Saturday,24 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)
Saturday,24 February, 2018
Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Tilt towards Russia

Moscow and Cairo are drawing closer over military cooperation. Amirah Ibrahim reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

A Russian military delegation arrives in Egypt today to resume negotiations over an arms deal that will significantly expand military cooperation between Cairo and Moscow.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met President Vladimir Putin on 12 August during his trip to Russia. Following discussions between the two, Putin told a press conference that a comprehensive formula for military cooperation has been reached.

The arms deal was first proposed in November when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu were visiting Cairo. Six months ago Al-Sisi, in his capacity as the then minister of defence, chose Russia as the destination for his first non-Arab official visit. The aim was to diversify Egypt’s military procurement; western media reported that Al-Sisi had inked deals worth $2 billion.

There was no confirmation at the time from either Egyptian or Russian officials. The latest reports suggest the arms deal is worth close to $5 billion, and will be financed by Arab Gulf states.

Vedomosti newspaper cited Russian defence sources as saying that the two sides initialled contracts for the delivery of MiG-29M/M2 Fulcrum fighter jets, air defence missile complexes, Mi-35 helicopters, coastal anti-ship complexes, light weapons and ammunition.

In the wake of the 30 June revolution the US suspended the transfer of some weapons systems to Egypt, making military aid conditional on political reform.

“This paved the way for interim president Adly Mansour and then defence minister Al-Sisi to resuscitate ties with Russia, a move that had strong public support,” says retired General Mahmoud Khalaf, a military consultant and strategic expert at Nasser Military Academy.

Washington has placed the delivery of four F-16s, five Harpoon ship-to-ship missile systems, dozens of M1A1 tank kits slated to be assembled in Egypt, and 10 Apache attack helicopters on indefinite hold.

“Apaches are used by the army in Sinai against armed jihadis supported by Al Qaida. Suspending the delivery of the helicopters, combined with routine maintenance schedules which ground a third of the existing fleet at any one time, pushed the leadership to move towards the Russians,” says Khalaf.

But what are the potential strategic costs of Egypt’s expected arms deal with Moscow?

Some western observers argue that the shift towards using Russian military equipment will be difficult and costly, necessitating major changes in training and maintenance systems.

“Delivery of the Mi- 35 will not take place until at least three years. It’s only due to come into service in Russia in 2016,” points out Adel Soliman, head of the Middle East Strategic Research Centre.

“That gives time for the employment of the new logistic systems necessary to comply with Russian air defence missile batteries and fighter jets.”

Since the signing of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty Washington has provided military aid to both Cairo and Tel Aviv. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates that Washington’s annual $1.3 billion military aid to Egypt accounts for 80 per cent of the Egyptian military’s annual procurement budget. Yet media reports reveal that Cairo purchases weapons from America worth more than $4 billion.

Military experts and ex-commanders believe any changeover will be much more smooth than was the case following the 1973 October War when Egypt replaced Russian military systems with American ones.

When completed, the weapons deal with Egypt will be Russia’s first with an Arab country since Moscow lost its multi-billion-dollar arms contract with Libya following the collapse of the Qaddafi regime. Between 2008 and 2011 Russia sold arms to the Middle East worth $8.5 billion, compared to $21.8 billion sold by the US.

While S-300 missiles are high on the Egyptian army’s wish list, MiG 29 fighter jets, Kornet anti-tank weapons, Rostvertol Mi-35 attack helicopters and/or Mi-17 multipurpose helicopters are more likely to be part of the package.

“Egypt already possesses 100 of these aircraft, as well as Mi-8 helicopters which have troop-transport, cargo, signals-intelligence and attack variants, are equipped with 23 mm guns and have the capacity to carry 500-kg bombs and anti-tank guided missiles,” says Khalaf.

He points out Russian helicopters are already in use in Sinai, saying, “Counterterrorism operations are the top priority at the moment and Russian helicopters fit the bill.”

The most significant component of any arms deal between Moscow and Cairo, certainly in the longer term, will be the extent it facilitates the development of a domestic armaments sector.

“The army is seeking to build its own weapons industry and this will be reflected in any joint-ventures between the two countries. Military exchanges and joint tactical manoeuvres and exercise will also be part of the deal,” says Khalaf.

“In addition, Russia is expected to refurbish and update Soviet-era weaponry that has been in service with the Egyptian army for more than four decades.”

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