Putin to Visit Egypt in Bid to Restore Military Ties

Egyptian military wants Russian aircraft, missiles

November 7, 2013

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Egypt later this month as part of a push by Moscow to replace the United States as the Egyptian military’s main patron.

The visit will take place after the Obama administration last month angered Egypt’s military by cutting deliveries of U.S. military arms and aid at a time when the military-dominated interim government is engaged in battles against Islamist terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula, and an insurgent Muslim Brotherhood opposed to the ouster of President Mohammad Morsi last summer.

According to U.S. officials, Putin will visit Cairo where he is expected to announce a major arms sales package as part of efforts to build closer military relations.

Egyptian diplomats visited Moscow last week to discuss the Putin visit to Cairo. News reports from the Egyptian capital said that Russia will resume arms sales, including advanced weaponry, following a cutoff of U.S. arms last month.

It would be the first time since the 1970s that Moscow will regain the foothold it lost in its close ties to Egypt when Egyptian President Anwar al Sadat expelled Soviet military advisers and ended purchases of Russian arms.

Putin spokeswoman Anna Abazova said in an email: "There is no information about possible trip to Egypt in President Putin's schedule at the moment."

Egyptian officials have been careful to avoid upsetting the United States by openly discussing plans for a new alliance with Moscow. However, U.S. officials said Egyptian presidential aide Ahmad El-Muslimani’s comment that Putin‘s "positive stance" toward "the June 30 Revolution" had increased his popularity in the country was a clear indication the country was moving away from U.S. support.

Egypt is said to be seeking Russian fighter jets and Tor anti-aircraft missiles, along with upgrades of its Soviet-era tanks—all weapons systems that were blocked by the United States.

The Russian leader’s visit will follow the stop in Cairo last week by Secretary of State John Kerry who met last week with Egypt’s military leader, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

U.S. officials said al-Sisi pressed Kerry not to punish Egypt for its slow transition from the ousted Muslim Brotherhood government to a more democratic system.

The U.S. cutoff of arms was not discussed in meetings with Kerry, an indication that Egypt may be ready to seek new weapons from Russia, said officials who briefed reporters after the meeting.

Kerry told Egyptian leaders that "you need to make progress" toward relaxing emergency controls and initiate democratic reforms. He told the Egyptians to "help us help you to get the assistance" by making political reforms, one senior official told reporters Sunday.

The United States announced Oct. 9 it is holding up deliveries of arms and aid to Egypt, a key strategic ally in the volatile Middle East.

Items being withheld to protest the interim government’s slow progress in holding new elections includes a dozen F-16 jet fighters, about a dozen AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, four M-1/A-1 tank kits and a number of Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The administration also is holding up $260 million in aid to the Egypt government, and has frozen a $300 million loan guarantee that is part of U.S. military arms financing programs.

Putin’s expected visit and the Egyptian military’s shift away from the United States and toward Russia were first reported by the Free Beacon in August.

At that time, U.S. officials said the Egyptian military, which has had close ties to the Pentagon since the 1980s, was angered by the Obama administration’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Cairo has received more than $49 billion in U.S. aid, including military aid, since 1979.

In 1977, Sadat canceled all military contracts with the Soviet Union in favor of a partnership with Washington.

In response to officials’ criticism of the administration’s policy favoring the Muslim Brotherhood, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said last summer that Egyptians must decide the future of their government. She denied that the administration was backing one side of the political divide in Egypt over another.

"We will continue working with all parties and all groups—including the interim government—to help facilitate a move towards an inclusive, democratic process," she said.

Morsi was ousted July 3 following a military coup June 30. Since then, pro-Morsi protesters have staged demonstrations that have been met with force by the interim government.

Officials said a serious threat facing the current Egyptian government is the growing activities of Islamist insurgents, including al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, in the Sinai.

"The Egyptians are fighting for the lives in the Sinai," said a U.S. official familiar with intelligence reports on the region. "Why is the administration cutting aid at this time?"

Pro-military news outlets in Egypt, in a sign of anger at the United States, for months have promoted Russia as a replacement for the United States.

Moscow is known to be seeking new bases and allies in the region as its foothold in Syria was undermined by the civil war there.

U.S. officials said the Egyptians publicly are playing down the planned shift by the military from the United States to Russia.

The shift is being described by Egyptian officials as a rebalancing of relations and a diversifying of its military hardware suppliers.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney said the administration's failure to back the Egyptian military is undermining 60 years of diplomacy that made Egypt a lynchpin of the Arab-Israeli Peace Treaty.

"By terminating our annual modernization and aid to the Egyptian military we are jeopardizing the peace treaty, weakening their military, endangering our preferred rights of overflight and the transiting of the Suez Canal," McInerney said in an email. "Furthermore Gen. al Sisi is the first Arab leader to take on the Muslim Brotherhood overtly."

The United States needs to support al Sisi and the interim government in the interest of regional stability, he added. "Israel desperately needs them backing the peace treaty," McInerney said.

"Now the administration is about to let Egypt be under the hegemony of Russia with Russian Ports, which is unbelievable," he said.

U.S. officials said there are indications the Russians also may be seeking an agreement with Egypt to set up a military base in Egypt to replace its now-threatened naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus.

Putin told Russian television in September that he supports stability in Egypt as soon as possible and promised that Russia would "facilitate this in every way."

Meanwhile in the Sinai, Egyptian military and police forces on Wednesday attacked outposts of 55 "Takfiri elements," Egypt’s term for Islamist, al Qaeda linked terrorist groups in the region.

The state-controlled MENA news agency said 11 arrests were made, including five Palestinians. Additionally, 10 vehicles and 15 unlicensed motorcycles were seized.

The forces also destroyed nine houses used by the groups.