Russia is negotiating its biggest weapons deals with Egypt since the Cold War as it seeks to capitalize on U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to cut defense aid to the military-backed government.
Egypt is seeking as much as $2 billion of Russian weaponry, including MiG-29 fighter planes, air-defense systems and anti-tank missiles, said Ruslan Pukhov, a member of the Russian Defense Ministry’s advisory board and head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow.
The Russian defense and foreign ministers will fly to Cairo this week for two days of talks with Egyptian officials on “military-technical” cooperation, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Nov. 8. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy confirmed the arms talks in an interview with Russia’s state-run Arabic language channel RT today.
The Obama administration last month suspended some military aid to Egypt, including $260 million in cash and deliveries of F-16 fighter jets, helicopters and tanks in an effort to prod the North African country toward democracy. Egypt’s army ousted President Mohamed Mursi in July, leading to clashes between security forces and Mursi’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood that have left more than 1,000 people dead.
The Russian visit sends “a strong political message that stresses the desire” of Russia “to bolster relations and cooperate with Egypt in all fields,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty said by phone today. This doesn’t mean “substituting one party with another but rather diversifying the alternatives and choices.”
Egyptian officials are seeking financing from an unidentified Persian Gulf country to buy as much as $4 billion of Russian arms, Palestinian newspaper Dunia al-Watan reported Nov. 6, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have pledged at least $12 billion to Egypt’s new government.
Russia signed a weapons deal with Iraq last year that’s worth more than $4.2 billion, its biggest with that Middle Eastern country since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
At the top of Egypt’s shopping list is the MiG-29 M2 fighter jet, an advanced version of the Soviet-designed aircraft, Pukhov said in an interview in the Russian capital. Egypt is interested in 24 of the warplanes, a package that may be worth 1.3 billion euros ($1.7 billion), according to Pukhov.
Egypt may also be interested in short- to medium-range Russian defense systems such as the Buk M2, Tor M2 and Pantsir-S1, according to Said Aminov, editor-in-chief of pvo.guns.ru, a defense information portal.
“The only issue is Egypt’s ability to pay,” Igor Korotchenko, another member of the Defense Ministry’s advisory board, said by phone from Moscow. “Russia is prepared to supply a wide range of arms to meet Egypt’s requirements.”
A spokesman for Russian arms broker Rosoboronexport, Vyacheslav Davidenko, declined to comment on the Cairo talks. Egyptian military spokesman Ahmed Mohamed Ali couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
The Egyptian government installed by the army after Mursi’s overthrow has said it expects to hold elections next year. Egypt, an American ally for more than three decades, received about $1.3 billion a year in military aid from the U.S. prior to Mursi’s ouster.
Egypt and the Soviet Union became allies in the 1950s when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev forged ties. Egypt received Soviet military assistance, including during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and the Soviets financed infrastructure projects such as the Aswan Dam to irrigate land and supply electricity.
The ties lapsed after Nasser’s death in 1970, when the Arab nationalist was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, who set the regional power on a pro-U.S. track that accelerated under Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011. In 1972, Sadat expelled thousands of Soviet advisers and in 1976 ended a treaty on friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union.
“They are trying to send the U.S. a strong message by approaching Russia the way they are, which is ’unless you stop linking military aid with political issues, we’re going to look elsewhere,’” Yasser el-Shimy, an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Cairo, said by phone today.
“A lot will depend on how willing Gulf countries are to finance Egypt’s arms purchases from Russia,” el-Shimy said.