December 11, 2019

Egypt-Russia Su-35 Deal – A Shifting Paradigm in the Middle East

By Humayun Hassan

The recent major shift in the Middle Eastern geopolitical arena came in the form of the Russia-Egypt fighter jet deal, which is worth over $2Billion[i]. In this deal, Russia will deliver more than 20 Su-35 fighter jets to Egypt. This initiative could be seen as a continuation of Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East and an attempt to not only strengthen ties with the old allies of the Soviet Union, but also with to form new partnerships with countries that have traditionally been allies to the West. Despite the usual antagonistic and a threat to cut Egypt’s military aid service provided by the Secretary of the state Mike Pompeo and the defense secretary Mark Esper, any back peddling on this deal seems unlikely. If one considers the Russian direct involvement in Syria, since 2015, as a starting point then there is a quite clear pattern that indicates a new struggle for influence in the region, between Russia and the United States.

Historically, Egypt has had close ties with the USSR, as the former utilized the latter for its military supplies and equipment.  From the days of Gamal Abdul Nasir’s “Arab nationalism” to the post-USSR Hosni Mubarak’s era, both Russia and Egypt have experienced growing civilian cooperation, with the exception of a few ‘dry years’ in between. However, the current dynamics of the bilateral relations are heavily characterized by military cooperation[ii]. The latest Su-35 deal may be an unprecedented event in the Russia-Egypt relations history. It could be argued that the “balancing role” played by Russia in Syria, in terms of facilitating ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds, along with supporting the legitimate government of Syria has helped it establish itself as an emerging major players in the region. With its policy of minimum military intervention, Russia brands itself rather differently from the United States, where the latter has been accused of supporting and financing anti-government elements in the past[iii].

Russian cost-effectiveness

With the internal political unrest in the United States, the looming threat of impeachment, and dissidence between president Trump and the deep state, along with indictment of prime minister Netanyahu of Israel[iv], there is a vacuum, a void that needs to be filled. As the United States and Israel seem entangled with their internal unrest, it presents an opportunity for a contrarian party, such as Russia to intervene and consolidate even more ground in the region. The Egypt deal, therefore, could be regarded as an attempt of Russia to offer low-cost, yet relatively modern alternatives to the American military equipment. Moreover, the aging fleet of the Egyptian F-16s and Mirages could exacerbate into a much larger issues in coming days. With its relatively low unit cost, multirole capabilities, and remarkable dogfighting ability[v], the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet is apt for a country like Egypt, which has maintained one of the strongest air forces in the region.

Another question one might ask is why would Egypt look towards Russia, to meet it military needs, when it is allied to the United States, a country that, arguably, hosts a technologically superior military to that of Russia. The obvious answer to this would be the cost-effectiveness and the battle ground efficacy. In Syria, Russia has demonstrated most of its defense offerings that it is marketing today, to many Middle eastern countries. Another aspect which could justify this Su-35 deal is the recent tilt of the Middle eastern countries towards Russia. Whether it is due to Russia’s decisive role in Syria, willingness to work with every stakeholder, or the lack of proactivity of the part of the U.S, the ground reality in the region compels countries to recognize Russia as a major players and hence establish decent ties with it. It could also be an attempt from these countries, who have been traditionally the U.S allies, to leverage their growing ties with Russia to secure better terms of engagement with the U.S. For Egypt, it could be in terms of more military or financial assistance.

Regional realignment towards Russia?

Much like the Chinese “economic diplomacy” to the developing countries, the Russian military deals are not bogged down by factors such as compliance, human rights, and the security situation of the country. It is, therefore, much easier for countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to procure arms and equipment from Russia, as compared to the United States, where political pressure might enervate the prospects of such deals.

The Egypt-Russia Sukhoi Su-35 deal may not be viewed in isolation to the other developments in the region. President Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the signing of the S-400 air defense system MOU, initiation of the talks to supply Orion-E to UAE, or discussing the prospects of Su-35 and Su-57 for Turkey, it seems as if Russia seeks to create its competitive advantage in the region, by differentiating itself on the basis of cost, from a financial standpoint, a policy of non-interventionism, from a diplomatic standpoint, and increased regional soft power, from a political standpoint.

With a seemingly confused long-term Middle East policy and reluctance to be proactive on certain key occasions, the United States may find itself in uncharted waters where, in coming days, its traditional allies may find it safer to tilt towards Russia, a country which markets itself as the “savior of legitimate governments”[vi]. Therefore, it may not be a farfetched assumption that in the wake of increased violence and conflict in the region or “the second Arab Spring”[vii], many Middle eastern governments might align themselves with Russia.

In consideration of the above-mentioned aspects, the question, therefore, is, what leverage does the United States enjoy over these Middle Eastern countries that could negate Russian influence in the region? Would the possible sanctions on Egypt prove to be effective or rather counterproductive, as they may inadvertently validate the Russian selling points for these countries? If the current trends are extrapolated, where does it leave the U.S in the region? And how much would the diminishing U.S influence would factor into the security of its greatest regional ally, Israel?

References

[i] Humera Pamuk, “U.S. warns Egypt against Russia warplanes deal, says working with Cairo on defense needs”, Reuters, November 22, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-egypt/u-s-warns-egypt-against-russia-warplanes-deal-says-working-with-cairo-on-defense-needs-idUSKBN1XV2HF

[ii] “Russia and Egypt: Reviving old ties?”, Inside Story, Aljazeera, November 14, 2013, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2013/11/russia-egypt-reviving-old-ties-2013111482650603690.html

[iii] Ron Nixon, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings”, New York Times, April 14, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/world/15aid.html

[iv] “Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu indicted for bribery and fraud”, The Guardian, November 21, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/21/israeli-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-indicted-for-bribery-and

[v] “F-35 Lightning II vs SU-35”, Aviatia,  https://aviatia.net/f-35-lightning-ii-vs-su-35/

[vi] Curt Milles, “Putin: We support the legitimate government of Syria”, Washington Examiner, September 27, 2015, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/putin-we-support-the-legitimate-government-of-syria

[vii] Jannis Grimm, “It’s Spring Again”, International Politics and Society, November 14, 2019, https://www.ips-journal.eu/regions/middle-east/article/show/its-spring-again-3873/

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