Egypt and Russia: A Long Lost Alliance

February 14, 2014
Putin and Al-Sisi | Mikhail Metzel/Presidential Press Service/RIA Novosti/AP

It seems that Putin has ended the all-but-already-certain debate on whether Egyptian General and de-facto government caretaker Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will run for President by declaring, “I know that you, esteemed minister of defense, have decided to seek the office of president,” continuing to describe it as a “responsible decision.” The ebullient congratulations by Putin to al-Sisi on his first foreign trip on his decision to, “assume responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people” are not merely the usual flattery a head of state would bestow upon a potential new leader. Rather, it is a chance to not only make an opportunity out of the White House’s lack of vision and decision making in the Middle East, but to also gain a foothold and win back some lost favor among the regions Sunni powers due to its unending support of the Assad regime.

While it has all but been officially confirmed that General al-Sisi will run for President, it did not seem to matter much to Putin who had decided, rather pragmatically, that he was receiving a head of state and not merely the Defense Minister of a sought after ally.

But Thursday’s flowering friendship between the two leaders is not a meeting of two long lost autocratic souls—Sisi responded to Putin’s praise, “Allow me to express my deep admiration for you personally”—but a strategic move made possible by the blundering indecision of the White House.

Following the coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood Presidency of Mohammed Morsi, the White House was faced with a choice of either embracing geopolitical realpolitik and accepting the overthrow of a legitimately elected (but politically undesirable) president, or standing true to the publicly lauded values of democracy and free and fair elections. This is the sort of choice that the administration has had to face in the wake of the Arab Spring, where support for the democratic process has led to outcomes that are less than desirable for American interests. And, like so many of the decisions of this administration, it chose neither and instead opted to waver, both implicitly supporting and explicitly denouncing the coup. In doing so the administration not only alienated the new regime in Egypt, but also gave the Kremlin a political opportunity, one that it has been quick to exploit.

Initially the U.S. refused to label the military’s toppling of a democratically-elected government a “coup” because doing so would have made Egypt—and its new leaders—ineligible to receive U.S. aid. This verbal judo allowed the administration to maintain relative distance from the situation and to remain supportive of the new government (which was much more inclined to warm relations with the U.S. as many in the Egyptian military, including al-Sisi himself who has a close relationship with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have been trained at U.S. military academies). But when the authorities used force against Muslim Brotherhood protests, the U.S. took the impotent steps of cancelling joint exercises, and withholding F-16 C/D fighters, Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, and M1A1 Abrams tanks, along with $250 million, until it made progress on issues such as human rights and democracy.

This is not to suggest that human rights are not a worthy geopolitical issue, but that it cannot be supported haphazardly. Whether it is in Syria or in Egypt, the administration has time and again made concrete statements, only to backtrack and waver or implement half measures that do nothing but to further embolden other actors.

The Kremlin has no such confusion regarding its interests and goals—at least internationally. The withholding of military aid provided an opportunity to the Kremlin, one that Putin was quick to exploit. After the October suspension of aid, there was an increase in Cairo-Moscow diplomacy. The shuttle diplomacy was capped off with a high-level visit mid-November by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, along with officials from the military production industry, like Andrei Boitsov from Federal Service on Military-Technical Cooperation and officials from Rosoboronexport. The meeting was a chance to not only talk about increasing relations (Egypt and Russia had been quite close and until 1972 there were some 20,000 Russian military advisors in the country), but also arms sales.

The prospect of an Egyptian-Russian reproachment was evidently of such great concern that John Kerry flew to Cairo the week before the delegation was due in order to re-affirm U.S. support (despite the fact that Lt. Gen. Vyacheslav Kondrashov, Russian deputy chief of staff and head of GRU military intelligence, was already in Cairo meeting with the Egyptian military and going through shopping lists of arms for purchase) and to supposedly offer a resumption of aid to counter-act any deal with the Kremlin.

However it seems Kerry’s gesture came as too little too late. It appears that the meeting between al-Sisi and Putin was more than a simple campaign stop, as Vedemosti is cited as saying an agreement on a $3 billion dollar arms purchase was finalized. A deal would most likely include Mig-29M/M2 fighters (possibly as many as 24), Mi-35 attack/transport helicopters, along with coastal and air defense systems (including the Buk M2, Tor M2 and Pantsir-S1). The deal is beneficial for both countries since it allows Egypt to demonstrate its independence and that it is not beholden to any one country (along with displaying its displeasure at the linking of military aid with political issues).

The deal for Russia is as symbolic as it is material. It is yet another example of the deftness of the Kremlin, especially in exploiting weaknesses in U.S. foreign policy. No sooner had the U.S. announced the suspension of aid than envoys were shuttling between Moscow and Cairo hoping to re-kindle a long lost alliance. It also provides a significant injection of capital into the Kremlin’s coffers and arms industry—especially since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are footing the bill which means it will most likely be cash up front rather than in the forms of lengthy loans. Furthermore, this helps Russia regain some lost political capital among the Sunni regimes and increase its relevance in the region in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

The arms deal also set the stage for further negotiations, ones aimed at closer security coordination and increasing economic interdependence. Lavrov said that the Foreign Ministers had “agreed on how we can continue to build our bilateral relations, including the formation of a Russian-Egyptian intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation in the near future.” With Shoigu commenting, “We expect that our agreements will be translated into concrete projects that meet the security interests of our countries.”

Yet, the most significant aspect of this deal is that it further reinforces Russia’s position as an integral geopolitical actor. One who’s friendship and interests must be taken into account. The meeting in Moscow affirmed this. Nothing less would take Putin away from his personal Olympic Games, only to revel in yet again exploiting the White House’s naiveté.