Egypt-Russia rapprochement, an insurance policy against US attitudes
After US President Donald Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem, it’s possible that too close an affiliation with the United States carries increased political costs for officials in the Middle East and North Africa.
Russia may be a winner in the leadership gap that is opening in the region. Its regional influence because of misguided US policies is certain to increase further, after rising for years. This, despite Moscow’s policies frequently being at odds with those of Europe and the United States.
Russia’s latest political trophy in the influence competition is a preliminary agreement with Egypt that allows its military aircraft to use Egyptian military bases. The arrangement would, at the very least, unsettle the United States, NATO and Israel.
Why would Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi agree to such an arrangement? A combination of factors might make it desirable. These include the relative lack of US direct investment in the Egyptian economy, a newly strident pro-Israel bias in Trump-led US foreign policy and Washington’s reluctance to consider regional security concerns beyond its own desire to protect its homeland against Islamic terrorism.
In contrast, Russia has agreed to invest in Egypt’s economy, not least supporting one of Sisi’s pet projects, an industrial zone along the Suez Canal. Moscow is discussing the possible construction of nuclear power plants to help relieve Egypt’s chronic energy shortage. Russia has offered advanced military hardware on generous terms while demonstrating its commitment to regional stability by providing direct political and military assistance to the embattled Syrian regime.
These policies stand in stark contrast to the United States, which, until recently, sought to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power without laying out a plan for what comes after. Accordingly, Sisi has sought to develop deeper ties with Russia. Moscow seems to offer a more stable alternative to the increasingly fickle Americans, especially with respect to the MENA region.
The deal-making is proceeding apace. The Russian government approved a draft agreement with Egypt for both countries to use each other’s airspace and bases.
The draft, prepared by Russia’s Defence Ministry and approved by its Foreign Ministry, was officially accepted by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Cairo for talks a day before a decree from Medvedev’s office was published.
The agreement would cover not only military fighter jets and bombers but also airborne warning and control (AWAC) radar aircraft and military transport. It would remain in force five years but could be extended by mutual agreement.
Taken with Russia’s leases on Syria’s Tartus port and Hmeimim airbase, where the Russian Air Force has deployed its advanced A-50U AWAC aircraft, the deal with Egypt is important. It gives Russia a significant military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, close to the Suez Canal, a regional presence not seen since the Cold War and the days of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The deployment of the Russian A-50Us is a potential regional game-changer. Their advanced avionics can detect the launch of a missile or a fighter jet from 644km or ground targets 322km distant. This is an operational reconnaissance depth that can only unsettle the United States, NATO and Israel.
That is hardly the extent of Russia’s regional diplomatic manoeuvres. It has also been making agreements with other regional US allies. In September, Russia signed an agreement with Turkey for the $2 billion sale of its advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. This unsettled the NATO alliance because Turkey’s new technology would not be interoperable with the military alliance’s weapons systems. In October, Russia agreed to sell $3 billion worth of missiles to Saudi Arabia, another close American ally. Both Riyadh and Ankara opposed US policy on Syria.
In this context, Sisi’s rapprochement with Russia may be pragmatic, an insurance policy against the shifting sands of US policy. Some would say Russia stands for regional stability and has consistently offered support for Middle Eastern governments devoid of ideological considerations.
It remains to be seen if Washington can — or will — accommodate itself to this fluid regional dynamic.