Egypt’s boosting of military cooperation with Russia is not a knee-jerk response to distortions in Egyptian-US relations following the 30 June Revolution. It is informed by broader considerations, not least the resurgence of the Russian bear in the international arena. Moscow has been basking in the global limelight for some time now, through its handling of critical global and regional issues from European and Asian security and defence arrangements to the Syrian crisis.
Egypt’s position on Syria coincides with that of Moscow. “It is necessary,” Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi recently argued, “to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis in view of the inability of either side to resolve the conflict militarily. A political solution is possible through proper preparation for the Geneva II conference which aims to secure a consensus regionally, internationally and among all Syrian parties to put hostilities on hold and begin a transitional process.”
The Egyptian stance, says Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is in perfect accord with Moscow.
Even on domestic issues there is a meeting of minds. Moscow not only anticipated the failure of Muslim Brotherhood rule but has included the group on its list of terrorist organisations.
During the recent G20 Summit the Russian president underscored the threat posed by terrorism in Sinai and the need to offer Egypt support to prevent its spreading.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly stressed that broadening ties with Russia is not an alternative to friendly relations with the US. The spate of visits between Cairo and Moscow during recent weeks, however, has led to speculation that, as one expert on US-Egyptian relations put it, the US “has a problem with its policies towards the Arab region in general, and Egypt in particular”.
Former foreign minister Mohamed Al-Arabi, a member of the Egyptian “people’s delegation” that visited Russia last week, told Al-Ahram Weekly that while the Russians were enthusiastic about the prospect of upgrading Russian-Egyptian relations their enthusiasm was tempered by their experiences in the early 1970s when president Anwar Al-Sadat expelled Russian military and other experts.
Moscow fears a repetition of the same scenario, particularly in the wake of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s last visit to Cairo in which he displayed flexibility in US policy and acknowledged the new status quo in Egypt. According to Al-Arabi, the Egyptian delegation reassured the Russians that Egypt was not turning to Moscow in response to pressures from Washington.
Boosting relations serves the interests of both sides, says Al-Arabi.
“For Egypt it will offer greater manoeuvrability with regard to pressures exerted by the US. It will open space to move and help Egypt withstand the challenges posed by the current Egyptian-US relationship.”
The flurry of diplomatic activity between Egypt and Russia was crowned by a visit to Cairo yesterday by Lavrov and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shergu. They were accompanied by a delegation of politicians, diplomats, officials from Russia’s armaments industry and from the Ross Oborn Export Company which specialises in advanced military hardware.
The visit focussed on a broad military partnership agenda and included arms deals, joint military training, a $4 billion package of Russian military aid and refurbishment of the High Dam’s generators. In the course of the two-day visit topics of domestic and regional concern were also discussed.
Russian military expenditure is expected to climb to RUB 3.4 trillion by 2021 from its current annual total of RUB 1.9 trillion. In 2012 arms exports totalled RUB 325 billion ($10 billion) and there has been unprecedented growth in the country’s electronics, aviation, missiles and conventional weapons industries.
Egypt is keen to benefit from that progress, especially in view of recent cutbacks in US military support. Washington has withheld $260 million worth of military aid contingent on political developments in Egypt and has frozen the delivery of tanks, F-16 fighters, Apache helicopters and Harpoon missiles.
“We are looking forward to the announcement of the details of the arms deals between the two sides,” military expert General Talaat Muslim told the Weekly, “and whether it includes advanced aircraft, defence systems or the rehabilitation of Russian military equipment Egypt has possessed since the Soviet era.”
Muslim agrees with Al-Arabi that closer military cooperation with Russia “will open up a new space that will ease America’s grip on us.”
“Although Russia is not an alternative to the US it can give us the opportunity to familiarise ourselves with weapons that suit us, especially items from the Russian aviation and naval industries.”
In a telephone interview with the Weekly, Russian political analyst and military affairs expert Michael Riyabov noted that Egyptian-Russian military and technological cooperation during the Soviet era was exceptionally fruitful. “I was among the Russian team that worked with Egypt during the War of Attrition in 1970 at the request of president [Gamal] Abdel-Nasser. I met with many Egyptian officers,” he said.
“Russia is aware of its responsibilities and role with regard to what is happening in the Middle East,” Riyabov continued. “Initially our experts expected the Arab Spring would restrict Russian presence in the region, especially in the military sphere. But then the winds blew in the opposite direction, opening the way for Russia to expand its partnerships with countries such as Egypt, Libya and Iraq. Perhaps these new relationships will open new doors for Russia and military cooperation with Russia in the region… Russia might lose the Al-Assad regime, in which case it will need similar partners in the region. I believe that the move towards Egypt is a step in the right direction in this respect.”
It is an analysis with which Muslim concurs. “Russia will benefit from richer relations with Egypt and, hence, with many other countries in the region. There will be joint training exercises, academic missions and periodic military manoeuvres. There have already been encouraging signs in this direction, to which the official ceremonies and military rituals by the Egyptian navy as it welcomed the Russian destroyer Vareg in the port of Alexandria on Monday testify. It is likely that Russia will obtain logistic facilities from Egypt, over which the two sides are currently negotiating.”
The general pointed out that Egypt stands to benefit from these developments.
“There will be a strong rival to the US military presence in the Mediterranean and the Gulf. The tactic might stir further US resentment but what is important is that we have moved beyond the phase of US pressure and the unwarranted and incomprehensible folly of Washington’s approach to the Egyptian administration.”
The visit of the two Russian ministers to Egypt, says Riyabov, was a “testing of the pulse or, in military terminology, reconnaissance of the terrain”. There is a perfect opportunity, he argues, to revive historic mutual cooperation between the two countries.
“Politics is the art of the possible, so why shouldn’t the two sides seize this opportunity. We have to do something as long as we are able to.”
The Russian analyst stresses that Egyptian-Russian military cooperation is not new but is rather on the verge of expanding.
“Military cooperation between the two countries was not enormous, but neither was it insignificant. From 2005 to 2011 there was military cooperation to the tune of $2.452 billion. Russia was Egypt’s second source of arms, China its third. The expansion in cooperation today is necessary for Egypt to assert its sovereign rights in the face of US pressure. Russia wants to affirm that Egypt is a good partner and the relationship has been restored to its normal context.”
Mikhail Zavaly, a senior official with Russia's arms export agency Rosoboronexport who will lead its delegation at the upcoming 13th Dubai air show, confirmed Russia wanted to sell military hardware to Egypt.
"Now we are offering Egypt modern helicopters, air defence equipment and the modernisation of previously purchased military equipment," he told the RIA Novosti news agency.
"The word is now with our partners," he added.
He did not give further details but Russian daily Vedomosti said negotiations were ongoing about the sale of MiG-29M/M2 fighter jets, low range air defence systems and Kornet anti-tank rockets.
The Egyptian army will have no problem converting to Russian arms, says General Muslim. Egyptian military experts have been keeping close track of Russian military advances.
“It’s not as if Russian arms are unfamiliar to us. Within three to five years we will have reached the necessary level of training on any new equipment. In the 1970s, when we obtained Russian arms, we only had a short time for training before using them in the 1973 War.”
In a related development, military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali poured cold water on suggestions that the Russians would establish a military base in Egypt on the Red Sea or Mediterranean coast. Egypt, he said, opposed to the existence of any foreign bases on its territory or in its territorial waters. It is a position that will not change and anyone wishing to cooperate with Egypt must realise this.
He stressed that Egypt had rejected US requests to set up military bases on its territory and in the wake of a revolution which voiced Egyptians’ determination to assert their national will there was more resolve than ever before not to let it happen. The Russian delegation, he added, had not brought up the subject.
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly