Wikistrat is currently running a discussion forum on events in Egypt and their geopolitical implications. The entry that so far has garnered the most discussion and feedback is entitled “Will Russia Become Egypt’s New Military Supplier?”
The incipiency of this discussion was started over the revelations that America was reconsidering the large aid package – primarily to its military – that is provided yearly (Obama’s budget for 2014 stood at $1.55 billion). As the death toll has begun to mount in recent weeks, and with the military taking an increasingly aggressive line with the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters in the street, the Obama administration’s decision to delay the delivery of F-16 C/D fighters, Apache attack helicopters, M1A1 Abrams tanks and the cancelling of joint exercises have led to questions over where the Egyptian military would turn to supply its arms if America no longer provided arms and its aid packages.
The most likely countries that would supplant the U.S. as Egypt’s arms suppliers were thought to be Russia and China. The positive and negatives to each country were examined in depth by the analysts. China, while able to provide large investment packages and economic aid to the country, would provide weapons of questionable quality. Several countries have come to complain over the quality of Chinese weapons and would most likely not meet the standards that the Egyptian military has become accustomed to (although the Egyptian Air Force currently uses the Hongdu JL-8 jet trainer.) Counter to the questionable quality of China, Russia’s military industry produces the closest comparable equipment in terms of quality.
If Russia were to become Egypt’s main armament supplier, it can be reasonably assumed that the T-90A main battle tank, aircraft such as the Su-43, MIG-31, Tu-22m, An-148, the Ka-52 “Black Shark” attack helicopter and the S-400/300 air defense units would be first on its supply list. And with Russia’s few remaining client states (e.g. Syria) in the Middle East under existential threat, the possibility of acquiring a new client and influence in the region is extremely attractive to an assertive Russia. By providing weapons to Egypt, Russia would be cultivating a relationship with a Middle Eastern nation that could supplant Syria in the event that the Assad regime is overthrown. Egypt is an attractive potential ally for Russia because of its cultural, social and political importance in the Arab world, which would allow Russia to stay politically relevant in the Middle East. Additionally, Russia has been supporting the Assad regime not only because it is its last ally in the Middle East, but also because it fears the instability and anarchy that would follow Assad’s fall. By providing support to Egypt’s generals, Russia would curry favor with the regions Sunni monarchies whose relations have been strained over Russia’s continued support of the Assad regime, and seek to prevent any further instability that it is so concerned over.
While the ability to provide such items is certainly within Russia’s capabilities, the issue of payment is a significant consideration to any potential arms deal – which is made all the more pressing due to Egypt’s low foreign reserves and deteriorating economic situation. However, as Rosoboronexport (Russia’s state owned weapons export monopoly) seeks to increase its portfolio – currently the second largest weapons provider behind the U.S. – the terms and payment for items could be negotiated and altered (Rosoboronexport orders currently stands at $34 billion and is aggressively seeking new clients, such as Vietnam). A valuable insight was that Moscow has often renegotiated the terms of repayment for arms, from Syria to Egypt itself, many times favorably and without interest. Yet, even with such preferential terms, Egypt would not see itself receiving the quality and amount of weapons that it had previously received from the United States.
Furthermore, as is the case with any potential arms deal, it cannot be disentangled from the broader range of geopolitical considerations to include economic imperatives and investment. Egypt relies not only on the aid package from the U.S., but from the economic interconnections that such relationships entail. Tourism, a mainstay of the Egyptian economy, relies significantly on tourists from the EU and the United States. However, a less-known statistic is that it is in fact Russia whose tourists make up the largest proportion in the country (2010 estimates of 2,855,723). And while Russia may be sending tourists and seeking to reassert itself as a major global player, its deteriorating economic forecasts (Russia’s growth rate has slowed to 1.4 percent, three times lower than the 4.5 percent growth it experienced from January to July 2012, a 6.9 percent inflation rate and a weakening ruble) and increasing attention on the Far East and Central Asia – especially with the impending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its “pivot” to Asia – mean that Russia’s political capital and economic power are already stretched (not to mention the increasing signs of discontent under Putin’s rule which would further limit any Russian attention abroad). As such, any investment or economic aid packages would most likely not be forthcoming under Russian patronage.
Beyond the simple issues of providing material is the fact that Egypt’s officer corps is trained not only along western lines, but in the U.S. itself (including Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the U.S. Army War College.) The officer relationships and military to military connections make the U.S. aid packages more than simple economics – as evidenced by Defense Secretary Hagel’s ability to speak informally with al-Sisi. As such, the officer corps is accustomed to Western-style tactics and training in addition to the familiarity with Western weapon systems. If Russia was to become the major contributor of weapons to Egypt, its military would be faced with a gargantuan task of retraining and reorienting its troops on maintaining and operating Russian equipment. And while interoperability and the effort to retrain its forces on “high ticket” items such as air defense and aircraft remain significant, Egypt’s military is rather diversified, with equipment ranging in varying degrees from France, Germany, Italy, Russia and China to the United States. The Egyptian military also produces large amounts of weaponry via license in its state owned enterprises: Maadi Engineering Industries Company, as well as the Arab Organization for Industrialization. It is therefore foreseeable that any arms agreement could also potentially entail an agreement for the production of items under license with these companies.
Whatever the future holds for Egypt, it is clear that the country and its military are not beholden to arms imports from the U.S. and that there are potentially viable alternatives. And as recent actions attest, from Edward Snowden to the continuing debacle in Syria, Russia will not hesitate to act in furtherance of its own interests. The Obama administration would do well to not overestimate the Egyptian military’s reliance on the aid package, or its own ability to dictate policy.