Over the past two years, the most significant political development in the Middle East has been Russia’s increasing political and military presence. Aside from its deepening military and political footprint in Syria, Russia is improving its relations with Egypt, where, beginning on October 15, the two countries will hold bilateral “Defenders of Friendship 2016” military exercises (TASS, October 6). Observers from over 30 countries will monitor the nine-day drills in the coastal city of El-Alamein. The exercises will simulate the destruction of terrorist groups in a desert environment, in the first-ever deployment of Russian Airborne Troops stocked with their own weapons and equipment on the African continent (Mil.ru, October 7).
Throughout the Cold War, Egypt was the Soviet Union’s most prominent Arab ally. The Soviet government provided Egypt not only with advanced weaponry, but also massive infrastructure projects, most notably the Aswan dam, completed in 1970 (River-nile.info, accessed October 14). But following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, trade and diplomatic relations between the two countries declined as well.
Relations began to improve following the July 2013 coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the commander of Egypt’s Armed Forces, against the government of then-president Muhammed Morsi. The following year, el-Sisi ran unopposed for head of state; Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had earlier met el-Sisi while he was a defense minister, supported his candidacy. (Alarabiya.net, February 13, 2014). In early September 2016, a military delegation from Egypt visited Russia for meetings and discussions on bilateral military cooperation, building upon previous visits when Moscow and Cairo concluded several agreements on the renovation of Egyptian military production facilities (Daily News Egypt, October 12).
Cairo’s deepening ties with Moscow are also impacting Egypt’s relations with other Middle Eastern countries. On October 8, Egypt, a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, voted in favor of a Russian resolution that urged a ceasefire in Syria while allowing the continuation of bombing of Aleppo. A rival French resolution had demanded an end to air strikes and the implementation of a no-fly zone. Egypt’s siding with the Russian proposal led Saudi Arabia to temporarily recall its ambassador to Cairo (Egypt Independent, October 10).
Beyond this month’s joint military exercises, the Russian media is reporting that Moscow is negotiating with Cairo to lease military facilities, including the former Soviet base in Sidi-Barrani. The newspaper Izvestia quoted a source close to Russian military circles who noted, “The discussions centered around the year 2019. In case the parties reach agreement, the reconstruction of the base might be completed by this time” (Izvestia, October 10). The Soviet Union had a small naval facility there until 1972, which was used to monitor the United States’ naval forces deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean. The candor of the Russian media reports was apparently too much for the Egyptian government, as on the same day they appeared, Egypt’s presidential spokesperson denied the possibility of allowing foreign military bases in the country (Al Ahram, October 10).
While the truth of the Russian media reports has yet to be determined, Russia’s military access to Egyptian facilities, combined with its presence in Tartus and the Hmeymim airbase in Syria (see EDM, October 13), would significantly alter the strategic picture of the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly with regard to naval deployments. Russian warships based at Sidi Barani, 475 miles west of the Suez Canal, would be in a position to interfere with the channel’s northern outlet; while Russian vessels based at Tartus would be in a proximate position with the Mediterranean entrance to the Dardanelles. In the event of an open conflict, Russia’s Mediterranean squadron would accordingly be in a position to obstruct passage of both the Turkish Straits and the Suez Canal, a strategic opportunity that has not existed for Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Further evidence that Russia is interested in establishing a permanent naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean is provided by an agreement reportedly signed in February 2015 between Cyprus and Russia. According to the bilateral agreement, Russian naval vessels are granted port access to this European Union member state (Sputnik News, February 26, 2015).
While a joint military exercise involving 500 paratroops is, on the surface, a minor deployment in a troubled part of the world, it could prove significant not only for Egypt, but for Russia’s gradual reemergence as a major player in the Middle East. As such, it is a step toward reasserting a regional role—in scope and scale—that Moscow has not enjoyed since the Soviet era. As Russia’s military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean grows, at the very least it complicates the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) ability to conduct unilateral operations there. It bears noting that NATO’s 1998–1999 aerial campaign against Serbia, the Alliance’s subsequent deployment into Kosovo, as well as the 2011 operations in Libya, all had a significant maritime component. Given the worsening relations between Russia and NATO, this is a significant development, particularly as the North Atlantic Alliance prepares to welcome its 29th member—Montenegro.