On August 19–29, Russia hosted the multinational exercise Defenders of Friendship 2019, which involved the joint participation of Russian and Egyptian paratroopers as well as Belarusian special forces (Mil.ru, August 16, 2018). The exercise was the fourth of its kind in four years.
Its first iteration took place in Egypt in October 2016, near Alexandria, and consisted of an anti-terrorist scenario, while featuring 500 paratroopers (of which 200 were from Russia), 10 combat vehicles (BMD-2s and BTR-Ds) and 10 military aircraft (Mil.ru, October 15, 2016 and October 16, 2016; RT, August 30, 2017). The Russian participants came from the 106th Guards Airborne Division, in Tula. Whether the participating Egyptian personnel were ordinary paratroopers is somewhat uncertain—at least one source identified them as special forces (Tvzvezda.ru, October 18, 2016; Mil.ru, October 23, 2016). The actual airdrop exercise was accomplished with Russian paratroopers jumping from an Il-76 aircraft, while Egyptian paratroopers parachuted out of a CASA plane. Observers from 30 countries attended the maneuvers (RT, August 30, 2017; Rossyiskaya Gazeta, October 20, 2016).
The next Defenders of Friendship exercise occurred in September 2017, at the Raevskoye range, near Novorossiysk (RIA Novosti, September 9, 2017; Mil.ru, September 23, 2017). Like the previous year’s drills, the number of participants was 500 paratroopers, of whom only 65 were from Egypt; the rest mainly consisted of Russian soldiers from the 7th Air Assault Division (RT, August 30, 2017; TASS, January 6, 2018). In accordance with Russian requests, the Egyptians did not bring any weapons or equipment with them; these were, instead, provided by their Russian hosts, and included the advanced personal equipment system Ratnik (Regnum, September 8, 2017; TASS, January 6, 2018). The actual rehearsed scenario is not mentioned in official reports on the exercise; it can be assumed, however, that anti-terrorism missions were again the primary focus.
The preparations for Defenders of Friendship 2018 began already in December 2017. This time, however, only about half of the overall participating personnel were Russian—specifically, 200 paratroopers from the 247th Air Assault Regiment of the 7th Air Assault Division (Topwar.ru, January 9, 2018; Rossyiskaya Gazeta, October 15, 2018). It should be noted that one source, cited by a pair of defense ministry articles, identifies two participating Russian officers as Spetsnaz (special forces) members, thus casting confusion over the actual source of the Russian contribution to the exercises in Egypt (Mil.ru October 17, 22, 2018). What is clear, however, is that the total number of participants was 400 paratroopers, with the Russians under the command of Major General Aleksei Naumtsa, the deputy chief of staff of the Russian Airborne Forces and former commander of the 247th Air Assault Regiment (Stapravda.ru, June 2, 2007; Mil.ru, October 9, 2018; RIA Novosti, October 15, 2018). The exercise, held near Cairo, lasted from October 13 to 26, with the active phase occurring during October 24–26 (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, October 15, 2018; Mil.ru, October 21, 2018). The timing of the exercise during October was likely a change of plans: one source mentions that, according to initial planning, Defenders of Friendship 2018 had been scheduled for November (Interfax.ru, April 16, 2018). Like in 2016 (and presumably 2017), the exercise featured an anti-terrorist scenario and was also monitored by foreign observers—though this time, from only 13 countries (Mil.ru, October 14, 15, 2018). An interesting detail was the reported first-ever use of 12.7-millimeter sniper rifles during these maneuvers (Facebook.com/mod.mil.rus, October 12, 2018).
Defenders of Friendship 2019, in turn, has been the most comprehensive since this series of exercises began. It included 1,000 paratroopers: 650 Russians, 150 Egyptians and, for the first time, 250 Belarusians (Mil.ru, August 16, 2019). The Belarusian contribution to this latest exercise belonged to the 38th Air Assault Brigade, based in Brest—a unit that is part of the Belarusian special forces. The Russian paratroopers came from the 137th Airborne Regiment, subordinated to the 106th Airborne Division (Mil.by, August 23). The commander of the 106th Airborne, Major General Pavel Kirsi, served as exercise director. And, as in 2017, the Egyptians arrived in Russia without weapons or personal equipment, relying instead on their Russian hosts (Mil.ru, August 20; Mil.by, August 30). The active phase of the exercise lasted two days, August 27–28, and began with the joint paratrooper force, under the command of Russian Colonel Dmitry Zavgorodniy, being dropped at the Noviki range, in Ryazan Oblast (Mil.by, August 30). As in earlier years, this exercise focused on an anti-terrorist scenario: the joint force was tasked with retaking an airfield seized by non-state militants and preventing further terrorist activities (Mil.ru, August 28). Defenders of Friendship 2019 concluded with a live-fire exercise (Mil.by, August 30).
Looking at all four Defenders of Friendship exercises as a whole, they follow a similar pattern and all feature a similar anti-terrorist scenario. All exercises included a preparatory phase, during which the participants could become acquainted with each other and the equipment to be used during the drills, followed by an active (combat) phase. To judge from the exercise this year, it seems that the events to take place during the active phase are rehearsed during the preparatory phase (Mil.ru, August 22). In this way, organizers ensure that the active phase is carried out without any mishaps and the actions of the participating units can be given an excellent grade. The number of participants has, with the exception of 2019, been rather limited; but Russian paratroopers have tended to form a majority of attendees in almost all years.
It is reasonable to assume that Defenders of Friendship came about as a result of a meeting in November 2013 between the Russian and Egyptian ministers of defense and of foreign affairs. This was the first such meeting of its kind since Soviet times. During the bilateral ministerial, the Egyptian foreign minister explicitly stated that his country wished for relations with Russia to be boosted to where they had been during Soviet times (RT, November 14, 2013). Defenders of Friendship is thus likely a way for Moscow to show that it is also interested in reestablishing and maintaining military relations with Cairo; and it may also be a way of promoting sales of Russian military equipment. This series of exercises will therefore likely continue. It remains to be seen whether the participation of Belarusian paratroopers will be repeated next year (Mil.ru, August 29, 2019). But Mink’s recent announcement that it is investing in the Suez Canal Economic Zone, alongside Russia, may be telling (see EDM, September 17, 2019).