Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: Towards a mutual friendship

Naval cooperation was given priority in Russian military manoeuvres with Egypt, indicating the Mediterranean is headed for a wave of intense tension, writes Khaled Okasha

Al-Ahram Weekly

I believe that the Egyptian defence minister’s visit to Russia in March established a complete set of shared opinions between the two sides from the military standpoint. The word ‘complete’ is apt here, as the meetings that preceded it were preparatory to the demonstration of the real desire to prepare a formula for a new mode of military cooperation that responds to the various factors that shape the current regional situation.

The importance of those preparatory meetings resides in the fact that the Egyptian defence minister involved at the time was Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, and it was subsequently confirmed when Al-Sisi himself became president and, in that capacity, received President Vladimir Putin, head of state of a leading world power, in Cairo.

The preparatory phase acquires added value from the fact that it derived from sovereign visions and decisions on the part of each side. Military cooperation, in view of its strategic weight, tends to stand above other forms of bilateral cooperation.

The follow-through required a number of exchanges in visits by military officials from both sides. That these occurred in a relatively short period of time suggests that decisions had been taken to accelerate the process. In the March visit, the final touches were added and the joint vision for mutual military cooperation now seemed more comprehensive. In spite of the terseness that generally characterises statements issued by military officials on such occasions, the brief press conference held by Russian Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov on 5 March, at the end of the Egyptian visit, was sufficient to understand the plans. Moscow would offer Egypt the assistance necessary to build an effective, highly equipped armed forces.

In this context, Antonov stressed a number of important points. Firstly, he underscored the difficult regional situation that Egypt faces and the new challenges and threats this presents. Secondly, Egyptian Defence Minister Sidki Sobhi, during his visit to Moscow, held extensive talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoygu in which they discussed questions of national and international security and then signed a protocol for military cooperation that would open new horizons for confronting the dangers that threaten international peace, especially terrorism.

The third point raised by the Russian deputy defence minister, above all, is what led us to describe the results of that visit as “complete”, as here he outlined what effectively constituted a genuine and urgent programme for action. The two sides, Antonov said, had agreed to conduct joint naval military manoeuvres in the Mediterranean this year and special counterterrorist training exercises for rapid response forces. They also agreed that Egyptian soldiers would continue to take part as observers in training exercises organised by Russia on Russian territory. Nothing could more conclusively prove that the two sides had taken the strategic decision to forge an effective mode of military cooperation and that they were determined to act on this resolve, as evidenced by the action plan. Further steps have been taken since March. However, 6 June marks the beginning of most significance. In the early hours of that Saturday morning, the Russian Defence Ministry announced that joint Egyptian-Russian naval exercises codenamed ‘Friendship Bridge 2015’ would be staged in the Mediterranean from 6 to 14 June.  The announcement coincided with the arrival and mooring of vessels from Russia’s Black Sea fleet at the wharfs of the Egyptian naval military unit.

Some hours later, further details were released by the Russian ministry’s Press and Information Office: Russian and Egyptian military vessels, with air force support, would engage in a joint training programme that included exercises for carrying out missions to protect maritime passages from various potential threats and organising all kinds of protection and defence at sea.

The statement added that the purpose of the manoeuvres was to strengthen and develop military cooperation between Egyptian and Russian naval forces in order to promote security and stability in the Mediterranean. It noted that the manoeuvres would be led from the Russian side by the deputy commander for the Black Sea fleet and from the Egyptian side by the head of the department of combat training for Egyptian naval forces.According to the information released by the Russians, among the Russian ships that will be taking part in the exercises are the Moskva guided missile cruiser which carries on board a Ka-27 helicopter, the Samum hover-borne guided missile Corvette, the large landing ship Alexander Chabalan, the Ivan Popov naval transport ship and the Navy Tug MB-3. The vessels from the Egyptian fleet include the Taba and Damietta frigates, the Shalatin transporter, the 25 April and 18 June missile boats, and two F-16 fighters with helicopter control. Also on 6 June, the Russian Black Sea Fleet press secretary Col. Vyacheslav Trukhachev announced, via the Russia Today news agency, that a select detachment of ships from the Russian Black Sea fleet stationed in the Mediterranean had arrived in the port of Alexandria.

Trukhachev’s statement, addressed to military circles that monitor such developments, underscored the fact that Russia was contributing some of its most important and most advanced components of its fleet to the exercises. He would know, of course, that the circles in question would already be familiar with this portion, in particular, of Russian naval capacities. This further underscores the ramifications of this event, the first exercise of its kind to be carried out from Egyptian military ports in Egypt’s territorial waters with that high a level of Russian participation. It is clear that Egypt is moving forward, with considerable resolve and determination, towards its goal to develop its diverse military capacities at a time when the region is in great turmoil and all details of its security conditions are shrouded in a dark haze. This goal opens numerous doors for cooperation unfettered by the heritage of past policies and, thus, free to develop new and independent policies. By means of these policies, Egypt signals that while it harbours no animosities towards any party, it will not close its eyes for a moment to the dangers in this region that have begun to present a direct and existential threat to major states. What they signal, above all, is that Egypt refuses to fall into the trap of the slowness with which the international order is moving to resolve the problems of this tempestuous region. This is why it has elevated the goal of building its armed forces to a priority that should not be contingent or dependent upon any one party in particular.

Russia, for its part, has demonstrated, through its current policies, a strength, dynamism and clear-sightedness in its responses to diverse international issues, not least of which are those involving the Middle East. President Putin has a thorough grasp of the scope of the dangers that abound in this troubled region and in statements and interviews as far back as 2011 he diagnosed and warned of the terrorist threats that would beleaguer the countries of this region.

The Russian administration engages a collection of political and military leaders who are as dynamic as their president, which enhances its capacities to address the region’s rapidly changing conditions. It is, therefore, noteworthy that naval cooperation was given priority in military cooperation with Egypt, for this indicates that, according to Russian assessments, the Mediterranean is headed for a wave of intense tension, perhaps centring on an imminent conflict over natural gas resources between parties that overlook and are stakeholders in this important strategic area. Thus, Russia is readying itself for what might be termed the post-Syrian crisis era, in which it predicts that the Syrian and Lebanese coasts will become a theatre for forthcoming events that may strike much more rapidly than most expect. At the same time, Russia is extremely concerned by the spectre of the dangers lurking at the long Libyan coastline in the event that the efforts on the part of Libya’s neighbours, Egypt and Algeria, aided by Europe, fail to halt the eddy that is engulfing Libyans and others in its vortex.

While joint Egyptian-Russian naval manoeuvres are formed by the dangers hovering over the Mediterranean Basin, any conception of such dangers must extend inland. Accordingly, Russia has embarked on a drive for a successful strategic arrangement through its clear resolve to develop an effective mode of military cooperation with a pivotal country at the heart of the events, namely Egypt. It is a promising arrangement, as the two sides share many outlooks and positions, as well as the common concern to fight the mounting threat of terrorism. Also favouring this arrangement is the personal chemistry between the Egyptian and Russian presidents who have a number of traits in common. Foremost among them is their determination to ensure the success of their respective nations, which they have set as the chief priority of their presidential agendas.

Finally, there are the concrete resources and capacities that can enable a strategic leap forward that will serve the welfare of both countries and revive a lost equilibrium in the face of looming threats and dangers.

The writer is director of the National Centre for Security Studies.

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