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Russian FM’s visit to Egypt helps counter Erdogan’s regional moves

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to Cairo is seen as a further cementing of increasing Russian-Egyptian ties and as a counterpoint to the Ukrainian president's visit to Turkey.
Lavrov and Shoukry

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a visit to Cairo April 12, where talks focused on bilateral ties and regional conflicts — including Egypt and Sudan’s dispute with Ethiopia over the mega-dam Addis Ababa is constructing on the Nile. Lavrov also held talks with General Intelligence Service chief Abbas Kamel.

Lavrov’s visit to Egypt came shortly after April 10 talks between the presidents of Ukraine and Turkey in Istanbul, which took place against the background of the aggravation of the situation in eastern Ukraine. Because of this, the top Russian diplomat’s arrival in Cairo was viewed as a kind of retaliatory move by Moscow in response to Ukrainian-Turkish contacts. For Turkey, Egypt is one of the main rivals for influence in the Middle East, and diplomatic relations between the two states have been tense since they broke relations in 2013 following the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. 

Moscow is concerned about Turkish-Ukrainian military and technical cooperation generally, and specifically the prospects of Turkey supplying the Bayraktar drone to Kiev. This topic was also touched upon during the visit of the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry to Egypt.

"I will tell you straightaway that we urge all responsible countries that we communicate with — and Turkey is one of them — that we strongly recommend they analyze the situation and the Kiev regime’s relentless belligerent statements, and we also warn them against encouraging these militaristic aspirations," Lavrov said during a press conference with Shoukry in Cairo.

Nevertheless, Russia itself has been actively providing Egypt with modern weapons, which Cairo was ready to use against Ankara and its Libyan allies. Egypt and Turkey were close to a direct armed clash when Egypt began military deployment near the Libyan border, demanding an end to the attack on Sirte and Jufra in June 2020.

In the summer of 2020, reports emerged that Russian Su-35 fighter jets were just going into service in Egypt, representing the first batch of an Egyptian-Russian arms deal. In the same period, Moscow and Cairo signed a contract for the supply of 500 T-90MS tanks for the Egyptian army. The agreement provides for the transfer of technology and the organization of joint production of these combat vehicles in Egypt. Thus, Egypt will become a manufacturer of two types of tanks at once — the Russian T-90 and the American Abrams, which have been assembled in Egypt for a long time. In addition, under the 2015 contract, Egypt received from Russia 52 MiG-29M / M2 fighters and 46 Ka-52 attack helicopters. Also included in the sale to boost Egyptian air defenses are the Russian anti-aircraft missile systems S-300VM, Buk-M1-2, Tor-M1E and other types of weapons and military equipment.

The annual Russian-Egyptian military maneuvers — which include the participation of airborne troops, the air force, the air defense and the navy — took place most recently in November. The naval exercises were held in the Black Sea and included the Egyptian frigate Alexandria F911 (Oliver Hazard Perry-class), the corvette El Fateh 971 (Gowind-class) and missile boat M. Fahmy 686 (Ezzat class). Such war games are certainly not well received by Ankara.

Also, against the background of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's visit to Istanbul and Lavrov’s to Cairo, two more events happened that gave rise to a lot of speculation, namely the termination of regular flights between Russia and Turkey and Russian statements about the resumption "in the very near future" of direct flights from Russia to Egyptian resorts on the Red Sea coast. These flights, popular with Russian tourists, were halted in 2015 after the Islamic State downed a Russian plane, leaving 224 dead, over the Sinai.

On the eve of his visit to Egypt, Lavrov said in an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, "I expect that charter flights from Russia to Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada will be resumed as early as in the immediate future.” The minister added, “For Egypt, the influx of foreign tourists into the country is an important source of budget replenishment."

Lavrov's talks with the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service during the visit also speaks to the seriousness of Moscow's intentions to resume air traffic with Egypt. The Russian side is primarily concerned with ensuring the safety of flights.

Thus, one may get the impression that Russia is purposefully supporting the tourism industry of Turkey's main competitor, Egypt, while conversely refusing to provide tourist flows of its citizens to Turkey as a response to Turkish-Ukrainian contacts. Nevertheless, the official reason Moscow released for the cancellation of flights to Turkey was the difficult situation of COVID-19 in the country, and this looks increasingly more convincing. Daily infection rates in Turkey have increased nearly fivefold since March. Moreover, air traffic between Russia and Tanzania was also terminated, which had no ties whatsoever with Ukraine and was a major state with which Russia maintained air traffic in the interest of Russian tourists. The situation in Egypt is much more favorable; on April 13, Egypt registered about 800 new daily cases of COVID-19 compared with almost 60,000 in Turkey.

Two other major political issues that were discussed during Lavrov's visit to Egypt also affect Turkish interests to one degree or another. These are Libya and Syria.

In Libya, Russia and Egypt have established close interaction. Moscow and Cairo’s positions on the Libyan conflict are largely similar. Both countries have gradually distanced themselves from the military leader Khalifa Hifter, placing more emphasis on the chairman of the House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh. At the current stage, Russia and Egypt support the head of the presidential council of Libya, Muhammad Yunus Menfi, and the head of the government of national unity, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, but they are also actively working with representatives of western Libya, trying to lure some of them over to their side and remove them from Turkish influence.

On Syria, Egypt and Russia also developed an understanding, which was confirmed at Lavrov's talks in Cairo. It should be noted that the so-called "Cairo platform" of the Syrian opposition, whose activities are overseen by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is perceived by many pro-Turkish Syrian oppositionists — along with the "Moscow platform” — as President Bashar al-Assad's "Trojan horse" in the Syrian opposition structures.

In addition to military-technical cooperation and tourism, Moscow is also developing the Egyptian energy market. The largest Russian energy project in Egypt is the construction of the El-Dabaa nuclear power plant in northwestern Egypt on the Mediterranean coast (in the Matruh region) by Rosatom. The project involves the construction of a nuclear power plant with a total installed capacity of 4,800 megawatts, consisting of four VVER-1200 reactors. The commissioning of the first unit is scheduled for 2026. The construction of all four units of the plant is planned to be completed by 2028-2029.

The Russian joint-stock company Rosneft participates in the project to develop the Zohr gas field on the Egyptian shelf of the Mediterranean Sea. Rosneft's share in marketable production is 17%. The Russian companies LUKOIL and Zarubezhneft are also involved in the production of Egyptian oil.

The Russian industrial zone, with a total area of ​​525 hectares (2 square miles) and located in the city of Port Said, is set to be home to the offices of Russian companies and branches of Russian enterprises. This zone will likely become a strategic Russian infrastructure project in Egypt. This venture, launched in 2018, is underway.

One other area of cooperation between the two is the supply of Russian grain to Egypt. Cairo is one of the largest importers of Russian wheat.

Lavrov's visit to Cairo once again confirmed that Russian-Egyptian ties continue to develop and so far cannot even be impeded by the threat of American sanctions over military-technical cooperation. On the one hand, Egypt competes with Turkey as Moscow's leading partner in the Middle East both in the economic and political spheres. On the other hand, the history of relations between Moscow and Cairo shows that such an “idyll” can disappear in an instant, as happened in the 1970s under Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, when one day the country turned from an ally of the Soviet Union into an opponent of Moscow and partner of the United States. This is not forgotten in today's Russia.

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