘s 2014 election as Egypt’s president led to a rift with the U.S. and NATO that persists to this day.

As Sisi was consolidating his power, Russian President Vladimir Putin demonstrated Moscow’s mettle with Russia’s successful 2015 military intervention in Syria, ostensibly to fight ISIS and other jihadi militants.  President Sisi turned to Putin’s Russia for assistance in combatting jihadi militants in Libya to secure Egypt’s eastern border. This led to the 2016 establishment of the annual ‘Defenders of Friendship’ joint Russian-Egyptian military exercises. Expanding in scope over the past five years, the original 2016 exercises involved joint tactical actions that paved the way for the 2017 deployment of Russian special forces and drones to Egypt’s Sidi Barrani air base near the Libyan border to assist the Egyptian-backed, Libyan General Khalifa Haftar to gain full control of Benghazi in July of that year. In late 2017, following that success, Cairo granted Moscow permission for the Russian air force to use Egypt’s air space and air bases, requiring only 5 days advanced notice.

During 2016-2020, Russia also became Egypt’s largest arms supplier with Cairo purchasing 41% of its weapons imports from Russia,  a laundry list of weapons that includes attack helicopters, fighter jets, and air defense systems.  In 2018, Egypt purchased 24 Su-35 fighter aircraft from Russia for $2 billion. In 2020, Egypt reportedly agreed to purchase 500 Russian T-90MS tanks that would be assembled in Egypt at a facility built by Russian tank manufacturer Uralavagonzavod.

Building on its deep defense cooperation with Egypt, Russian power has become entrenched in Eastern Libya, from the coastal city of Sirte, the western entrance to Libya’s oil crescent, to the highly strategic al-Jufra air base further south.  Utilizing upwards of 2,000 mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group backed by Russian air force assets, Moscow has succeeded to emerge as one of the main power brokers in Libya with a much lighter commitment of personnel and hardware than in Syria. The Wagner Group has extended Russia’s influence across adjacent regions of sub-Saharan Africa, most recently in Mali.

Concurrently, Russia revitalized and expanded its long-standing military relationship with Algeria. Shrewdly, Russia’s Putin cancelled Algeria’s Soviet-era military debt of $4.7 billion while Algeria committed to purchase almost twice that amount from Russia with future oil and gas revenues. The deal resulted in Algeria becoming Russia’s third largest arms buyer during 2016-2020, surpassed only by India and China. Algeria’s astounding Russian weapons shopping spree included 203 T-90SA main battle tanks, 300 ‘Terminator 2’  BMPT-72 armored fire support vehicles, 38 Pantsir-S1 air defense missile/cannon systems, 100 SA-17 Buk-M2 air defense missile systems installed on tracked vehicles, and 12 Iskander mobile short-range ballistic missile systems.

Algeria also possesses 6 Russian-made, Kilo-class submarines. As a sign of Moscow’s renewed power projection into the western Mediterranean, Russia and Algeria conducted a landmark joint naval exercise of the latter’s Mediterranean coast.  Russian-made Kalibr Club-S type cruise missiles fired by those Kilo-class submarines and Algeria’s land-based, Russian-made Iskander ballistic missiles are capable of striking the Spanish coast.

The distance between Russia’s naval and air bases in Syria and Egypt’s massive Mediterranean military base at Marsa Matruh is approximately 900 km. Combined with Russia’s extensive military presence in eastern Libya and deep defence relationship with Algeria, Moscow now presides over an arc of hard power across the southern rim of the Mediterranean spanning the southern border of Turkey and the eastern border of Morocco.

Turkey’s Strategic Advance in North Africa

The resurgence of Russian power across the Mediterranean basin has been matched by Turkey’s impressive advances to become one of the top powers in the region.  Turkey is the second most populous nation in the Mediterranean with one of the region’s most powerful militaries. Turkey’s efforts to expand its power projection capabilities in the Mediterranean is part of Turkey’s wider strategic agenda to establish forward bases in the Middle East and Africa, an ambition enabled by the impressive transformation of its domestic weapons manufacturing to become an industry leader in several categories.

Following Russia’s Syria intervention, Turkey conducted four cross-border interventions in Syria to carve out a buffer zone in northern Syria along the length of the Syrian-Turkish border. However, the turning point for Turkey’s Mediterranean military footprint came with Turkey’s 2020 military intervention to preserve the Government of National Accord then ruling western Libya.  Ankara’s first intervention far from its land borders and shoreline was an unqualified success – stopping Haftar’s Wagner-assisted assault on Tripoli in its tracks and then pushing Haftar’s forces 450 km eastward to the Sirte-Jufra line. Ankara now stands as the main security provider in western Libya, creating an important strategic beachhead for Turkey in the central Mediterranean.  Turkey maintains an air power deployment at the re-captured al-Watiyah air base, located 27 km from the Tunisian border, and is reported to be developing a naval base in Libya’s coastal city of Misrata.  Its first Mediterranean forward basing beyond North Cyprus, Turkey’s outsized military presence in Libya is nothing short of a strategic breakthrough, enabling Turkey to project its influence into the western Mediterranean.

The Libyan intervention also showcased the power of Turkey’s home-grown combat drone and electronic warfare technology that would be later used by Ankara to assist Azerbaijan in the Autumn 2020 Karabakh war that ended 30 years of stalemate against Armenia and changed the map of the South Caucasus.  In 2020, Tunisia bought $150 million of Turkish armaments, including Anka medium-altitude long long-endurance (MALE) drones, Kirpi mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, and Ejder Yalçin armored combat vehicles.  The sale of three Anka drones and their ground control systems to Tunisia was Turkish Aerospace Industries’ first foreign sale of the Anka UAVs.

For its part, Algeria has kept Turkey at arm’s length when it comes to military cooperation.  Despite Turkey being one of Algeria’s leading foreign investors – Turkish investments in creating local factories and businesses have made Turkish firms collectively into Algeria’s largest foreign employer –  Turkey has not been able to translate its growing economic clout into Turkish arms sales to Algeria.  The Algerian military and political elite have been divided over Turkey’s role in Libya and especially Ankara’s use of Syrian jihadis as mercenary forces. In its effort not to become too over-reliant on Russia as its principal weapons supplier, Algiers has opted for German and Chinese-made weapons.

More recently, as Algeria-Morocco tensions have intensified on their border and in the disputed Western Sahara between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, Rabat has turned to Ankara as a weapons supplier.  In 2021, the kingdom purchased 13 Bayraktar TB2 drones, the system that has repeatedly proved itself effective against Russian air defense systems in Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus.  Members of Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces has traveled to Turkey during the second half of 2021 to receive training in operating the drones and Morocco reportedly ordered an additional six TB2 drones at year’s end. The Turkish system complements Rabat’s recent purchases of Israeli drones as well as Israeli anti-drone technology.  Moroccan media has also reported that Rabat is now engaged in negotiations with Ankara to purchase naval vessels – 7 fast attack craft and an Ada-class corvette. While the warship purchase has not been confirmed, Turkey’s military cooperation with Morocco, should it expand, has long-term implications. Already the managed competition between Turkey and Russia sets the agenda for the security environment in Syria and Libya. This same dynamic could become influential in the western Mediterranean as well.

A Chinese Naval Base in North Africa?

At the close of 2021, the Wall Street Journal broke a story revealing Beijing’s plan to create a permanent military facility in Equatorial Guinea to provide China with its first naval base on the Atlantic ocean.  Could a Chinese naval base in North Africa be next? China is already poised to dominate the commercial ports across the entire southern and eastern arcs of the Mediterranean basin.  In addition to its massive transhipment hub in Piraeus, Greece, China upgraded and built ports in Tripoli, Lebanon and in Haifa bay in Israel. Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings similarly operates Egypt’s major Mediterranean port of Alexandria port and its auxiliary El Dekheila port. Hutchison is also an equivalent capacity port at Egypt’s nearby Abu Qir Peninsula that is scheduled to start operations in 2022. In the western Mediterranean, China is constructing Algeria’s El Hamdania transshipment port 60 km west of Algiers with three times the capacity of Egypt’s Alexandria port. China is also one of the main investors in Morocco’s Tanger Med port, which has surpassed Spain’s Algeciras and Valencia ports in container capacity to become the Mediterranean’s largest port.

With so much at stake for Beijing’s in China’s Mediterranean commercial network, an increased Chinese naval presence in North Africa is not a matter of if, but when.  China has already delivered a two frigates to Algeria and will deliver a Type 056 (Jingdao-class) corvette to Algeria in 2023. Egypt has purchased drones from China and Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones, purchased by the United Arab Emirates, have been a mainstay in Haftar’s arsenal in Libya. Should China establish a naval base on Africa’s Atlantic coast in addition to its Red Sea corridor naval base in Djibouti, then a base on the North African coast becomes Beijing’s missing puzzle piece for establishment of Chinese sea lines of communication from the Suez Canal to the Strait of Gibraltar. The logic for a Chinese base in the central Maghreb is compelling for strategic planners in Beijing.

The Need for European Action

From the Eastern Mediterranean to Libya to the escalating tensions between Algeria and Morocco, the European Union’s continued inability to act in a coordinated manner has eroded the union’s power to set the agenda for relations across its southern borders. The EU’s continued delivery deficit in establishing a sustainable security architecture in the Mediterranean will inexorably result in outcomes that neither represent European values nor serve Europe’s interests.

Prof. Michaël Tanchum is an associate senior fellow in the Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, D.C.  @michaeltanchum