Even with crippling Western economic sanctions over its military involvement in Ukraine, Russia continues attempts to build more diplomatic clout on the international stage, with the latest launching Egypt into the orbit of the Kremlin-led Eurasian Union to the chagrin of the United States.
During a recent two-day visit to Cairo, Russian President Vladimir Putin landed multiple new agreements with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that would improve bilateral cooperation in the realms of trade, energy, security, and tourism. Most notably, Egypt agreed to establish a free trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union, joining Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan in the power-projection pet project of President Putin.
The deal is the culmination of strengthening ties between the two countries. In 2014, Russia and Egypt shared more than $4.5 billion in trade, which marks an 80% increase compared to the previous year. Additional collaborations involve mutual counterterrorism efforts, a Russian industrial zone close to the Suez Canal, and preliminary plans to jointly construct the first Egyptian nuclear power plant.
Beyond the tangible gains for their strategic relationship, the Russian-Egyptian summit was a symbolic gesture of solidarity, a snub to Western leaders critical of Russia’s activity in Ukraine and Egypt’s recent human rights record. On arrival, President Putin was welcomed with much fanfare, including a military parade of horsemen waving Russian flags and schoolchildren chanting, “Putin, Putin, Sisi, Sisi, and long live Egypt!” A local state-owned newspaper similarly declared the Russian leader “a hero of our time.” President Putin reciprocated with a fitting gift: a wood-handled AK-47 assault rifle in clear reference to a $3.5 billion bilateral arms deal still under consideration that would challenge the U.S. monopoly on military assistance to Egypt.
“Historically, Egypt has been playing this game before, when it shifted between the Soviets and the Americans,” said a Western diplomat in an interview with the Financial Times. “They are playing both nations against each other.”
Since the ousting of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the U.S.-Egyptian partnership has deteriorated, leaving space for Russia to boost its interests in the region. Last year President Putin strongly supported the election bid of General Sisi whose brutal crackdown on protestors forced a suspension of military aid from American officials still hopeful for the promises of democracy after the Arab Spring. President Sisi’s visit to Sochi in August 2014 for his first international trip further signaled warming Russian-Egyptian relations.
The latest summit offers several indicators of attempts at expanding Russian influence. First, President Putin exploited the pomp and circumstance of his dignitary status in Cairo both to draw international attention away from Ukraine and show the world that Russia is not diplomatically isolated due to Western condemnation. Second, the free trade zone with Egypt brings a minor boost to the struggling Eurasian Economic Union hit hard by economic sanctions and ruble depreciation. Greater access to markets in the Middle East and North Africa may open up as well, especially with large energy infrastructure projects on the way. Lastly, Russian inroads into Egypt offer additional avenues of regional cooperation for Moscow-led peace talks over the Syrian civil war.
Despite these prospects, the present Russian-Egyptian partnership appears to be more symbolic than substantive in nature, challenging but not replacing U.S. power in the region. Both countries face declining economies, which limits the scope of mutually achievable benefits. More immediately, Russia wants to propagate an image of growth, while Egypt seeks to show the world a foreign policy independent of the United States. But Egypt remains reliant on longstanding U.S. support in the region, particularly $1.3 billion in annual military aid restarted in December.
“Russia can’t offer all that much to Egypt,” said Mark Katz, Professor of International Affairs at George Mason University, in an interview with Voice of America.
The Egyptians enjoy the publicity of associating with the Eurasian Union but not as a viable alternative to the United States. “They would much rather continue to deal with the U.S. and while the U.S. is not happy with the way Sisi came to power or the way he ruled, the U.S. has very little choice but to work with him,” he added.
Otherwise, a stronger Russia with less costly priorities in its near abroad may eventually exploit the goodwill recently attained with the Egyptian leadership to the detriment of U.S. influence in the region.