The Geopolitics of Russia-Egypt Relations

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Written and produced by SF Team: J.Hawk, Daniel Deiss, Edwin Watson

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The rapidly developing relations between Russia and Egypt have been overshadowed by the more prominent relationships between Russia and Syria, as well as Russia and Iran. Nevertheless, the Russia-Egypt relationship deserves closer scrutiny because, unlike the country’s relations with the other two Middle Eastern powers, it concerns a country that until recently appeared to be  firmly in Western orbit. The abrupt shift of its geopolitical vector toward Eurasia therefore represents a far bigger change for the region than Russia’s successful support of the legitimate Syrian government, or the close relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, both of which have been on the Western “enemies list” for decades. The reasons for this shift are twofold, and have to do with the way Western powers interact with Middle Eastern powers in the context of a systemic economic crisis, as well as with Russia’s demonstrated attractiveness as an ally.

The West’s systemic crisis clearly transformed how Western powers view non-Western ones. Whereas the “end of history” globalist rhetoric suggested a post-sovereignty utopia in which weak and strong powers interact on equal terms in a world without borders, in practice that rhetoric was a ruse to persuade non-Western powers to drop their guard and allow themselves to be penetrated by Western corporations and financial institutions and lose any possibility of charting their own, independent course. Alas, from Western perspective, assimilating “emerging markets” is still the cornerstone of economic policy, the only program of economic growth. Whereas during the 1990s this assimilation took relatively benign form, 9/11 had the effect of allowing initially the US to adopt a far more aggressive stance, to the point of overt military invasion. While EU initially did not follow suit, the severity of EU’s own problems prompted it to jump on the bandwagon of “regime change” in the case of Libya, Syria, and Ukraine.

Egypt, a long-time Western ally since the late 1970s, unexpectedly found itself on the receiving end of predatory Western policies which took the form of the Tahrir Square “color revolution” which ultimately led to the electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn fell to a military overthrow once the danger of the country’s slide into a civil war became apparent. The fact that Muslim Brotherhood was financed by US-allied Persian Gulf states made Egypt aware it too was the target of state-sponsored jihadism, and that the US was incapable or unwilling to force its allies in region to refrain from targeting Egypt. While Syria is only a peripheral concern for Egypt, the civil war in Libya, where Islamist formations including ISIS enjoy Gulf Arab support, represents an immediate threat to Egypt for several reasons. The country can be used as a staging ground for launching attacks into Egypt and a sanctuary against retaliation and, in the longer term, should its government be a puppet controlled by hostile Gulf  powers whose long term goal is the control of Egypt and of Suez Canal, which means that Cairo is keenly interested in influencing the outcome of that war.

Russia thus became an attractive partner because of its history of non-involvement in the internal politics of its allied states (almost to a fault, because unilateral restraint led to the Maidan revolution in Ukraine), because it can fill the security void left by the Western weakness, and, last but not least, because it can physically defend Egypt’s political and territorial integrity against every conceivable threat, an ability it is currently demonstrating in Syria. Egypt appears to be taking advantage of these capabilities. Cooperation now includes the possibility of establishing a Russian airbase in Egypt, visits by Russian paratroopers to Egypt, and special operations troops providing training to their Egyptian counterparts. Egypt is also shifting its military procurement plans toward Russia. The two Mistral-class ships that have been acquired by Egypt will receive the originally planned Russian electronics suite and will carry Russian helicopters; there are discussions of MiG fighter sales to Egypt, and the country received a Molniya-class missile boat.

From the Russian perspective, Egypt represents yet another bulwark of security against Western encroachment, a symmetric response to NATO expansion, “Eastern Partnership”, and color revolutions. Combined with the military presence in Syria, Cyprus’ general pro-Russian orientation, and the neutralization of Turkey which was also facilitated by an abortive West-promoted coup attempt, Egyptian bases would transform Eastern Mediterranean into a “Russian lake.” Last but not least, these bases and alliances could serve a launchpad for power projection into other unstable areas of the Middle East and, if Egypt’s control of the Suez Canal is guaranteed by Russian arms, this guarantee endows both countries with a very effective means of pressuring Western and Gulf Arab powers.

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  • Ronald

    Egypt controls the Suez Canal and so of paramount importance . Egyptian alliance with Russia is a positive stabilizing move for them as the US has demonstrated Saudi Arabia is their first rank ally . This unfortunate alliance with the Wahhabi’s is not to anyone’s benefit . Having made the choice , I hope they back it with Russian anti- aircraft support , because the US will not be a happy camper.

  • pao

    A good move by both. The US needs to learn that it does not own the world.

  • John

    I am observing what is going on, in bits and pieces. My opinion is, this article pulled a lot of it together and presented a very understandable and accurate picture of the game being played and it´s outcomes.

  • wimroffel

    Egypt needs a rich sugar daddy and it doesn’t look to me like Russia is going to play that role. Egypt may have grudges against the Saudi’s and the Americans but the past is the past and they need money now. So I wonder how long this friendship will last.

    • Alec White

      Hate to bring it to you, but neither the USA nor Saudis have the dough. Both are flat broke.
      For Egypt to survive, it has to take over Lybia, and for that it needs the best weapons the (modest) money can buy – which happen to be Russian.

      • Barry

        Saudis have poured billions into Egypt for Sisi. They were caught off guard by anti Saudi protest about return of two small islands that Egypt held for Saudis for a few decades. Saudis could not believe the Egyptian people could be so ungrateful (their thoughts, not mine). So the spigot is being turned off. They have plenty of dough (a Saudi prince bought a Russian billionaire’s yacht for 500 million all cash, same day) but Egypt will not be getting it.

  • Barry

    It was frustrating to see Obama blow off the Iranian protests as none of America’s business, and then actively seek the downfall of Mubarak. He should have had an even approach to both.