Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Courting Moscow

Egypt and Russia are consolidating their military cooperation, writes Ahmed Eleiba


Sobhi (right) and Shoigu during their meeting in Cairo last week
Sobhi (right) and Shoigu during their meeting in Cairo last week

Egypt welcomed both the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and his American counterpart James Matti last week. The close succession of the visits amplifies the strategy Egypt has followed since the 30 June Revolution — a strategy geared to diversifying military relations.

Observers note that the two visits are also in line with recent developments in the Middle East and are part of efforts to shape forthcoming regional security arrangements when military operations in Syria end.

Unlike other areas of mutual cooperation following the downing of a Russian civilian airliner in Sinai in October 2015 military cooperation between Cairo and Moscow has grown.

 On 29 November the Russian Ministry of Defence announced its intention to further increase cooperation with Egypt, with a particular focus on military industries, in order to enhance the capabilities of Egyptian security forces in the fight against terrorism. The announcement coincided with the fourth meeting of the Russian-Egyptian Joint Commission on Military and Technical Cooperation. Russian news agencies have reported that talks are currently underway over reciprocal arrangements for the use of airspace and airbase facilities. On 28 November Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev issued a decree, posted on the Kremlin website, instructing Russia’s ministries of defence and foreign affairs to conduct negotiations with Egypt to finalise the airspace and airbase agreement which will be valid for a five-year renewable period.

According to Russian press reports, the negotiations cover reciprocal use of airbases and airports but exclude early warning systems and command-and-control aircraft. Under the draft agreement Russian and Egyptian aircraft will be able to use each other’s airspace and airports on condition they give five days’ notice. “Moscow is seeking to optimise the benefits of military cooperation [with Egypt] and is looking towards the kind of agreement it had with Iran,” a military observer told Al-Ahram Weekly. Tehran had pursued a cooperative agreement with Moscow in secret, abandoning it only after it became known, says Mohamed Nagi, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Tehran has now revived cooperation but it is much narrower in scope.Official military sources in Cairo have confirmed a framework exists for enhancing military cooperation with Russia in the framework of regional security arrangements to counter unconventional threats and dangers but stress the details are still being discussed. Defence Ministry Spokesman Brigadier General Tamer Al-Refaai said the meeting between Egyptian Defence Minister General Sidki Sobhi and his Russian counterpart Shoigu covered the military partnership and cooperation between the two countries. During the meeting both sides expressed their keenness to increase military cooperation and enhance the exchange of expertise. Shoigu praised Egypt’s influential regional role and said Moscow was looking at ways to cooperate over defence industries and develop joint training activities. The US secretary of defense was in Cairo as part of a tour that also included Jordan, Kuwait and Pakistan. According to a Pentagon statement, the trip aimed to reaffirm Washington’s unswerving commitment to partnership in the Middle East, West Africa and South Asia.

Al-Refaai said the Egyptian and US defence ministers had discussed the latest regional and international developments, ways to coordinate efforts in the war against terrorism, to strengthen regional security and stability, boost military cooperation, further develop joint training exercises and enhance the exchange of expertise.Washington is closely watching developments in Egyptian-Russian relations, especially military cooperation, a military expert told the Weekly. Indeed, Washington has claimed Egypt is allowing Russia to deploy special forces along its border with Libya.

General Mohamed Qashqoush, professor of security studies at the Higher Nasser Military Academy, says there is no proof of the American claims.

“Russia is not yet engaged in the war in Libya though it has told the commander of the Libyan army it would be willing to cooperate militarily to prevent the infiltration of terrorism to Libya from Syria and Iraq.”

Russia has, says Qashqoush, furnished logistical support in the form of satellite imagery of the field of operations along the Libyan border, most recently during operations to eliminate the terrorist cell which was operating in the area of Bahareya Oasis.There have also been reports that Moscow is negotiating with Sudan over the construction of a military base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. According to the reports, talks on the subject took place during Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir’s recent visit to Sochi, shortly before the Russian defence minister’s visit to Cairo.

Russia, it appears, is in the process of expanding its military presence in the region, having established a foothold in the Middle East with its naval base at Tartus and its airbase at Hmeimim, both in Syria.

 If the deal with Sudan concludes successfully Russia will construct its first ever naval base abroad from scratch. The Tartus base is an old facility that the Russians redeveloped. A base on the Red Sea would be a concrete sign of Moscow’s determination to expand its influence in the Middle East, especially in the Horn of Africa, home to a number of Western bases.

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