Egypt: Russia's Motives for Expanding Its Influence in the Middle East

3 MINS READNov 30, 2017 | 22:36 GMT
Forecast Update

Russia is a key actor in the Middle East and North Africa section of Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast. It has been heavily involved in Syria's civil war and the fight against the Islamic State across the region. The news that Moscow is working to secure a more permanent military presence in North Africa should come as no surprise, especially as its standoff with the West intensifies.

Russia is taking another step toward restoring its military presence in the Middle East, announcing on Nov. 30 that it is working on a preliminary agreement with Egypt on the reciprocal use of air bases in each country. Egyptian authorities still must approve the draft agreement, which Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has signed, but they are expected to do so soon. The agreement would be good for five years and could be extended.
Moscow is interested in expanding its influence in the Middle East for three main reasons. First, it wants to gain the leverage and freedom needed to solve broader international and economic challenges on its own terms. Second, it has an interest in containing the threat of radical Islam, which reaches into the Russian heartland. And finally, at a time when Western sanctions are weighing heavily on its economy, Moscow is looking to gain influence in and access to new markets for Russian arms, goods and energy. 
The strategic implications for Russia are notable. Gaining basing rights in Egypt would allow Russia to project military power into Libya, the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean should it choose to. Even if it doesn't use that capability, the mere fact that it has it will give it greater diplomatic clout in Africa. It will also legitimize Russia's presence in the region and make it a more valuable partner for other countries there. Russia is also in discussions with Sudan on the possibility of constructing a Russian naval base there. 
It couldn't be any clearer that Russia wants to restore and grow its presence in the Middle East, and it has found a willing partner in Egypt. Egypt's relationship with its historical ally, the United States, has soured since Washington temporarily cut military aid to the country after the 2013 military-led coup, as it was legally obligated to do. Though aid was eventually restored, the move was not received well by the Egyptian military, which is heavily reliant on foreign aid. Since 2013, Cairo has been rebuilding its relationship with Moscow, buying heavy equipment, including fighter jets, missiles and attack helicopters, in the hopes of diversifying its sources of arms and reducing the risk that it will again be left to its own devices. That said, Egypt is not interested in replacing the United States with Russia: Its military is still overwhelmingly dominated by American equipment, and many of its officers have American training. Rather, Egypt hopes to gain access to the best each military has to offer and will not hesitate to leverage the two against each other. 

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