Russian president Vladimir Putin appears to have pulled off two geopolitical coups in one week.
On Monday, he was in Istanbul to sign an agreement with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for the construction of a Black Sea gas pipeline that would bypass Ukraine (a longstanding Russian foreign-policy goal).
The two strongmen also vowed to seek common ground on the war in Syria. That seems a long way off, given that they back opposing sides in the civil war, but it’s an improvement from calling each other the “accomplices of terrorism,” as they did in November.
Then on Tuesday, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that its forces would hold joint military exercises with Egypt’s at some point later this month.
Egypt and Turkey are supposed to be American allies. What’s going on?
Russia has been making overtures to Egypt for years.
When the two announced a fresh start in their relationship in 2013, following decades of estrangement, I argued it was mostly about the Egyptians sending Washington a message. The army, under Abdul Fatah Sisi, had just deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the Americans were suspending their military aid as a result.
Russia couldn’t possibly replace the United States as Egypt’s benefactor, I wrote. The generals in Cairo just wanted their money, tanks and planes:
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.
That’s as true now as it was then. The only difference is that the United States have since restored their financial support for Egypt’s military; gifts that amount to more than $1 billion per year.
Who needs friends
Closer Russo-Turkish relations are even more surprising. It was only a year ago that Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over its border with Syria. Both Erdoğan and Putin made a lot of noise around the incident. Now they’re best of friends?
No doubt they could use more of those. Putin’s landgrab in Ukraine has made him something of a pariah while the failure of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy has made Erdoğan the laughing stock of the Middle East. He tried to play all sides for too long and when he finally chose a side in the Syrian war, Turkey ended up on the same side as what is now the Islamic State — which has carried out a series of bomb attacks in Turkey.
Erdoğan’s increasingly dictatorial ways have earned him no favors in Europe either.
That left the Americans, but Erdoğan has taken to blaming them for an attempted coup against him in July because its alleged mastermind, Fethullah Gülen, lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Erdoğan seems willing to risk a crisis in American-Turkish relations in order to get Gülen extradited.
It’s not as if he had managed what is still Turkey’s most important foreign relationship well until this year. To the consternation of the Americans, he picked a fight with Israel in 2010 over an intercepted pro-Palestinian flotilla. Three years later, he decided to buy air defense systems from the Chinese, just around the time the United States had deployed its Patriot missile defense system to the Turkish border with Syria. It felt like a slab in the face.
This is about more than impetuous strongmen and hurt feelings, however. Both Egypt and Turkey sense that the United States are tired of policing the region they’re in. And they’re right.
It may seem ungrateful. America has given Egypt some $76 billion in bilateral foreign aid in the last sixty years. Turkey has received even more, on top of the security guarantee it enjoys as part of NATO.
But gratitude — or familiarity — is perhaps the reason it’s taken countries like Egypt and Turkey this long to rethink their alliances.
Egypt is no longer the bulwark of Arab stability it once was and hasn’t been for some time, at least not since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011.
Nor has America needed Egypt like it used to. The country is at peace with Israel. There is no risk anymore of it leading a pan-Arab front against the West. The main thing for the United States is keeping the Suez Canal open and secure, but this needn’t cost over $1 billion per year.
Turkey remains more important, given its location. It can still block Russian power projection into the Mediterranean and the Middle East, but as far as the United States under Barack Obama are concerned that’s something the Europeans ought to worry about.
I wrote here last year that Obama’s priorities are sustaining the liberal world order America built after World War II and managing America’s relationship with China. Everything else is secondary and should ideally — as Adam Garfinkle argued in The American Interest around the same time — be managed by middle powers.
Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, eurozone distempers and all the other headline soaks that pop into view from time to time are no longer vital interests and only by “leading from behind” or not leading at all will responsible governments come to own up to their own security obligations.
Garfinkle did warn that revisionist powers, like China, Iran and Russia — which never accepted the very liberal world order Obama is committed to uphold — might try to fill a perceived vacuum.
That appears to be happening.
It’s not just Russia reaching out to Egypt and Turkey (and intimidating countries in Europe). It’s China bullying nations around the South China Sea and taking advantage of the anti-Americanism of the new Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte. It’s Iran contesting regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia, another ally that is anxious about American disengagement from the Middle East.
Whether or not this will add up to a structural challenge to American hegemony remains to be seen. What we can say at this point is that if Obama thought middle powers would step up the plate in America’s absence, he was mistaken. Some are instead switching one patron for another.