Algeria seeks to avoid US sanctions over Russian arms purchases

The Algerian government is closely watching how the US deals with other countries, such as India, Vietnam and Indonesia, that buy Russian weapons.

TUNIS - Algeria has begun discussions with the United States to avoid sanctions over its arms purchases from Russia, which it relies on for its national defence.

The US Embassy in Algiers issued a statement saying there had been talks regarding the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

CAATSA, signed into law by US President Donald Trump last year, would impose sanctions on any country that buys military equipment from Russia, the world’s second largest arms exporter.

The provision is designed to punish Russia for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, involvement in the Syrian civil war, where it supports Syrian President Bashar Assad and meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

In addition to affecting China, which has purchased fighter jets and missile systems from Russia, the law could have dire consequences for US allies that do business with Russia. Algeria, an OPEC member that is a key supplier of oil to the United States, is particularly concerned.

In addition to flying Russia-made bombers and fighter jets, Algeria’s military has Russian air defence systems and tanks.

The Algerian government is closely watching how the United States deals with other countries, such as India, Vietnam and Indonesia, that buy Russian weapons. Those countries have important military and economic ties with the United States and have sought waivers from the sanctions.

Especially critical is the case of India, which wants to buy five S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems to counter China’s stealth aircraft and keep ahead of its regional adversary Pakistan.

Algeria recently began buying from European and US arms makers but keeps Russia as its key weapons provider, partly due to a geopolitical calculation that its main regional rival, Morocco, will remain a closer military ally to Europe and the United States.

Algiers plans to spend $30 billion on defence systems and weaponry from the United States and Europe from 2019-23.

Most of the approximately $7 billion Algeria has spent annually on weapons over the past 15 years has gone to Russia. Such purchases included 42 Russian Mi-28N combat helicopters, most of which were delivered in 2016 and 2017, and eight Mi-26 transport helicopters, delivered in 2017.

Algeria expects to receive two Russian Kilo class Type 636 submarines, which it purchased in 2014, this year.

Russian Ambassador to Algeria Igor Belyaev said in July that “Algeria’s heavy demand for Russian weapons is (most notably due to) the historical link between the two countries... since Algerian independence, in which Russia played an important role.”

Abderrazak Makri, the leader of the Islamist Movement for a Peaceful Society party, said Algeria would emerge successfully in its talks with the United States to avoid sanctions.

“I insist America does not frighten us when we are strong, when we have legitimate government bodies, when we have confidence and trust between citizens and the government and when we have a strong and diversified economy,” said Makri, who plans to stand in presidential elections in April.

However, with Algiers looking to tap into its huge shale gas reserves in south Algeria, which it needs US expertise and technology to accomplish, its relations with its American counterpart is critical.

“If we want to develop new reserves we need expertise and technology,” said Algerian energy chief Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour.

Abdelmadjid Attar, former CEO of Algerian state energy firm Sonatrach, said Algeria’s share of oil and gas exports would decrease by 2025, resulting in less revenue, unless it renews its hydrocarbon reserves.

“Developing shale gas is no longer a choice for Algeria. It is an obligation,” he said.

Algeria is the third-largest oil producer in Africa and the largest natural gas producer in the continent. However, oil and natural gas production has declined over the past decade, putting pressure on the Algerian government to exploit its shale gas reserves.

Sonatrach announced plans to invest at least $70 billion by 2035 to produce some 20 billion cubic metres of shale gas per year from 200 drilling sites.

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.