The US move to unfreeze the delivery of 10 advanced Apache helicopters to Egypt comes on the heels of Russia’s increasing global activity and warming relations with the pivotal Arab country.
Egypt was likely aware that the US would not want to see its growing strategic foe increase its regional influence while at the same time weakening the country’s peace treaty with Israel, which has served as a pillar of its Middle East policy. Disrupting the aid could lower the latter’s incentive to uphold the treaty.
This move should be viewed as part of the repercussions of events going on in Ukraine, Prof. Efraim Karsh, a Middle East and Mediterranean studies scholar at London’s King’s College and senior research associate the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Jerusalem Post.
“Russia will now be disrupting US policies in the Middle East more aggressively,” and the delivery of the helicopters is designed to preempt or stop this tendency, he said.
Russia is now backing the opposite side of who the Americans support, explained Karsh.
“We can expect Russia to back [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s procrastination on chemical weapons disarmament, perhaps disrupting Iran nuclear talks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they stick their fingers in the Palestinian-Israeli peace’ talks,” he added.
The US partial aid freeze that was imposed after the toppling of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in a coup was seen as evidence by many Egyptians that the US was favoring the Islamist group at the expense of the new military backed regime headed by former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Egyptian military operations against an ongoing Islamist insurgency, particularly focused in Sinai, require weapons to deal with the threat. And Egypt, which sees itself in an existential struggle against the Islamists, was not going to ease up their crackdown in order to get US arms.
Consequently, over the past months, Egypt has sought a large arms deal with Russia, reportedly worth around $2 billion, to supply advanced weaponry.
The deal would include financial support from Sisi’s backers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a senior official told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm in February.
Russia, for its part, leapt at the opportunity to fill the void and inserted itself as the country’s chief backer.
Russian President Vladimir Putin went so far as to endorse Sisi for president for the upcoming elections back in February already.
However, it is possible that Sisi’s Russian gambit was simply a way to pressure the US into supplying the desired weapons without giving into US demands.
And if that was the case, it worked.
“The Obama administration is seeking to sustain US influence in the Middle East and Egypt’s military remains the country’s most important political force, and the best way the US can influence its military is by continuing to sell arms to it,” said Richard Weitz, a senior fellow and director for the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.
“Russia’s selling arms to Egypt per se is not a problem, but it has made it harder in Washington to withhold weapons to Egypt on democracy and human rights grounds,” he said.