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While Russia Makes War in Syria, It Makes Love in Egypt

As Russia seeks to develop trade partnerships that evade Western sanctions, Egyptian regional influence is critical to Moscow's vision of its role on the world stage.

by Torie Rose DeGhett
Oct 5 2015, 5:42pm

Imagen vía Kremlin

After steadily building up its military presence in Syria in a bid to extend its influence in the Middle East, Russia began launching airstrikes within the country last week. Now that the Kremlin has demonstrated its loyalty to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, it is looking to develop diplomatic and commercial bonds with Egypt that stand to serve both countries politically and economically.

Egypt has yet to issue formal comment on Russia's strikes against targets in Syria, but the economic, military, and political relationship between the two countries has been on a consistent upswing since the fall of President Mohammed Morsi in a military-led coup in July 2013. Egyptian interest in acquiring Russian MiG-35 fighter jets has turned into full negotiations for 46 aircraft, possibly for as much as $2.2 billion — which is just the latest in a string of economic and security-related boosts to the partnership.

Related: Why Are the French Selling Russian Weapons To Egypt? Mistral Saga, Part Deux

The two countries have a long history. The strength of their association peakedduring the Cold War and the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose costly military involvement in Yemen in the 1960s was backed by the Soviet Union. (Moscow is currently much less supportive of Saudi Arabia's coalition intervention in Yemen, in which Egypt is participating.)

A declassified Central Intelligence Agency memorandum from 1972 remarked on the depth of their reliance on one another, but also on growing strain in the relationship after Nasser's death and the ascension of Anwar Sadat to the presidency. The document, titled "Soviet-Egyptian Relations: An Uneasy Alliance," noted that while each side felt burdened by the diplomatic attachment, both willingly endured friction for the sake of "concomitant benefits." That July, after chafing at the Soviet role in Egypt, Sadat expelled more than 15,000 Soviet military advisors over a conflict regarding spare parts for military machinery. Relations between the paircontinuedto sour in the years that followed, with Sadat annulling their friendship treaty in 1976.

Today's partnership is itself not without friction, but both Egypt and Russia still find benefit in their linkage as well as ample reason to continue building on what they have.

"What we can see is just the logical development of Russian-Egyptian relations after the fall of the Soviet Union," said Nikolay Kozhanov of Chatham House, a British think tank.

On the surface, the relationship is a means of building up non-Western political support and diversifying economically. In simple and transactional terms, Russia needs political influence, and Egypt, a regional heavyweight and the most populous state in the Arab world, is an ideal ally. It is among the strongest military powers in the region and has historic political and cultural influence. Egypt, for its part, is happy to be Russia's main man in the Middle East.

Russia "doesn't have many allies in the world in general," said Jenny Mathers, a professor of international politics at the University of Aberystwyth. Since those that it does have are fairly weak, she added, "anything that it can do to shore up relationships with regimes or countries where it feels like it could have a profitable link, it's going to make the effort, within reason."

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Egypt has long been a key political player in the region. Influence in and cooperation with Cairo and the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi fit a number of Russia's specific desires and interests in the Middle East, such as security. Egypt and Russia can easily share rhetorical and political space when it comes to matters of counterterrorism.

Egypt is also "fitting very well into the Russian economic strategy," Kozhanov said. According to statements delivered by President Vladimir Putin, the two did more than $4.5 billion in trade in 2014, up 80 percent from 2013. Kozhanov noted that Moscow is focusing on four economic areas in the Middle East: agriculture, arms deals, nuclear energy, and technology.

Evidence of serious economic cooperation between the two exists across the board, with too many examples to enumerate. Egypt is the world's largest wheat importer; aquarterof those imports come from Russia. The two countries hatched a preliminary deal for Egypt to buy arms from Russia worth $3.5 billion last month. When it comes to energy and technology, state-run Russian atomic energy corporation Rosatom will be getting the contract to build a nuclear reactor in Dabaa, and oil company Rosneft has been awarded contracts to supply Egypt with petroleum and natural gas.

For Sisi, Russian investment is an important element in stabilizing the economy. This is reminiscent of the historical ways in which the Soviet Union provided aid to Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, helping to develop such projects as the Aswan High Dam, the Alexandria shipyards, the Helwan Iron and Steel Works, and the Nag Hammadi aluminum complex. Now, reprising that relationship, Russia is adding a nuclear power plant to the list.

The nuclear power plant, which will be built on an existing research reactor site west of the port city of Alexandria, is Egypt's first. Following Putin's February visit and the announcement of the project, an opinion piece in the state-owned Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram declared it "high time to break out of this undeclared limitation on Egypt's capacities to harness nuclear energy for the future prosperity of the Egyptian people."

Meanwhile, arms acquisitions that include MiG-29 fighter jets, Tor and Buk surface-to-air missile launchers, Antey-2500 surface-to-air missile systems, and a Molnya missile corvette reflect growing security cooperation between Egypt and Russia. In June, the two conducted their first joint naval drills — called "Bridge of Friendship 2015" — in the Mediterranean.

Kozhanov noted that there is "a certain chemistry between Putin and the current Egyptian leadership." On Putin's state visit to Egypt in February, his first in a decade, Putin presented aKalashnikov AK-47 to Sisi as a gift. The weapon, a fitting present for a former military man, is also a longstanding symbol of Russian (and Soviet) military might.

"In recent months special value has been attached to the position adopted by President Putin, who supports Egypt in matters relating to the fight against terrorism and is aware of the real situation in our country," Sisi said during the visit. "It is on such understanding that our relations need to be built."

While the economic aspect of Russia's desire to stay close Egypt is essential to their bond, Egyptian regional influence is also critical to Moscow's vision of its role on the world stage.

Both sides are looking to turn away from the West, whose sanctions on Russia particularly motivate its need to find trade partnerships elsewhere. In diving into the Middle East, Russia is looking to evade and distract from pressure over its role in the eastern Ukrainian conflict.

Meanwhile, Egypt's relationship with Europe and the United States has suffered since the ousting of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, as Sisi's government represses dissent and civil liberties. In the Kremlin, his government has found a much less critical ally. 

Related: Saudi Arabia Has Been Going on a Nuclear Shopping Spree

"The Egyptians would definitely like to diversify their foreign policy," Kozhanov said. "After the fall of Mubarak, they are not interested in relying on the West as their main supporter. Given the Russian experience in Syria, where Moscow demonstrated that they could be a loyal ally, the Egyptians are interested in hedging their risks."

When it comes to Syria, Kozhanov said, "the Egyptians are partly playing within the framework of Russian interests." The Sisi government, largely out of a desire not to alienate Russia, has been promoting more moderate and non-military solutions to the civil war in Syria. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which has vocally supported the removal of Assad, Egypt has pushed for solutions that might include him.

The balancing act is, of course, imperfect. Despite the strong Russian role in events in Syria, no diplomatic relations exist between Syria and Egypt; they were severed under Morsi's presidency. Egypt is also constrained to some extent by Riyadh, whose own relations with the Kremlin are strained. Though Egypt is involved in Saudi Arabia's current war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the intervention has been a source of friction between Riyadh and Moscow, which has expressed "concern" about Yemen's sovereignty.

Egyptian-Russian relations are only one strand in a tangled web of alliances that overlap across the Middle East. The broader international dynamics of Cold War superpower competition are decades gone, but both Moscow and Cairo are finding new benefits in an old relationship. 

Follow Torie Rose DeGhett on Twitter: @trdeghett
Photo via Kremlin