“Thanks, Putin!” This might sound like the Russian version of the “Thanks, Obama” joke that is popular here in the U.S., but this is altogether different. The two words were seen on one of dozens of signs being held by Egyptians along the streets of Cairo on November 14, 2014. On that day, Russian officials from the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs were in Cairo to meet with Egyptian officials to discuss what Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu called “military technical assistance,” a term not used between the two countries since the late ’70s.
The visit and discussions, which resulted in an arms sales worth upwards of $3.5 billion, came on the heels of a mid-October announcement by the U.S. government that it was suspending $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt. The suspension is believed to be in reaction to the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, as well as alleged human rights violations. Egypt’s overtures to Russia are a clear protest against the sanctions. Some experts have labeled the move as nothing more than an “irritant” to the U.S., but does it warrant closer scrutiny? Could this be the first of many moves by Russian President Putin to reestablish influence in the Middle East?
Russia and the Middle East have a long and tumultuous history. After World War II, the Soviet Union’s main reason for getting involved in the region was to disrupt U.S. influence. During that period, the Soviet Union shared a border with pro-U.S. nations like Turkey and Iran, and this made the USSR more than a bit uncomfortable. Interestingly, and representative of the current situation, at various times, the Soviet Union provided assistance to then-NATO member Turkey, and even pursued better relations with Israel. Also during the late 1980s, the massive Soviet Black Fleet took up station in the Persian Gulf to protect Kuwaiti-flagged ships against Iranian attacks. And of course they maintained ties with terror-sponsor states such as Libya, Syria, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
During the Middle East conflicts of the 1960s and ’70s, the Soviet Union firmly backed states like Egypt, Syria, and others against their main enemy, Israel. The so-called War of Attrition saw widespread use of Soviet pilots openly flying combat sorties against Israel (who, by the way, drew the Soviets into a planned air battle, codenamed Operation Rimon 20, which ended with the downing of five Soviet aircraft, with four pilots killed.)
At the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine in late February 2014, the United States found itself the target of Egyptian scorn. Egyptian officials called the Obama administration hypocritical for its support of the uprising that toppled the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych while condemning the 2013 Egyptian coup. This, along with subsequently cutting off funding, led the Egyptian government to turn to the Russians, who gladly offered a sizable package that may include, according to a March 2014 article in The Washington Institute, Rostvertol Mi-35 attack helicopters, Mi-17 multipurpose helicopters, and, if the Egyptians have their way, S-3000 air-defense missiles, MiG fighters, and Kornet anti-tank weapons. This package would be in addition to the U.S. hardware that the Egyptians already posses, which includes 35 Apache attack helicopters.
Adding to the U.S.’ displeasure with the deal is the fact that other so-called “friends” are showing their ire at what they see as seriously flawed policy in the Middle East, most notably in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. According to the WI article, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have made the bold decision to underwrite Egypt’s purchase of Russian weapons. This move comes on the heels of Saudi Arabia’s announcement that they would provide French weapons systems to the Lebanese Armed Forces.
So what are the potential costs for Egypt’s decision to turn to Russia to augment what has traditionally been a relationship shared with the U.S.? For starters, it risks further sanctions and a “stern word” from Washington, which they clearly could care less about. Some experts believe that the deal has little or no meaning. In an interview in the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Elliot Abrams, an analyst on the Council on Foreign Relations, claimed that the arms deal was nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Abrams says that the deal is simply Egypt’s way of sending the message that they do not need to rely 100 percent on the U.S., and that compared to the U.S.’ $60 billion deals in the gulf, “It is clear that the Russian deal and influence in the region are very minimal.”
But whether the deal appears minimal or not at this stage, it is still worth keeping an eye on. The continued instability in the region, encroachment by ISIS into new territories (Saudi Arabia is now feeling the pressure), and Russia’s overtures in the Ukraine and the Caucasus, (world opinion be damned) provide more than enough reason to keep tabs on the situation. If Russia decides to take advantage of the U.S.’ poor standing in the Middle East to step into the void, it could heat up an already tense situation. The time will come when this administration will have to decide whether it wants to work with the Egyptian government, or stand their ground and risk Russia taking Egypt to the prom instead.
(Featured image courtesy of thenation.com)