October 20, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Russia and Egypt’s Expanding Strategic Ties
• Egypt and Russia held their first-ever bilateral military exercise on Egyptian soil this week, underscoring the growing partnership between the two countries.
• The expanding security ties underline Egypt’s desire to diversify its security partners in its fight against terrorism, which complements Russia’s ambition to increase its military footprint in the Middle East.
• Egypt’s open support for the Russian position on Syria comes at the expense of Cairo’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
• While growing Russian-Egyptian cooperation presents a challenge to Egypt’s traditional allies, both Egypt and its benefactors in the U.S. and the Gulf have a mutual and enduring interest in maintaining their respective partnerships.
Egypt and Russia kicked off their first-ever bilateral military exercise on Egyptian soil this week, highlighting the steadily increasing security and political cooperation between the two countries. The exercise—along with recent Egyptian diplomatic steps that align with Moscow’s interests—suggest that Cairo is willing to strain the support of its traditional allies to increase the profile of its relationship with Russia.
The military exercise is the latest sign of a growing bilateral partnership between Egypt and Russia; Egypt-Russia relations have not been this close since the early 1970s, before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet advisors and initiated the country’s strategic reorientation toward the West. Since Egyptian President al-Sisi took office in mid-2014, Egypt and Russia have completed a $3.5 billion dollar arms deal, several presidential visits, and a $25 billion dollar loan to finance the construction of a nuclear power plant. Thus, the current bilateral military exercise is occurring squarely in the context of a steadily strengthening relationship.
The expanding security ties highlight Egypt’s desire to diversify its security partners in its fight against terrorism, which complements Russia’s ambition to increase its military footprint in the Middle East. Egypt has been struggling to subdue a long-running insurgency. Despite some recent military successes, the death of 12 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula on October 14 underscores the persistent threat posed by terror groups in the country. The bombing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in November 2015 by the Islamic State’s affiliate in Egypt also underlined both countries’ shared stake in confronting terrorism. In the context of Egypt’s ongoing security crisis, the Egyptian government has lauded Russia’s steadfast and unconditional security cooperation. This stands in stark contrast to the U.S., which has at times sought to leverage its annual military aid to Cairo to prompt political and human rights reform in Egypt.
The mutual concern over terrorism is also a driving force behind Egypt and Russia’s converging political stances on the crisis in Syria, where both countries view the Islamist orientation of rebel forces battling the Assad regime as a regional threat. The growing political coordination between Russia and Egypt was on display last week in the UN Security Council, when Egypt broke with the majority of Arab states to support a Russian resolution that sidestepped Moscow’s extensive bombing of civilians in Aleppo. The vote was followed this week by a visit to Cairo from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s national security chief, after which the Syrian government stated that Egypt and Syria would increase their political and security cooperation.
Egypt’s open support for the Russian position on Syria comes at the expense of Cairo’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has helped prop up the al-Sisi regime with billions of dollars in loans and investments since 2013. While the al-Sisi regime’s position on Syria has been widely known for years, Egypt’s increasingly vocal support for the Syrian government is viewed with disdain in Saudi Arabia. That the Egyptian government is willing to break with the rest of the Arab world to support the Assad regime indicates al-Sisi’s resolve to prioritize counterterrorism cooperation with Russia and Syria, even over the concerns of Egypt’s allies.
While Egypt’s recent military and diplomatic coordination with Russia suggest a step away from its traditional allies, both Egypt and its benefactors in the U.S. and the Gulf have a mutual and enduring interest in maintaining their respective partnerships. It is unlikely that Russia would be able to fill America’s role as the primary benefactor of Egypt’s military; annual U.S. military aid to Cairo accounts for up to one third of Egypt’s military budget, and many of Egypt’s weapons systems rely on U.S. technology and equipment for support. Given the state of the Russian economy, it is doubtful that Egypt will be able to look to Russia for the kind of financial handouts that it has enjoyed from Saudi Arabia. For the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the fear of instability in Egypt—coupled with the desire to maintain a degree of strategic influence in Cairo—has repeatedly tempered their willingness to challenge al-Sisi by reducing their military and financial support. Thus, despite the fallout of the growing comity between Egypt and Russia, neither Saudi Arabia nor the U.S. is likely to end their strategic support for Egypt in the short-term.
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