Little Might Come of Egyptian-Russian Defense Cooperation

Egypt’s promise of a “new era” in relations with Russia is probably designed to put pressure on America.

Egypt’s top general hailed a new era in defense cooperation with Russia on Thursday although the country was quick to downplay fears that it was seeking a “substitute” for its alliance with the United States.

The Arab nation’s army chief General Abdul Fatah Sisi, who led a coup against Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July, told Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu that his visit to Cairo marked the beginning of “historic strategic relations via starting a new era of constructive, fruitful cooperation on the military level,” state media reported.

The Russian delegation returned to Moscow without having announced any major agreements, however. While Russia might see an opportunity to expand its influence in the Middle East at the United States’ expense, the Egyptians seemed more interested in sending a message to Washington.

President Barack Obama’s administration suspended most of its military aid to Egypt last month in a belated protest to the army’s takeover. While counterterrorism assistance and training programs for officers have continued, the delivery of military hardware is conditioned on a restoration of democracy.

America has clear strategic interests in Egypt — it relies on access to the Suez Canal and overflight rights to sustain its military efforts throughout the Middle East — but is prohibited by its own law from supporting autocratic regimes. The Obama Administration initially refused to describe Morsi’s removal as a “coup” to circumvent the law but faced strong domestic pressure to downgrade relations with Egypt nevertheless.

Russia has no such qualms. Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs who sat on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, wrote in August that it is primarily concerned about the rise of political Islam on its southern borders and therefore favored the Egyptian army’s disposal of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.

It is concerned that a triumphant radical Islam in the Arab world will invigorate comparable forces and threaten fragile secular regimes in Central Asia, a region Moscow considers essential to its own security. And it fears that radical Islam is slowly penetrating into its key Muslim dominated provinces, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, which are rich in resources and sit astride the lines of communication between European Russia and Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Egypt was a Russian client state until the 1970s when Anwar Sadat removed the Soviet Union’s troops from his territory and signed a peace treaty with Israel, motivated, in part, by the promise of substantial American military assistance.

The United States have since invested many billions of dollars in training Egypt’s officers and supplying its armed forces. Indeed, the Egyptian military uses so many American helicopters, jets and tanks, it is difficult to imagine it could easily replace them with Russian models. It is currently in the process of upgrading much of its hardware, a multiyear effort that involves billions more of American subsidies. Suspending that effort indefinitely would waste the money that has already been spent while supplementing the Egyptian army with Russian equipment could complicate interoperability.

The Egyptians want to get the program back on track. Threatening military relations with the Russians might be their way of reminding lawmakers in the United States of their shared interests.