Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Cairo on Nov.29. Offering condolences for the massacre at a mosque in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on Nov.24 that killed over 300 people, Shoigu emphasized the need to strengthen cooperation in fighting terrorism. According to him, the military ties between the two countries are at all-time high as Egypt placed new orders for Russian weapons.
It was reported on Nov.30 that the Russian government had approved a draft agreement with Egypt, which would allow the two countries to use each other’s airspace and airbases. The draft deal was set out in a decree, signed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Nov. 28, which instructed the Russian Defence Ministry to hold negotiations with Egyptian officials and to sign the document once both sides reached an agreement.
The access to Egyptian airports would allow Russian military aircraft to refuel on their way to Syria. The agreement concerns a supplementary logistics hub, which might help Russian aircraft act in a free manner in the Syrian theater, when needed. When in force, the deal will make training of Egyptian Air Force personnel much easier. The document does not cover airborne radar pickets and military transport planes carrying hazardous cargo. The agreement is to be valid for five years and could be extended.
The New York Times writes that the air base deal as an “apparent snub to the Trump administration,” since it represents “the latest extension of Russian power in the Middle East, in this case through cooperation with one of Washington’s closest Arab allies.” According to the source, if implemented, the proposed agreement would deepen Russia’s military presence in the region to the levels unmatched since 1973. In practical terms, the presence of Russian jets in Egypt would raise concerns about the operational security of American military personnel and require coordinating with American military planes in the same airspace.
The New York Times cites analysts who claim that Cairo’s perceived willingness to allow Russian airpower access to Egyptian airbases demonstrates a reduction in United States influence in the region. “Power abhors a vacuum and when the United States pulls back we can’t be under the impression that the world is going to stand by and wait for us,” said Matthew Spence, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy under the Obama administration.
In August, Cairo criticized the US for its decision to withhold $195 million in military aid and cut $96 million in other aid in response to Cairo’s alleged human rights violations.
Egypt is the most populous country in North Africa and the Arab world, the third-most populous in Africa and the fifteenth-most populous in the world. Last year, the country’s population reached 92 million.
A year ago, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi publicly affirmed his support for the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to bring Egypt even closer to Russia. The possibility of Egyptian military taking part in the implementation of the safe (de-escalation) zones initiative in Syria is on the agenda. The involvement of Egypt would no doubt hike the country’s international standing.
In recent months, Moscow and Cairo have signed several contracts for MiG-29 fighter jets, Ka-52 helicopters, and other weapons as Russia’s arms sales to Middle East countries have spiked to record-high levels. The two partners have signed several agreements for the renovation of military production factories on Egyptian soil. A protocol has been signed to grant Egypt access to GLONASS, the Russian global satellite positioning system. The Russian-Egyptian 2017 Defenders of Friendship joint tactical drills took place in September, 2017 in the Krasnodar region of the Russian Federation – the first joint airborne training exercise on Russia’s soil to become a regular event in future.
Gaining basing rights in Egypt would allow Russia to project military power into many parts of the region, including the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean. The military presence will be legitimized. Russia would have the ability to take part in peace keeping missions in Libya should it choose to.
Libya is a promising area for cooperation. Moscow has a special role to play there. Russia and Egypt can contribute jointly into bringing stability to this war-torn country. Their interests by and large coincide paving the way for coordinated policy and actions. The opposing actors in Libya ask Russia to intervene as a mediator. Libyans remember well the NATO intervention of 2011 and don’t trust the West, especially in view of its failure to achieve any positive results in Syria.
Many Arab countries are turning to military cooperation with Russia as a result of its success in Syria. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has just visited Russia to ask for protection against the United States. The possibility of constructing a Russian naval base in Sudan is an issue under consideration.
Russia has special relationship with Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia is Egypt’s ally. It provides funds for buying Russian weapons. This October, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud visited Moscow – the first ever visit to Russia by a Saudi king. A memorandum of understanding was signed on the purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Russia to mark a shift for Saudi Arabia, which until now has been purchasing arms from the United States and Great Britain. The countries don’t see eye to eye on many international issues but realize how important it is to cooperate and exchange the views.
With Western sanctions in place, Moscow makes breakthroughs to gain influence and access to new markets for Russian arms, goods and energy. It enjoys good relations with all countries of the region. There is not a single state in the region that Moscow has a conflict with. No other country has such an advantage. Moscow does not take sides in the Sunni-Shia conflict, which makes it well suited for playing the role of mediator between the Gulf States backed by Egypt and Iran.