Immediately after he arrived in Cairo this past February, Vladimir Putin cracked open one of his suitcases and presented his host, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with a glittering new toy: an AK-47 assault rifle. The weapon, an icon of Soviet military power, gained a new meaning as it was transferred from the Russian leader to his Egyptian counterpart. It became a symbol not of Russian military strength, but of the growing network that Russia is building abroad to challenge American power.
The February talks in Egypt between Putin and Sisi cement strategic and economic ties that have been forming over the past two years. The two leaders agreed to increase trade, develop plans for an Egyptian nuclear industry, and intensify anti-terrorism efforts. Egypt, once a solid American ally, has drifted away from the United States in the tumult following the Egyptian Revolution and continues to face American criticism for human rights abuses and antidemocratic policies. This new Russian-Egyptian partnership only widens the rift between the longtime allies.
The case of Egypt is not unique. Elsewhere, Russia has chipped away at American influence by cultivating new relationships. Earlier this year, Russia agreed to lower interest rates on a loan to Cyprus in exchange for the ability to dock its navy for refueling and humanitarian purposes at a Cypriot port. In Greece, Russia supported the left-wing Syriza party before it won in the January general election. Now Greece’s leaders are criticizing the European Union’s sanctions on Moscow.
While Russia’s expanding influence certainly impacts American foreign policy goals, the United States is not likely to act assertively to limit Russian power in Egypt. Both domestic and international forces pressure the United States to refrain from tackling Russia directly over its foreign incursions. Even more importantly, Russian and American interests in the region line up startlingly well.
A Bear Hug
Egypt’s geopolitical allegiances shifted dramatically throughout the Cold War. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 60s, Egypt repeatedly defied the Western powers and implemented socialist programs. These actions earned Egypt the friendship of the USSR. When Nasser suddenly died in 1973, his successor, Anwar Sadat, redirected Egypt away from the Soviets and adopted a pro-American stance. After Sadat’s assassination in 1981, his vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, assumed leadership and continued to maintain a close relationship with the United States. Under Mubarak, Egypt could be trusted to maintain peace with Israel and to act to stabilize the region.
The critical change came in 2011. As the Arab Spring spread like wildfire across North Africa and Middle East, protesters came out in massive numbers and called for Mubarak’s resignation. The Egyptian president looked to the United States for help, but Washington also said that he should step down. When the subsequent turmoil brought Sisi, a career general, to power, his administration distrusted the United States because of the American rejection of Mubarak in 2011. “The current government, which is in a lot of ways a reconstituted version of what [Egypt] had under Mubarak, feels that being so reliant on the United States is not in its own interests, and so it’s reaching out to other partners, first and foremost to Russia,” Center for Strategic and International Studies deputy director Jeffrey Mankoff told the HPR.
Russia has embraced Egypt with open arms and increasingly profits from selling manufactured goods to Egypt. This trade is important because “if you look at the structure of Russia’s exports, it’s mostly dominated by raw materials, such as oil and gas,” explained Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs fellow Simon Saradzhyan to the HPR. “Any country that finds Russian-made machines to be worth purchasing is of very strong interest to Russia.”
Egypt is particularly interested in Russian-made weapons. Last year, the two nations agreed to a $3.5 billion arms deal. While this sum sounds insignificant compared to Russia’s $470 billion in total exports, it is a boon to Russia’s weapons industry. In 2013, Russia’s then-top customer, China, bought only $3 billion in arms.
Egypt is also important to Russia as a strategic ally in the Middle East. Russian support of Sisi means cooperation with the Egyptian military establishment, which is tremendously powerful, both in terms of the armaments and the financial resources that it controls. A partner with that level of strength gives Russia influence over the politics of the region. “Russia would like to come back as a mediator and get into Egypt,” Sergei Konoplyov, the director of the Harvard Black Sea Security Program, told the HPR. This role, he continued, “could provide the Russian image of a strong player in the Middle East.”
With the history of violence in the Caucasus and the Islamic State only a few hundred miles away from the Russian border, Russia is eager to quash regional terrorism. According to Mankoff, there is “concern about Russian citizens going abroad and fighting for the Islamic State and then coming back and carrying out terrorist attacks.” A strong partnership with Sisi’s secular government gives Russia leverage to conduct anti-terrorism campaigns throughout the Middle East.
Losing influence in Egypt to Russia certainly is a problem for the United States, especially given the role that Egypt has played in stabilizing the region over past decades. Analysis from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that it is of vital interest for the United States to continue funding and supporting Egypt, whose military government fights radicals and provides security to Egyptians and others in the Middle East—specifically to Israel. The authors contend that condoning the antidemocratic policies of the new Egyptian government is the price to pay for peace.
This geopolitical importance raises the prospect of a standoff between Russia and the United States for sway over the Sisi government. Yet as tempting as it may be to envision a Cold War-style proxy battle transpiring, both domestic and international factors make the United States unlikely to compete for Egypt’s allegiance.
To begin, it would require a tremendous amount of political capital for the Obama administration to stage any intervention—diplomatic, economic, or otherwise—to regain the influence lost in Egypt. The President has been using executive power recently, both domestically with initiatives targeted at immigration and environmental protection, and internationally with military action against the Islamic State. Being more assertive, however, has cost Obama, and he now faces attacks on the legitimacy of his executive authority. Because the issue of Egypt is divisive among legislators, a show of presidential force here would only further undermine support for the administration.
The realities of the Russian economy also alleviate the United States’ need to interfere in Egypt. Russia is suffering. A slump in oil prices hollowed out confidence in Russia and caused a currency crisis at the close of last year. The World Bank has predicted that Russian GDP will decline by up to 4.6 percent in 2015. These problems limit Russia’s long-term ability to provide foreign aid and to exert its influence through economic means. Without the resources to wean Egypt off other sources of international funding, like aid dollars from the United States, Russia can only impact Egyptian policy so much.
Perhaps the most important reason that the United States is not worrying about the Russian incursion into Egypt is that Russian foreign policy goals in the Middle East are not so different from U.S. aims. Namely, the two countries align on issues of Islamic extremism. “Russia is concerned about the rise of the Islamic State and Islamic extremists, so whatever Egypt does to stem those threats, Russia would welcome and support,” Saradzhyan stated. Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East also concerns the United States. “On issues connected to radicalism, the United States and Russia have largely the same goals, but sometimes different strategies for achieving them,” Mankoff affirmed. Although its methods of combatting extremists may differ, Russian cooperation with Egypt to target radical groups like the Islamic State does not undermine American foreign policy in the region.
As Putin attempts to expand Russia’s reach into corners of the globe where the United States has long held sway, it can be easy to imagine that the building tension between the two powers will eventually come to a head. Russia’s activities in Egypt and their meaning for power dynamics in the Middle East could have lasting consequences for American foreign policy in the region. As important as Egypt may have been as an ally in the past, however, the United States probably will not respond in any significant way to try to reclaim influence. For now, at least, Egypt appears to be moving over to the Russian camp.
Image credits: www.kremlin.ru