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Russia-Egypt: “basic element” of strategic partnership

In the coming years, Russia is planning to open a number of military bases abroad. The geography of the Russian Defense Ministry’s plans is impressive: from Cuba to Vietnam, with focus on the Middle East.

The nearest goal is to enlarge presence in Syria. The Khmeimim air base has already become a permanent residence for the Russians, while the unit in Tartus may soon be turned into a big Russian sea base.

This proves that the Russians have long-term plans in Syria. Their goal is not just to beat the local terrorists but also to help the Syrians to determine their political future. They are planning to stay in Syria no matter who will in power there – Bashar al-Assad or some sane successor. But being one of the key “architects” of Syria’s future, the Kremlin wants to back up this status with strong military presence.

Syria is not the only place where the Russians would like to have military bases and Egypt is one of them. Quite recently, a reliable source from the Russian Foreign Ministry told Izvestiya that Egypt was on the list of possible military venues for Russia. The Egyptians reacted immediately by saying that they were not yet considering that possibility.

But the context of what was said in Egypt’s pro-governmental press in response to Russia’s message has shown that the Egyptians are not closed for discussion. Daily News said that Egypt’s military command saw no subjects for negotiations but once instructed by the political leadership, they would be open for them. Here we see some veiled wish to know what the Russians may suggest – of course, if they have anything to suggest.

Such negotiations generally have a “package” format. Military presence implies very high level of political-economic partnership and is regarded as a guarantee of its further development.

A Russian air base in Sidi Barrani (just 95 km far from the Libyan border) would make Egypt better protected from potential terrorist attacks from the west. ISIL’s Libyan branch near Sirte may fall soon. But post-Qaddafi Libya is far from stability and may give birth to new Jihadi forces. Things are even worse in Sinai, where local extremists are still strong and aggressive.

A Russian military base in Egypt would be a guarantee against instability. The Egyptians have enough abilities to resist the existing challenges alone but if backed up by one of the strongest armies in the world, they would do it much more easily.

The base would be a good impulse for Russian-Egyptian military-political and military-technical ties. This month Egypt is to host the first joint Russian-Egyptian maneuvers. For the first time, Russia will send armed paratroopers to Egypt. They will learn how to act in desert. The maneuvers will also be a chance for the sides to coordinate their military activities (1).

Russia will also send a group of ships to be led by Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier.

This is to show the Russians’ ability to quickly transfer troops in case of necessity and also to convince the Egyptians that Russia’s military presence would be strong defense from existing and potential enemies.

This may also be a stimulus for the Russian-Egyptian military-technical partnership, which may grow from arms deliveries to joint arms production and maintenance activities.

In the mid-2000s, the sides concluded a number of agreements for the supply of Russian arms to Egypt (Tor-M1 and Buk-M1-2 missile systems, MiG-29SE fighters and Mi-17 helicopters). But few of them were implemented. After the revolution, the new Egyptian authorities showed interest in them and even ordered 24 MiG-29M/M2 (MiG-35) fighters, 12 Mi-35M attack helicopters, Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters, a K300P Bastion coastal missile system, Tor-2ME missile systems, etc.

In 2013-2014, Egyptian mass media reported the possibility of Russian sea presence in Egypt, particularly, return of the Russians to Alexandria, where they had a sea brigade in the 1970s.

Rosatom’s project to build four 1,200MW nuclear reactors in Egypt is also a step towards strategic Russian-Egyptian partnership. The NPP near Al Alamein (2) and the military base in Sidi Barrani are the geo-economic and geo-political sides of the same medal and are firm steps towards a long-term geo-political alliance.

There can be lots of obstacles on this road, like protests by the Americans and some partners in the Gulf. But this process is already irreversible.

Russia’s military presence in Egypt is a fait accompli and the only question here is how quickly this will happen and how deep it will be. The foundations of this process are firm enough for anybody to be able to curb it. One of the proofs is Egypt’s vote during the UN Security Council’s Oct 8 voting on Russia’s draft resolution on Syria. The Egyptians supported the resolution to the great displeasure of one of the key sponsors of their economy, Saudi Arabia.

One more proof is Egypt’s readiness to give Russia its Mistral ships.

Russia, with its nuclear industry, defense complex, oil and gas and civil aviation sectors, has what to offer to Egypt. The sides have already signed multi-billion energy and arms contracts. So, there are all chances for the Russians to gain a military foothold in Egypt. Simply, they must not hurry so as not to scare off the Egyptians as they did in Iran, when following their unsanctioned air strikes on Syria from an Iran-based air base, they were asked by the Iranians to leave it.

We would not like to see the same story recurring in Egypt. This is a very sensible subject for any Middle East nation – no matter if it is close to the United States and NATO or not. Dissatisfaction with the Americans’ policy in the Middle East cannot be the only common ground for military-political partnership. Here we need mutual commitment and mutual motivation.

(1) In the framework of the Defenders of Friendship 2016 maneuvers, Russia will send a group of armed paratroopers to North Africa. “Several Il-76s will carry the troops from Central Russia to Egypt to mark the first such large-scale transfer,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said.

(2) By the way, the joint Russian-Egyptian Defenders of Friendship 2016 maneuvers will take place near Al Alamein, the site of the first Egyptian NPP.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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