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Tanks to Ukraine mark change in Moroccan foreign policy

Morocco has become the first African country to send tanks to Ukraine. But it’s not just doing so because it believes in the Ukrainian cause.

Morocco has come in for quite a bit of criticism from the European Parliament recently.

Earlier in January, the country was slated for sentencing two Moroccan journalists, Omar Radi and Soulaimane Raissouni, to six and five years in prison respectively.

Both men say they were prosecuted for their criticism of Moroccan authorities. Members of the European Parliament urged Morocco to “respect freedom of expression and media freedom.” 

The EU’s relationship with Morocco was already tense following the corruption scandal that rocked the European Parliament in December. Members of the European body were accused of taking bribes from Qatar and Morocco — accusations that have been repeatedly denied by both countries. Morocco’s foreign minister Nasser Bourita complained of “harassment” from Europeans. 

Current tensions with the European Parliament put Morocco in a “difficult situation vis-a-vis the Europeans,” confirmed Isabelle Werenfels, senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, or SWP. 

Change in temperature

However this week, Morocco made a move that seemed to indicate increasing warmth toward Europe. 

Morocco became the first African country to send heavy weapons to Ukraine. The country is delivering 20 renovated T-72B main battle tanks to the eastern European country.

The move is a significant change from Morocco’s previously neutral stance on the Russia invasion of Ukraine as well as a clear turn towards Europe and the US. In the March 2022 vote at the United Nations that rejected Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Morocco and other African nations abstained.

According to an article by the Algerian news outlet, MENA Defense, Morocco had already agreed to send the tanks to Ukraine in April last year during a meeting at the German military base Ramstein. In return, the US had apparently promised to provide financial and military support.

However, the agreement and news of the delivery, via refurbishment in the Czech Republic, were only made public this week. The timing of the announcement is notable, coming shortly before Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov began an African tour. Lavrov had originally planned to visit Morocco in early February. 

“[This] marks a setback to Russia’s attempts to keep the continent on side, or at least neutral, particularly within the UN,” Alice Gower, director of geopolitics and security at London-based consulting firm Azure Strategy, told DW. “African states have been careful in their approach, abstaining from, or rejecting, the various UN resolutions condemning Russia.”

Foreign policy motivations

Morocco’s move also comes as a way to counterbalance Algeria’s influence and progress, analysts said. 

“The long-running tensions over the Western Sahara with neighbouring Algeria, one of Moscow’s closest African allies, will have undoubtedly fed into Rabat’s calculations [on sending tanks to Ukraine],” Gower told DW, adding that, “this way, Morocco has a little bit of leverage to call on Western powers for help in the event that Moscow’s influence in Algeria becomes uncomfortable.”

Much of the tension between the two countries comes from their dispute over the Western Sahara area. Morocco took control of the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975. Algeria supports the Polisario Front group, which seeks independence from Morocco in the area. 

Morocco is also concerned about Algeria’s increasingly positive ties with European nations. Earlier this week, Algeria and Italy signed a number of memorandums of understanding during a two-day visit by Italian leader Giorgia Meloni. The plan is to transform Italy into an energy hub for Europe using Algerian natural gas. Algeria is already Italy’s biggest gas supplier.

In terms of competing with Algeria, Morocco is also pushing forward with its plans to “become the first North African country to export green hydrogen on a large scale,” the SWP’s Werenfels said. 

“Something has changed in the cooperation paradigm with Morocco and you can see that with the other states in the region too,” Werenfels continued. “Both states … ultimately want to determine the terms of cooperation with Europe. Morocco nourishes a vision for itself as a regional power.”