In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on USNews.com
Due to the whirlwind of attention paid to the weather, North Korea, Iran and domestic American politics, an event erupted that received little attention. Last November, as a result of the Russian defense minister’s visit, the Egyptian government agreed to a five-year reciprocal arrangement to allow Russian military planes to use Egyptian facilities and airspace as long as either side provides a five-day notice. This was followed up by a warm meeting between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in December that resulted in a deal to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Of note to those with an appreciation for diplomatic history, Russian (or, then, Soviet) advisers were expelled from Egypt by President Anwar Sadat in 1972. Russia’s return to Egypt returns the old specters of the Cold War on to watchers’ radar screens.
Analysts point to a trajectory that began in 2015 when el-Sissi agreed to an expanded military relationship and the purchase of Russian war equipment. For the first time ever, Egyptian troops trained in Russia last September.
This is particularly concerning in light of Russia’s bid to prop up, so far successfully, the Assad regime in Syria and reports that Russia has deployed special operations forces near the Libyan/Egyptian border combined with their attempt to influence Libyan strongman, Gen. Khalifa Hifter. “Russia is attempting to increase their influence throughout the Middle East, as we have seen in Syria,” Gen. Joseph Votel, Centcom’s commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last March. “We have seen them do things certainly with our longstanding partner Egypt and others across the region. So it is my view that they are trying to increase their influence in this critical part of the globe.”
The military concern is that Russia could utilize these gains to project more power into the Mediterranean and create greater advantages in Syria. Naturally, both Egypt and Russia play up the counterterrorist aspect of their partnership. Economically Russia may be attempting to circumvent the negative effect of sanctions by ramping up arms sales to the region. Diplomatically this continues Russia’s bid to reassert its worldwide presence and prestige.
This strategic calculus was created by the Obama administration’s withdrawal (perceived and real) from the region. The Russians have utilized their success in Syria to regain certain foreign policy goals left over from Soviet strategic objectives. Some analysts have missed the point by stressing Russia’s more limited current strategic capabilities rather than looking at long-term (and historical) Russian goals and trends.