Russia-Ukraine: possible consequences for Spain and its ramifications for North Africa

Russia-Ukraine: possible consequences for Spain and its ramifications for North Africa


30 | 03 | 2022


The geographic statusgives Spain a great geostrategic value, with all the positive aspects of playing this trump card well, and the negative aspects of receiving the impact of apparently distant crises.

In the picture

Installations of the Medgaz gas pipeline linking Algeria and Spain [Medgaz].

The winds are blowing hard in Europe and the world. The current crisis in the East has not yet been resolved and everything suggests that, whatever happens, the aftermath will last for years or decades. Russia's gamble will certainly 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 on numerous occasions 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 statusgives 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. Against this backdrop, the long-standing alliance between the former Soviet Union and Algeria, maintained and subsequently reinforced by Russia, is of vital importance in the current scenario.

While military cooperation subjecthas 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 initial stance is Nikita Khrushchev's statements 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 groupgroup of 'non-aligned' countries, was already maintaining very good relations with Moscow, which were mainly manifested in the supply of Soviet military equipment in the context of high tensions with Morocco. By the end of the 1970s, 90 percent of Algeria's war materiel was of Russian origin.

But relations between the two states went beyond the mere acquisition of weapons systems. The Soviet Union contributed to developmentthe Algerian mining sector and financed the opening of trainingand university centres that attracted not only Algerian young people, but also young people from other Arab and African countries. The resultwas that large numbers of engineers and professionals of all kinds, including army officers, benefited from the trainingprovided by the Soviets, and this was accompanied by an important cultural exchangein the form of intermarriage and learning language.

Over time, the remnants of this USSR influence have dissipated and become increasingly rare. However, professionals trained in this way rarely constituted part of the country's elite. To give just one example, the presidency of Sonatrach, businessoil 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 ouster, also trained in the Soviet Union. It follows 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 sectors core topic: energy, economic and trade, and arms, as well as two fundamental issues, their common geopolitical stance and Russia's position on the Hirak. This paper 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 coexisting 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 status. 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, in relation to its medium- to long-term aspirations deadlinein 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 exchangeare 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 statushas 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 resourceand 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 protocolof partnershipsigned 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 sanctions; given the Russian mentality and the way events have been unfolding, it cannot be ruled out, but rather it is likely that it is all part of the same plan. On the other hand, Russia needs to consolidate 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 per cent 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 providerwith 40% of the total. 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.

In the picture

Map of the main Russian gas pipelines in Europe, both existing and planned [Samuel Bailey].

Russia's energy expansion on the European continent began with South Stream, a gas 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 goalof this construction was precisely to be able to dispense with Ukraine as a transit country, however, 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 that crosses the Baltic Sea, Russia intended to secure its dependence on Germany, the main supplier.

providerAfter Russia, the second largest gas exporter to the European Union is Norway, with 34.1% (Eurostat, 2016), while the third largest - 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 exporter of gas in theworld, and has become a strategic partnerfor 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 prevent it from reaching the centre of the continent via 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 supply, given that gas from Iran and Azerbaijan that flows through Turkey, besides having a small share and being affected by sanctions on Iran and disputes between Turkey and Greece over gas fields, does not have a fully consolidated infrastructure for it.

Considering the consequences of the war between Ukraine and Russia for 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 find themselves in a difficult situation status. However, what is most worrying is the impact this could have on the continent's most important Economicscustomer, Germany, which is Gazprom's main customer.

It is thus clear that Europe's proven energy dependence, mainly on Russia, makes Europe a hostage to its needs, leaving it in the hands of a power whose Economicsin turn depends 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 Economics. 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 Ukraine conflict come in.

In addition, Russia's economic statusis not exactly the best. On the one hand, there is its excessive dependence on exports of energy resources. 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. developmentIf 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 Russia's Economics, 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.

In the picture

Ukraine's pre-conflict oil and gas resources [The Energy Consulting Group].

As can be seen in the graph above, the whole of eastern Ukraine, as well as the Black Sea area closest to the Crimean Peninsula, is home to significant deposits of all subjectresources, mainly, again, gas.

In a hypothetical scenario in which a Ukraine free of Moscow's pressures would interact with the EU and with a horizon of EU membership, it is clear in the medium term deadlinethat 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 this hypothetical statusonly one element would be the clear loser: Russia. If we add to this the possibility of future membership of the Atlantic Alliance, the outlook 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 an escalation involving NATO as an organisation in the worst case scenario, we cannot ignore the impact of this statuson North Africa and therefore on Spain.

As discussed in the opening section of this paper, Algeria, a country of vital importance to Spain because of its proximity, its influence in controlling migratory flows, its indispensable partnershipin subjectanti-terrorism and because it is our main gas supplier, is a country that can be considered to be in Russia's orbit. On the other hand, Morocco, core topicalso 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 "partnerpreferred" by the US, 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 pitted the two countries against each other 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, degree program, 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 may 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 numerous known actions have been 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 statusa fundamental goalfor Russia will be to re-create as much dissension and discord as possible within the EU, which is a burden 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 entranceof 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 fought on Ukrainian soil, the reasons for it transcend far beyond Kiev, Mariupol or Kharkiv. And the consequences of the war, even if hostilities cease, may have as their epicentre our natural sphere of influence, on whose developmentand stability we depend.