According to a Vedomosti report quoting two unnamed Russian government sources, Cairo and Moscow already have either initialed or signed contracts for Egypt's purchase of MiG-29 fighters, air and coastal defense systems, Mi-35 attack helicopters and other smaller arms. The report came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Egyptian army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. During the meeting, Putin said, "Mr. Defense Minister, I know that you have decided to run for president. This is a very important decision — to undertake responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people. On my own behalf and on behalf of all Russians I would like to wish you success."
These words represented Russia's rejoinder to the United States that it, too, can use elections around the world to its advantage. This is in line with Putin's September New York Times op-ed in which he implied that each country would find its own way to democracy. But the Russians are not just trying to get into the election game; they are also using the disconnect between the Obama administration and the al-Sisi regime to their advantage. Though U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has had some 30 phone calls with al-Sisi since the coup, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship remains sour.
A key reason for this is the disagreement within the U.S. administration and the Congress about the need to balance the relationship with the military and nurture the democratic process. There are competing realist points of view. One side argues that the military is the only institution in Egypt that can hold Cairo together, that Egypt's democratization process has failed and that the region is in great turmoil. Therefore, the United States should return to working with Egypt's armed forces to help the country limp back to some semblance of normalcy.
On the other side are those who believe the Egyptian armed forces on their own are not capable of stabilizing the country. From their perspective, the continuing political unrest and the growing jihadist insurgency will deteriorate under military-imposed order. This camp points to the growing non-Islamist opposition to the military's dominance of politics, given the splits within the Tamarod movement, which organized massive demonstrations and called on the military to oust former President Mohamed Morsi. This faction wants to see a compromise between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood that will resolve the political crisis the jihadists are exploiting.
The United States does not have much choice in the matter and thus has no good options on how to manage the faltering political economy of Egypt. What is worse is that the ambivalence within Washington is fueling mistrust between the United States and Egypt.
The Saudi Angle
While this has been developing, Saudi Arabia — which has had its own problems with Washington over the U.S.-Iran rapprochement and over its reluctance to act aggressively against the Syrian regime — has rushed in to support Egypt financially.
Working with their Gulf Cooperation Council partners, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, the Saudis have poured billions into the coffers of the Egyptian state since the coup. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's underwriting the Egypt-Russia arms deal is only the latest financial commitment from the Saudis and their Gulf allies. It is somewhat odd that while the Saudis and the Russians are at loggerheads over Moscow's support for the Syrian regime, Riyadh has encouraged Cairo to purchase arms from Moscow. Paying for weapons that Egypt is trying to purchase from Russia is a way for Saudi Arabia to try to manage the divergence of Riyadh's and Washington's interests in the region.
From the Saudi point of view, the United States can no longer manage the region and is pursuing a dangerous policy. The kingdom believes it has no choice but to pursue its own independent policy of trying to deal with the region's problems. The Egyptians share the Saudi view on U.S. intentions and capabilities regarding the Middle East and thus are working closely with each other. Notably, neither the Egyptians nor the Saudis are radically turning away from the United States; there are no alternative to the Americans.
The region's two major Arab powers will thus continue to cooperate with the United States where they absolutely must. But they believe that they can no longer rely on Washington, as has been the case in recent decades. It is unclear whether the arms deal will be finalized, but if it is it will underscore Egypt's ongoing efforts to diversify the pool of suppliers for its defense needs as the country's armed forces already field weaponry from the United States, France, and Russia — another example of decreasing dependence on Washington.
The Persistence of U.S. Leverage
While the United States could lose some influence in Egypt, there are major limits to how far Moscow can pull Cairo in its direction. Russia is not a reliable partner for Egypt, and Cairo knows that Moscow is using it as leverage in the struggle brewing in Russia's near abroad.
The Saudis, Russians and Egyptians are all hoping — for different reasons — that this arms deal will upset the United States. Cairo hopes that the prospect of Egypt's tilting toward Russia will terrify the United States. The Americans will be unimpressed by the Egyptian move to purchase weapons from the Russians because they know that Egypt will not be able to rebuild its military in any reasonable time and certainly not without U.S. help. The United States is also taking into account that the Saudis do not intend to completely alienate Washington and that the Egyptians can go only so far in reducing their dependence on the United States.
Thus, the United States will accommodate Egypt, but Washington will be somewhat inflexible because it believes Cairo is trapped in its relationship Washington. Washington will quietly tell Cairo and Riyadh that if they have other sources of weapons, the United States will review all of its arms sales, since U.S. products are no longer needed for Egyptian security. The United States will try to create panic in Cairo and Riyadh and force them to think they have overplayed their hand.
Washington has already convinced them that it has lost interest in the region, and now it will try to reaffirm this and turn the tables on them. For their part, the Russians do not expect a major relationship with the Egyptians and are taking the current arrangement only as far as it can go.
Russia also knows it cannot act as an alternative to the United States in the region. It means to create problems for the United States in the Middle East as a way to ensure that there are limits to how far Washington can push into the Russian periphery. The Kremlin is already pursuing this in Syria but is facing challenges on Iran, as evidenced by Tehran's interest in working with Washington to end sanctions. Therefore, exploiting the downturn in U.S. ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia is Russia's way of trying to sustain its bargaining position with the United States.