Russia offers Egypt no-strings-attached arms deal
Russia's proposed arms deal with Egypt and its endorsement of Egypt's military ruler's run for president are a signal to Arab rulers that, unlike the United States, Russia will back anti-terrorist strongmen who trample human rights, analysts say.
"Our assistance comes with lectures on human rights and civil-military relations," says Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "With Russian assistance, you don't get those lectures."
Egypt's army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was in Moscow to negotiate a $2 billion arms deal Thursday. During the visit, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his support for al-Sisi's political ambitions.
"I know that you, Mr. defense minister, have decided to run for president of Egypt," Putin said, according to the BBC. "I wish you luck both from myself personally and from the Russian people."
Al-Sisi said his visit "offers a new start" to the development of military and technological co-operation between the two countries, and that he hopes the relationship accelerates.
The United States, Egypt's primary supplier of military goods since a 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, scaled back some of its aid last year in response to al-Sisi's ousting of Egypt's first democratically elected president. Egypt's military says it sided with millions of Egyptians who accused the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi of trying to implement a theocratic dictatorship.
The military crackdown that followed has resulted in 2,500 deaths and more than 20,000 arrests since July, says Michele Dunne, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Yet the U.S. response angered Egypt's Arab allies in the Persian Gulf, who see the Brotherhood and its Islamist followers across the Middle East as a threat to their own regimes, and the rift has created an opening for Putin, Dunne said.
"We're seeing Putin trying to step up Russia's game in foreign affairs, almost reviving a Cold War-type rivalry between Russia and the United States," always trying to step in where the United States seems wavering or ineffective," Dunne said.
Russian policy has been similar in Syria, where Russia backs the regime of Bashar Assad in its slaughter of more than 130,000 of its rebellious citizens, Dunne said.
Last summer, as President Obama wavered on his pledge to launch military strikes if Assad used chemical weapons, Putin stepped in with a diplomatic venture to round up and expel Bashar Assad's chemical stockpile.
Obama abandoned his plan to hit Syria, agreed to work with Assad and angered his Sunni allies in the Gulf who back the mostly Sunni Syrian rebellion.
Those soured relations with the Gulf monarchies also play a role in the Russia-Egypt arms deal, Dunne said.
"Russia is not going to do what the United States does, which is give these weapons to Egypt" for free, Dunne said. "The only way there could be a new Russia-Egypt defense relationship is by Saudi and Gulf financing."
The arms purchase is a Saudi "finger in the eye" of the United States, she said.
While few details about the arms deal are available, the $2 billion price tag suggests "a significant arrangement" for major systems like aircraft or major air defenses, White said.
Russia has offered to sell Egypt stealth aircraft, advanced fighters and special operations equipment, according to Defense News, which cited Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, a think tank in United Arab Emirates.
Such arms sales typically include training packages, meaning Egyptian officers will travel to Moscow, "which could help (Russia) re-establish a solid connection with the Egyptian military," White said. "This is very significant I think," he said.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of State, says the importance of the $2 billion deal should not be overblown.
The United States last year inked a $60 billion military package with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And the U.S. has been reluctant to back reformist elements in Sunni-led Bahrain, home to the Navy's 5th fleet, where Saudi and Emirati forces helped quell a popular Shiite-majority protest movement in 2012. That shows the U.S. acquiescing to Gulf monarchy security concerns, Miller said.
Despite Obama's stated goal to pivot to Asia, "the Middle East will be the center of U.S. focus for years to come because that's where the threat is," Miller said.
Although Russia may gain a toehold, it won't replace the United States, he said. "We're still the most viable power in the region other than Iran."