March 18, 2014

The Russians are coming...with our (unwitting?) help

Egyptian Armed Forces Marshal al-Sisi and Russian President Putin

The world's attention is focused on two major stories: the mystery of Malaysian Flight 370, and the likely Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. The Russian actions in Ukraine are not an isolated event - the Russians under President Vladimir Putin are in a resurgence mode, fueled by the imperial dreams of the former Soviet intelligence officer now president, and vast amounts of oil and natural gas revenues.

Putin's imperial dreams extend beyond Europe - let's look at what the Russians are doing in the Middle East. Let's also keep in mind that the Russian actions are directly related to how Putin views the United States and what he perceives as a weak American administration that is not likely to challenge him.

Let's look at Egypt as an example. My apologies up front - in the interest of brevity, this is a greatly condensed account of a very complex situation.

Following the removal of Husni Mubarak in 2011, the Egyptian people elected Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad Mursi a year later in what was judged to be a free and fair presidential election. Mursi began to transform Egypt into a much more Islamist state, triggering massive popular demonstrations in 2013, in what was almost a repeat of the 2011 demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square. At one point, 22 million people - well over a quarter of the entire population - actively protested the Mursi government.

Here is where it gets interesting. Sensing the danger to the fragile new Egyptian democracy, the chief of the armed forces General 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi gave President Mursi an ultimatum: respond to the people's demands for change or face removal. Mursi refused - on July 3, 2013, General al-Sisi removed President Mohamed Mursi from power, suspended the constitution, and called for new presidential and parliamentary elections.

For all practical purposes, and in the U.S. government's view, this was a military coup d'etat. The United States, citing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, cut off all aid, including the annual $1.5 billion in military assistance. Although the President had the authority to waive the requirements of the law, he chose not to do so and applied sanctions on the interim Egyptian government.

The results were immediate. The Egyptian armed forces, charged with keeping the peace in the face of the expected Muslim Brotherhood violence - aimed mainly at the mostly defenseless Coptic Christians - found themselves without access to needed military hardware and spare parts.

The United States still maintains those sanctions on Egypt. The Egyptian military has had to ground many of its Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter-bombers when they are needed to fight a growing Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.

The author with Marshal al-Sisi in Cairo

I visited Cairo late last year and discussed this with senior Egyptian officials, including General (now Marshal) al-Sisi. The general explained Egypt's position - it was not in fact a coup d'etat, but merely the armed forces executing the will of the people. I tried not to smile.... I sympathize with the Egyptian armed forces and applaud their actions, but, sorry, General, it was a coup. I have to call it what it is.

This, General, is a what a military coup d'etat looks like....

Now for the unintended consequences. Not one week after the delegation of which I was a part departed, the Russian Foreign Minister and Defense Minister arrived in Cairo with an initial offer of $2 billion of military equipment to offset the loss of American aid. The package included the multi-role version of the MiG-29 (FULCRUM), the excellent S-300 (SA-20) air defense system and what Cairo regards as critical, Mi-35 (HIND E) attack helicopters, in addition to a host of other equipment. That package has grown to at least $3 billion.

Who is paying for all this Russian hardware? Is Vladimir Putin so interested in reclaiming the former Soviet Union's Cold War role as Egypt's primary weapons supplier that he is willing to foot the bill? Hardly. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have offered to finance the deal. Yes, Saudi Arabia, who is at odds with Moscow over Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

Saudi Arabia is one of the major supporters of the Syrian opposition. Politics, and weapons sales, make for strange bedfellows. According to other press reports, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan (former ambassador to the United States) offered to buy $5 billion worth of Russian weapons if Moscow would stop supporting the al-Asad regime.

The Russians are not only making moves in Egypt to regain its position as a major arms supplier in the region. In October 2012,
Moscow signed a $4.3 billion arms deal with Iraq. While that sounds huge, Iraq has ordered about $10 billion worth of military equipment from the United States in the last few years.

Moscow hopes to boost its weapons sales in the Middle East to upgrade its struggling defense industry with a 10-year, $755 billion spending program. Russian President Putin senses that the reticence of the American administration to maintain its leadership role in the region and as Egypt's primary supporter provides an opening for Russia to regain what it perceives as its rightful place in the Middle East.

The Russians are coming, and we are doing very little to stop them.