Cairo’s purchase of Russian fighter jets may trigger US retaliatory sanctions

Egypt said it wants to diversify the sources of its arms, following decades of dependence on US military equipment.
Sunday 24/11/2019
Cause of friction. A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet is prepared for take-off at the Russian military base of Hmeimim near Syria’s Latakia governorate, September 26.(AFP)
Cause of friction. A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet is prepared for take-off at the Russian military base of Hmeimim near Syria’s Latakia governorate, September 26.(AFP)

CAIRO - The acquisition of the Russian-made Su-35 fighter jets is necessary for Egypt to maintain its fight against terrorism, defend its interests and protect international maritime movement in the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, Egyptian military and political analysts said.

“Egypt is a principal power in the region,” said retired army General Nagui Shohoud. “It needs to keep playing its traditional balancing role at a time of major regional turmoil.”

Egypt ordered the twin-engine super manoeuvrable aircraft from Russia in 2018, in a deal worth $2 billion. Russia was expected to deliver 20 of the aircraft in 2020 and 2021, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported last March.

The Egyptian purchase had apparently come in reaction to the refusal of the United States to sell F-35 jets to Cairo. The Egyptian move was opposed by the United States, which said the deal would make Cairo face possible sanctions.

On November 18, R. Clarke Cooper, the US State Department’s assistant secretary in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said Egypt risked US sanctions if it purchased Russian fighter jets.

This was not the first time the United Sates talked about sanctions.

Last April, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the United States would impose sanctions on Egypt if it purchased Su-35 jets.

“We’ve made clear that if those systems were to be purchased, the CAATSA statute would require sanctions on the regime,” Pompeo said.

CAATSA — Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act — imposes penalties on US foreign adversaries Iran, North Korea and Russia.

That raises questions about the future of relations between Egypt and the United States.

“Sanctions will not likely be an easy matter for the United States, given growing cooperation with Egypt,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “This is not the first time Egypt signs arms deals with Russia.”

In the past five years, Egypt has bought a wide range of arms and military equipment from Russia and Moscow is only part of a long list of suppliers: Cairo has also turned to France, China, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Egypt said it wants to diversify the sources of its arms, following decades of dependence on US military equipment. In 2013, Egypt learnt the lesson of this dependence on one supplier the hard way when the United States withheld military and financial aid because of political developments in Cairo.

The 2013 scenario indicates what the United States can do if Egypt moves ahead with the purchase of the Russian aircraft. With around $1.3 billion in annual military aid, Egypt is the largest US aid recipient after Israel.

Apart from withholding part or all military aid — and possibly economic aid — the United States may suspend joint military training with the Egyptian Army, analysts said.

Egyptian and US militaries have conducted “Bright Star” drills since 1980. The exercise was cancelled in 2011 because of the “Arab spring” protests in Egypt but was reinstated in 2018.

The possible sanctions raise questions on whether Egypt can afford them and whether the Russian jets are worth it. They also cast uncertainty over relations between Egypt and Russia.

Cairo and Moscow have grand cooperation plans. Russia apparently seeks to remain a force in Egypt as part of its expansion of influence in the Middle East and Africa.

In August, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a strategic partnership. Russia is building an industrial zone in the Suez region and will construct Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. It plans to build workshops to maintain Russian military equipment in Egypt.

An unnamed Egyptian government official described the arms deal as a “sovereign issue” for Egypt.

“Egypt is an independent state that does not take orders from other countries,” the English-language newspaper Daily News Egypt, on November 16, quoted the official as saying in comment on the possible US sanctions.

However, political analysts advise caution.

“Egypt needs to resort to diplomatic channels to explain its point of view to the US administration,” Fahmi said. “This is important if we do not want things to get worse.”

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