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Are Egypt-Russia naval drills in Black Sea message to Ankara?

For the first time, the Egyptian navy holds joint exercises in the Black Sea with Russia, at a time of escalating tensions with Turkey.
The minesweeper Akcay of the Naval Forces of Turkey enters the harbour of the Russian port of Novorossiysk on March 6, 2019. - Two Turkish warships minesweeper Akcay and corvette Burgazada participate in "The Blue Motherland - 2019" military exercises in the Black sea. (Photo by STR / AFP)        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The Russian Ministry of Defense announced Oct. 10 that its naval forces will conduct joint exercises with their Egyptian counterparts for the first time in the Black Sea, which is bordered by several countries, including Turkey, one of the main rivals of Egypt in the region.

Observers and military experts believe the joint naval exercise is “a qualitative leap in the show of force between Cairo and Ankara,” further fueling tensions between the two countries.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in an Oct. 10 statement on its website that military delegations from Egypt and Russia met for three days in the Russian city of Novorossiysk to prepare for the joint exercises dubbed “Bridge of Friendship - 2020.” The ministry noted that the naval drills aim to “strengthen and develop military cooperation between the Egyptian Navy and the Russian Navy in the interests of security and stability at sea.”

It added, “Tactical groups of warships of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Navy and the Egyptian Navy, with the support of aviation, will work out joint tasks to protect sea routes from various threats."

Maj. Gen. Jamal Mazloum, a military expert and adviser at the Nasser High Military Academy, told Al-Monitor that the naval drills in the Black Sea, held for the first time in Russian territorial waters, are a complementary step to the Bridge of Friendship - 2019 exercise that took place in the Mediterranean sea last year.

“Egypt will benefit more from these naval drills, as they will be held at a distance of 3,000 kilometers [1,864 miles] from Egypt, and in closed waters in the Black Sea away from the Mediteranean airspace. This is an international power show of the Egyptian military and navy following numerous upgrades and newly introduced weapons,” Mazloum said. 

Since the rise to power of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt has strengthened its military capabilities, especially in the navy. It purchased four German-made Type 209/1400 mod class submarines, two Mistral-class landing ships and a FREMM frigate from France.

Tarek Fahmy, a professor of international relations at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor the Egyptian-Russian exercise in the Black Sea sends an indirect message to Ankara, as it comes at a very critical time and aims to confront Turkish colonial ambitions.

Tensions escalated between Egypt and Turkey following Ankara’s signing of a security and maritime memorandum of understanding with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in November 2019. The agreement was rejected by Egypt and several other countries in the eastern Mediterranean region. Turkey had also offered military support for its ally Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the GNA. 

The Turkish support in Libya has drastically changed the course of the battles in Libya, as military strongman Khalifa Hifter, who is backed by Cairo, faced a series of setbacks in his offensive against the GNA in Tripoli. Cairo responded to the Turkish moves by threatening to launch a military intervention in Libya should the pro-government forces cross the cities of Sirte and al-Jufra. Egypt claimed this matter falls within the scope of its national security that it will not allow the GNA forces and the Turkish-backed militias to jeopardize. Subsequently, a cease-fire was announced in August.

Fahmy said, “The exercise sends a pre-emptive message of deterrence to Turkey or any other party threatening Egypt's national security, whereby Egypt can move in strategic naval areas beyond the Mediterranean and in contact with vital areas of interest to Turkey. The drills are a reminder that the Egyptian army reached the doorstep of Istanbul in Turkey in the 19th century and is ready to do this again.”

Meanwhile, he said the exercise is also a Russian message to Ankara that it cannot move in any of the areas of strategic importance to Moscow, without there being any countermovement by the latter in Turkey’s strategic areas. In this context, Fahmy pointed to the ongoing clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean region.

On Oct. 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov voiced Moscow’s disagreement with Turkey over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Meanwhile, the Russian announcement of the exercise was met with official Egyptian silence. The Egyptian military spokesman did not respond to Al-Monitor's request for comment.

Mohammed Soliman, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, believes Cairo’s silence carries messages to Ankara that it does not seek any escalation in light of the relative progress in the Libyan negotiations sponsored by Cairo.

Cairo had intensified its efforts to bring together the Libyan parties, and hosted three Libyan delegations in one month, including GNA representatives, with the aim of reaching a solution to the crisis.

The most recent discussions were held in Cairo on Oct. 11-13, between delegations representing the Libyan House of Representatives and the Libyan High Council of State. The attendees agreed to end the transitional phase and initiate preparations for the permanent phase, and to hold a second round in Egypt to complete constructive discussions on constitutional arrangements.

Yet Soliman argued that the Bridge of Friendship - 2020 in the Black Sea means that the Egyptian military naval vessels have entered the strategic depth of Turkey. “This is a message from Cairo that it can respond to Turkey's moves in Libya by moving in the heart of the Turkish depth,” he said.

This comes as Turkey announced that it will start testing its Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems on Oct. 13-16. Ankara issued aviation warnings to clear the airspace and waters off its Black Sea coast.

“This shows Ankara's concern about the implications of Egyptian military units crossing the Turkish Bosporus Strait. Turkey conducted military exercises at the same time as Egypt, as a symbolic response to the Egyptian-Russian drills,” Soliman noted.

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