Moscow attempts to 'exploit' difficulties in US-Egypt relations to rekindle an old friendship (Q&A)

Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting on Feb. 13, 2014.</p>

Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting on Feb. 13, 2014.

Reports of a $2 billion arms deal between Russia and Egypt have fueled speculation that Moscow is seeking to capitalize on a rift between Washington and Cairo in order to rekindle an old friendship.

The deal, which could be financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, reportedly involves MiG-29 fighters, air and coastal defense systems, Mi-35 attack helicopters and smaller arms.

Relations between the United States and Egypt soured last year after the US government suspended part of its annual $1.3 billion defense aid to the country in response to the military-led ousting of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi and a bloody crackdown on protesters.

More from GlobalPost: US military aid freeze to Egypt is a symbol, not a blow

Russia was the main arms supplier to Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s during the rein of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. But in the 1970s, President Anwar Sadat broke off ties with Moscow and the United States took over that role after Egypt and Israel signed a US-brokered peace treaty in 1979.

After relations between Washington and Cairo turned frosty last year, Moscow moved quickly to fill the void. In November — a month after the US announced it was withholding several hundred million dollars worth of military aid — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu flew to Egypt for talks on “military-technical” cooperation.

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is likely to be Egypt’s next head of state even though he has not yet announced plans to run for president. 

During the meeting Putin expressed his support for Sisi in his likely bid for the country’s top job.

Russia, which is also a key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, appears to be on a mission to increase its influence in the Middle East as US policy falters. 

More from GlobalPost: Kerry blames Assad government for stonewalling latest Syria peace talks

To understand Russia’s game plan and what it means for US influence in the region, GlobalPost spoke to Steven Cook, an expert on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute. 

Is Russia seeking to exploit the chill in US-Egypt relations to get closer to Egypt? What does Russia hope to achieve and how successful do you think it will be?

Steven Cook: It’s clear that Moscow is seeking to exploit difficulties in the US-Egypt relationship. It has become a pattern in Russian foreign policy.

I’m not convinced it will be successful, but the Egyptians are, at least, receptive to Russian overtures for two reasons.

First, the Egyptians have historically sought external patrons from whom they could extract resources. The more potential patrons, the easier it is for Cairo to play them off of each other and thereby secure a better deal from these outside powers.

Second, the Egyptians look at American political dysfunction and the rise of isolationism on the wings of the Democratic and Republican parties and wonder whether US assistance is sustainable in the long run.

Jeffrey White: I think they are trying to exploit the change in the US-Egyptian relationship.

The tensions over the democratic process in Egypt have provided the Russians with an opportunity and they are moving ahead with that opportunity.

They’ve been out of Egypt for a long time in a major way so this is a good chance for them to reestablish a major connection with the Egyptian military.

I think they will have some success. The Egyptians are looking to show the United States that they are not completely dependent on us for military assistance and that they have other opportunities to get military aid.

It's not the end of the US-Egyptian military relationship. We will continue to have a strong role there, but the Egyptians want to demonstrate they have other opportunities, that they’re not completely dependent on us. So this is a way for the Egyptians to do that.

When you deal with the United States in terms of military aid there’s also strings attached in the sense that the US wants the weaponry to be employed in certain ways, it wants the military to maintain certain standards in terms of civil-military relations and human rights and so on. When you get US aid you get those kinds of strings, conditions on behavior and so on, when the weapons can be used or how they can be used.

With the Russians you don’t get those. I think with the Russians it’s a cleaner deal in a sense that there aren’t strings attached to it.

What do you make of the US response to the Egypt-Russia negotiations and what do you think they should do?

Steven Cook: American officials seem skeptical that there is [anything] to the Russian-Egyptian overtures.

Moscow requires payment in hard currency for weapons systems. This is the kind of cash the Egyptians don’t have and it seems unlikely that the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Emiratis will finance Egyptian purchases of Russian arms.

Jeffrey White: I think our response has been fairly low key.

I think the United States has to be really careful here and put this in the context of the long-term US-Egyptian relationship. That’s a strategic relationship of major importance in terms of our position in the Middle East so we can’t just react really badly and raise a huge fuss over this agreement.

We don’t want to drive the Egyptians further towards the Russians and we also need to actually see what happens here. Does this turn out to be a huge agreement, does it turn out to be the opening wedge of a much greater relationship between the Egyptian and Russian militaries?

So we need to see what actually takes place. Sometimes these arms agreements are given a lot of attention, a lot of publicity, a lot of discussion about them and yet it takes a very long time for them to actually come to fruition.

In a year or two or three, this may look quite different. 

Does Russia’s proposed arms deal with Egypt risk tipping the scale of the US-Russia balance of power in the Middle East in Moscow’s favor?

Steven Cook: No, even as the Egyptians and Russians explore a deepening of relations, the Egyptians admit that there is no alternative to the United States — yet.

Like other regional allies, Cairo is worried about American disengagement and they are hedging.

Jeffrey White: If we assume that it actually comes to fruition, that it's completely executed and there is a significant relationship re-established there between Russia and Egypt, yes it would change the balance somewhat, but it's not necessarily going to affect the balance in an enormous way.

It would give the Russians more access to Egypt, more access to the Egyptian military and so on. It might give them an opportunity for further agreements in the region as people see that the Egyptians can do it so they can too.

I don’t think it’s a fundamental shift yet, (but) we have to see what happens.

Editor's note: These interviews were edited and condensed for clarity.