Russia’s mission in the Arab world is far from finished

Cairo: Flanked by army officials, two strongmen – Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi – stood motionless, peering over their respective energy ministers as they signed a deal to build a nuclear power plant to the tune of $US21 billion ($27 billion).

Russia and Egypt might be entering a new era of close ties, reminiscent of the previous Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War, but that has more to do with haphazard US foreign policy.

As Yemen’s civil war worsens and Saudi Arabia assumes a more dominant regional role, American allies such as Egypt and Israel, as well as foes including Iran, are turning to Russia as a more reliable partner to push their domestic and foreign agendas.

The military pomp and parade on display for Putin in Cairo on his flash visit on Monday was a graphic indicator of how both autocratic leaders are attracted to exuding political might rather than necessarily acknowledging the terminal economic calamities gripping their countries.

Russia is facing a severe economic crisis with international sanctions and a high poverty rate of 14.4 per cent, but its projection of military power through its various arms sales to Arab client states is an important political move that has been effectively deployed.

A year after floating its currency, Egypt’s economy has steadied with more foreign investment but its debt has ballooned to more than $US80 billion.

Although Arab regimes still rely heavily on US security patronage, the Russian appeal lies in Moscow’s willingness to aggressively put its hands up as an international power that is concerned about regime stability and unencumbered by lip service to human rights.

“The message Russia is sending to other Arab countries by supporting [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is that if you are facing domestic trouble we are going to stick by our allies,” Karim Bitar, a Middle East expert at the Paris-based Institute for Strategic International Relations told Fairfax Media.

“We are not like the US, we are not going to sell you weapons and then abandon you when you face problems”.

“So when Sissi flirts with Russia he’s just sending a signal to the US that we might explore alternatives.”

Egypt is still the second biggest recipient of American military aid after Israel to the tune of $US1.3 billion annually but in August the Trump administration froze nearly $US300 million of weapons over human rights concerns.

Egypt has bought 50 fighter jets costing around $US3.5 billion from Russia and signed a deal last month to have mutual use of the two countries’ airbases.

Incidentally, Saudi Arabia paid $US3 billion for sophisticated Russian air defence missile systems in October, according to Reuters, while Iran, its regional rival, has negotiated the purchase of a $US10-billion Russian S-300 anti aircraft missile system.

Putin has also shrewdly capitalised on the US’s schizophrenic policy mainly towards Syria to fill the political vacuum that started with the Obama administration and was prolonged by Trump’s heavily-gutted US State Department.

In the process, he has managed to woo other important autocratic leaders such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, convincing him to withdraw his support to Syrian rebels and focus his political ambitions instead on curbing Kurdish statehood on his border.

In a show of Putin’s confidence, on Monday he announced a partial withdrawal of troops from Russian bases in Syria citing his concerted campaign to degrade Islamic State and other opposition forces.

But Bitar believed that is not the end of it.

“So far the cost benefit analysis shows that Russia got what it wanted without paying a heavy price, however I do think it will end up paying the price for its intervention in Syria,” he said.

He warns that much like the Soviet Union’s mishandled campaign in Afghanistan fuelled the rise of jihadis and birthed al-Qaeda, current militant groups are already including mentions of targeting Russia in their jihadi propaganda.

“The mission is far from accomplished”.

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