November 14, 2013 6:37 pm

Egypt and Russia hail new era of military co-operation

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Egyptioan defence minister Abdelfattah Said al-Sisi©AFP

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s defence minister and de facto ruler, announced a new era of military co-operation with Moscow on Thursday after talks in Cairo with Russia’s defence and foreign ministers.

The high-level Russian visit, intended to signal a rekindling of relations with an old ally, has been staged as Cairo’s ties with Washington are becoming increasingly strained.

No military sales deals were announced, but both sides appeared keen to celebrate what is being billed as a new rapprochement in relations that cooled when Egypt drew closer to Washington and out of the Soviet orbit in the 1970s.

General Sisi told Sergei Shoigu, his Russian counterpart, that the visit indicated the continuation of “historic strategic relations via starting a new era of constructive, fruitful co-operation on the military level”, according to the official Egyptian news agency MENA.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said his country was “ready to help Egypt in all the fields where it seeks co-operation”, referring specifically to the “military and military-technical field”.

A member of the Russian delegation said that while potential military sales worth more than $1bn were discussed, no agreement had been reached.

“A package of this size would have to be not just equipment sales but go hand in hand with a broader co-operation, including on foreign policy goals,” said Ruslan Pukhov, a member of the Russian defence ministry’s advisory board.

He added that among the items Egypt was seeking were MiG-29 fighter aircraft. “They are also in urgent need of upgrading their air defence systems,” he said. “A deal along the lines discussed now would mark a significant revival of once-close military ties between the two countries.”

Washington announced in October that it would withhold a significant portion of its annual $1.3bn in military aid to Egypt and suspend the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, pending progress on democracy, after the popularly backed coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first elected president.

Although the Russian visit has been accompanied by much fanfare in both countries – “popular diplomacy delegations” have visited in both directions, and a Russian warship was received with a 21-gun salute in Alexandria – analysts say the chances of closing an arms deal, especially one including weapons such as jet fighters, appeared slim.

“My big picture take is that this is probably an attempt to triangulate to leverage concessions from the US,” said Samuel Charap, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. “Given the history, the interoperability and the training issues that the Egyptian military would be taking on, it would seem to be something the military would be loath to do.”

However, Russian foreign and security experts said the high-level talks were part of a push by Moscow to take advantage of US weakness in the Middle East.

Analysts say the Russian government feels deeply uneasy that its traditional allies in the region have crumbled.

“Look at Syria – it is in shambles. Look at Libya – it is falling apart,” said a scholar close to the foreign ministry. “We want not only to be listened to but also to see our interests and wishes to be taken into consideration.”

Mr Pukhov said the strained US-Egypt relations had created “a loophole in the regional architecture. Now we are going to use this loophole to restore Russia’s influence in the region.”

The Egyptian media, which played up what they called “a historic” encounter between Russia and Egypt, have cast Moscow as a saviour assuaging Egypt’s hurt pride after its perceived insult from Washington.

But Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian foreign minister, made it clear during his press conference with Mr Lavrov that his country was not replacing one ally with another.

“Russia’s weight is too heavy to be a substitute for anyone,” he said.

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