(CNSNews.com) – Days after Secretary of State John Kerry said in Cairo that the Obama administration was interested in resuming a “strategic dialogue” with Egypt, its interim government on Wednesday launched a dialogue of its own with another country – one that is eager to exploit tensions in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.
For the first time, the Russian defense and foreign ministers will hold “two plus two” talks with their Egyptian counterparts on boosting military and economic ties, ahead of a planned visit to Cairo by President Vladimir Putin.
The last time Putin visited Egypt, during his earlier tenure at the Kremlin in 2005, President Hosni Mubarak was in power. Now Mubarak has gone, as has his Muslim Brotherhood successor, Mohammed Morsi, and Egypt’s military-backed leaders are eager to deepen ties.
On Monday, a Russian warship docked in Alexandria in the first such port visit since 1992. Russia’s state weapons exporting agency said last week it was ready to supply arms to Egypt, and an Egyptian defense official told the Al-Masry al-Youm daily that the two sides expect to sign the biggest ever arms deal between Egypt and Russia.
“We attach great importance to the upcoming visit of Russian ministers, especially in the present situation,” an Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman told Russian reporters, describing their country as one of international “authority and influence.”
The spokesman, Badr Abdel Aty, recalled Moscow-Cairo relations dating back to the Cold War.
“One should not forget that a large part of the arsenals of our armed forces have been made up of Russian weapons, and we want to develop cooperation in this field, specifically in the training of specialists, technical servicing, and the deliveries of spare parts,” the Itar-Tass state news agency quoted him as saying.
Since the signing of the U.S.-brokered Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, Egypt has received $1.3 billion annually in U.S. military assistance. Last month the administration announced it was withholding several hundred million dollars’ worth of aid, in response to the military’s ousting of Morsi in July.
The two-day visit by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and plans for Putin to follow come amid much debate about Washington’s relationships with longstanding Mideast allies, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
In reporting on the outreach to Egypt, state media in Moscow are promoting a narrative of Russian popularity and U.S. weakness in the Middle East.
“For Moscow, the improvement of ties with Egypt could signify a return in force to the Middle East while U.S. diplomacy is failing all over the region,” said the RIA Novosti news agency.
Itar-Tass opined that after the Egyptian military removed Morsi, “the prestige of Russia in Egypt rose high as never before,” with portraits of Putin appearing alongside those of Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
Sisi was the general who ousted Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood administration on July 3, in response to mass demonstrations demanding his departure.
While President Obama was announcing that he was “deeply concerned” by the military takeover and that he had directed aides to review the implications for U.S. aid, Moscow on July 4 expressed support for the “aspirations of the Egyptian people for a better life with freedom and democratic renewal.”
A Saudi newspaper last month quoted Ahmed al-Muslimani, an advisor to Egypt’s interim presidency, as saying Putin’s “positive stance” at the time “explains the rise in his popularity” among Egyptians.
Last Saturday Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told the French news agency AFP that Egypt’s foreign policy was entering a “new phase,” a more “independent” approach with the objective of giving it “more choices.”
Asked whether the administration has any concerns about Russia’s goals in Egypt, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday while it was of course aware of the visits she could “only speak to our relationship.” She recalled that Kerry during his recent visit had “discussed our commitment to the long-term success of Egypt.”
Egypt enjoyed strong ties with the Soviet Union under Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s but relations cooled somewhat under his successor, Anwar Sadat, who expelled thousands of Soviet military advisors during the 1970s. Soviet opposition to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace agreement led to a severing of diplomatic ties, although Mubarak later restored them.
The Russian warship now docked in Alexandria is the missile cruiser Varyag, flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet.
Its visit comes at a time Russia is building up its naval presence in the Mediterranean, re-establishing a presence it lost when it shut down its 5th Mediterranean Squadron after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Late last year, with the conflict worsening in Syria – where Russia maintains a Soviet-era support facility in Tartus – the Defense Ministry said it would restore a permanent presence in the Mediterranean “to protect its interests in the region.”
On Monday another missile cruiser, Northern Fleet flagship Pyotr Velikiy, was named as the new lead vessel of the permanent naval task force, replacing the Black Sea Fleet’s Moskva. Other ships in the task force include a frigate and reconnaissance and amphibious landing ships.
The Saudis too?
On Sunday, the Kremlin reported that Putin had phoned Saudi King Abdullah to discuss the Syrian crisis and nuclear negotiations with Iran. The two expressed “interest in continued cooperation and contacts,” it said. There was no word – yet – on any plan for Putin to visit Saudi Arabia. He did so last in 2007.
Perceived U.S. support for the Morsi administration in Egypt, and then the suspension of some aid after his overthrow was not welcomed by Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states leery of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they quickly pledged a total of $12 billion to the interim government.
The Saudis were also troubled by Obama’s decision not to go ahead with his declared intention to launch a military strike in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in August – the plan was shelved in favor of an agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stocks – and by U.S. outreach to the Sunni kingdom’s regional rival, Shi’ite Iran.
On Tuesday Riyadh officially confirmed an earlier surprise decision to turn down a seat on the U.N. Security Council, one day after winning a temporary seat.
Saudi Arabia’s stated reason was frustration with Security Council inaction over Syria, nuclear weapons in the region, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but criticism from senior Saudi royals confirmed that much of its disappointment is directed at the U.S.