The Role of Egypt in Russia’s New Power Play in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Feb. 9, 2015In a GOP debate hosted by CNN, Senator Marco Rubio asserted that Russia is “trying to replace (the United States) as the single most important power broker in the Middle East.” Senator Rubio is correct, the wooing of Middle Eastern states by Russia is quite evident in Russia’s dealings with both its current regional allies Iran and Syria and its prospective allies. In the latter category, Egypt stands out as a prototype for Russia’s new brokerage in the Middle East. However, just as the renewing ties between Russia and Egypt have shown the effectiveness of the new Russian gambit, history and contemporary regional political dynamics demonstrate its inherent limitations.

Soviet patronage was influential in the Middle East and North Africa during the Cold War. Various governments of Algeria, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Iraq, and Iran enjoyed intricate economic and military partnerships with the Soviet Union, evidenced by the region’s proliferation of Kalashnikov-style rifles. While the Soviet Union was an ideological state, its relationships with Middle Eastern states were of geopolitical concern. It supported regional movements, socialist Arab nationalist parties across the Middle East and the Islamic revolution in Iran, which had garnered disapproval from the West. Through these acts, the Soviet Union sought to fashion influence over the region’s oil supply and incorporate its geographic offerings for power projection. Through its efforts, the Soviet Union established signals intelligence facilities and naval ports in Syria, Libya, and Egypt, along with a naval port Tunisia.

In similar fashion, Russia has actively pursued redeveloping its power projection capabilities, in the Mediterranean and worldwide. As Russia postures itself as a world power anew, it has been courting numerous states, including Egypt, for increased naval cooperation and use of naval facilities. The move accompanies Russia’s increasingly aggressive revanchist policy and antagonism with the US and the West. With sanctions hitting its economy hard, Russia has sought trade with Egypt to soften its economic reliance on Europe.

As with the Soviet Union’s relationships in the Middle East, the dramatic boost in partnership between Russia and Egypt is driven primarily by Egypt’s diminishing standing with the West. The 2013 coup in Egypt which deposed the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohammed Morsi has been widely condemned by Europe and the United States, Egypt’s largest foreign donor and weapon’s supplier. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, President Obama suspended military exercises and equipment shipments. While aid restrictions have been eased, the US remains an unreliable contributor to Egypt.

Increasing ties between Russia and Egypt are not unprecedented, in fact this has been a gradual trend since the end of the Cold War. However the scale of the increase in cooperation directly correlates with the rise of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after his military coup two years prior. Last year, Russo-Egypt trade increased 86% from the following year, totaling $5.4 billion. On August 25th, Mr. Sisi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. This was their second in seven months, after Mr. Putin’s visit to Cairo on February 10th, and came in the context of increased economic and defense cooperation between Egypt and Russia. Because US support is an increasingly conditional commodity, Egypt is likely looking to Russia for diversification and stability in economic and military cooperation.

Nevertheless, Russo-Egyptian cooperation, while increasing dramatically in recent years, has its limitations. The US remains a significant guarantor of Middle East security, a role which Russian-backed Iran actively seeks to subvert. The cold war between a Saudi-backed Arab League and Iran has led to proxy conflicts throughout the Middle East, from Syria to Yemen. Egypt is an active contributor to the Arab League effort to depose the Shiite Houthi coup in Yemen, which is fueled by Iranian money and weapons, which Yemen’s government in exile claims can be traced to Russia, and supported by the Iranian military. With Russia’s largest regional ally at odds with the Egyptian regime, the Russo-Egyptian partnership will remain pragmatic, and consequently shallow.

Furthermore, partnership with Russia does not preclude a US or independent orientation for Egypt. In the broader geopolitical context, Egypt’s development of relations with Russia can be seen as leveraging against US influence which has, since the coup, sought to pressure the regime to enact reforms and ultimately step down. Russia’s limited conditions, and likewise influence, over its partners are its principle draws.

Russia’s new partnership with Egypt presents a return to Soviet-style regional diplomacy: pragmatic opportunism executed where the West proves unforthcoming in support. However, it is this characteristic which limits Russia’s influence in the relationship and precludes it from becoming, as Senator Rubio states, “the most important power broker in the Middle East.” A more Russia-oriented Egypt will certainly be a win for Moscow and Mr. Sisi’s regime, and may prove a defeat for Washington. However, the budding Russo-Egyptian relationship will be inherently limited by Moscow’s relationship with Iran and Cairo’s preference for the greater resources and technological advantage of the US. With Russian-backed Iran keen on exploiting a destabilizing Middle East, Egypt will not count on Russia as a security guarantor, and neither will the Arab League. While Russia’s renewed gamesmanship in the Middle East may gain it trade partners and military bases in the region, the major powers in the Middle East, beyond Iran and Syria, will only ever see Russia as leverage in their relationships with the US and the West, rather than as a lasting strategic alternative.

Nicholas Varangis is a researcher on military affairs and global security issues.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Feb. 9, 2015 (photo: Office of the President of Russia)