Russia’s foreign minister tours North Africa as anger toward the West swells across the region
By Associated Press
TUNIS: Not far from where Russia’s Foreign Minister is holding meetings in Tunisia on Thursday, large green billboards advertising Russia Today, a Kremlin-backed media outlet, have been recently erected.
The ads are yet another indicator that Russia continues to expand its presence in North Africa as support for western powers across the Arab World fades amid the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.
With deep trade ties and large diaspora populations in western Europe, North African countries have long maintained close, albeit complicated, relations with the European Union.
Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia also enjoy close relations with the United States.
But since October the region has been convulsed by protests about Israel’s latest war with Hamas, including in Tunis, where demonstrators have rallied in front of the United States and French embassies, chanting for a free Palestine.
Arab Barometer, a non-partisan research firm, published data last week that suggested the United States’ popularity fell 30 percentage points in the weeks after the Israel-Hamas war began. It found France’s image also suffered.
“Tunisians’ views on the world shifted in ways that rarely happen even over the course of a few years. There is no other issue across the Arab world to which people feel so individually and emotionally connected,” Arab Barometer researchers concluded, based on 2,406 interviews.
In the vacuum created by western powers’ diminishing popularity, Moscow has doubled down on efforts to strengthen its ties to North Africa and spread its narrative about issues including Ukraine and Gaza. Russian officials are exchanging visits with North African leaders, seeking new trade agreements and signing joint memorandums that cover issues ranging from Ukraine to Syria.
“It has become obvious that some external forces are not averse to using the next escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in their own interest, to ignite the fire of a regional war,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at this week’s Arab-Russian Cooperation Forum in Marrakech, alluding to the United States.
Marrakech was the first destination on Lavrov’s tour through North Africa. He arrived in Tunis on Wednesday evening to meet with President Kais Saied and Tunisia’s foreign minister, who visited Moscow in September, when the two countries announced a new grain deal.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Tunisia received roughly half of its total wheat imports from Ukraine.
While lamenting pressure from countries that isolate Russia, Lavrov announced new efforts to expand energy and agriculture trade with North Africa.
He also contrasted Russia’s positions with those of the United States in the Middle East.
“We have the impression that our Western colleagues are not very willing to try to create a Palestinian state,” he said Thursday.
This week’s Arab-Russian Cooperation Forum was scheduled before war broke out after Hamas militants killed roughly 1,200 people and took 240 hostage in Israel on Oct 7. Yet its timing provided Lavrov a useful stage to position Russia alongside Arab countries ahead of an anticipated United Nations vote on an Arab-backed resolution to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza.
“We hope that the Security Council can adopt this resolution and that there will not be a veto from a permanent member, notably the United States,” said Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary general of the Arab League.
The forum came weeks after Russia Today, forged new partnerships and hired journalists to open a bureau in Algeria.
In Morocco, Lavrov found a receptive audience at the forum, which culminated in a joint declaration signed Wednesday that expressed support for the Palestinians. Echoing Moscow’s political course, it also called for preserving “sovereignty” of Syria and welcomed efforts to “create conditions for a political solution to the crisis” in Ukraine.
“It is time to take a different approach in dealing with the issues and concerns of the Arab world,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said in a statement after the signing. “We see Russia as a partner.”
Morocco and Tunisia have historically hewed more closely to the United States and NATO than Russia. But the countries, along with Algeria, have each attempted to project neutrality and maintain trade and political ties with Russia even throughout the war in Ukraine and Israel’s latest war with Hamas.
“Moscow is hoping frustration with the United States and European countries will work in its favor elsewhere,” said Olga Oliker, the International Crisis Group’s program director for Europe and Central Asia on the organization’s War & Peace podcast on Wednesday.
North Africa is a key trade partner for both Europe and Russia. Morocco imports fuel and fertilizer from Russia; Tunisia has grown increasingly reliant on Russian supplies of wheat and Algeria, one of Africa’s largest militaries, receives a substantial supply of arms from Moscow.
Morocco and Algeria have expanded their imports of Russian diesel since the start of the war in Ukraine, while also attempting to capitalize on new energy demands from Europe as the continent weans itself off Russian gas.
Ivan Klyszcz, a fellow at Estonia’s International Centre for Defence and Security who researches Russian foreign policy, said Russia’s posture toward North Africa was in line with its broader agenda to assert its aspirations of being a great power and give its foreign policy a global scope. And North Africa’s response since the start of the Israel-Hamas war has been largely in line with its stances throughout the war in Ukraine.
“The (North African) countries have positioned themselves in ways to maximize their relations to the great powers — Russia, United States, Europe,” he said.