by Patrick Kingsley, The Guardian
CAIRO, February 9, 2015 (TSR-The Guardian) Russian president Vladimir Putin flies to Cairo for a two-day visit on Monday, in a move nominally aimed at bolstering bilateral ties with Egypt that also allows both countries to send pointed messages to the US.
As Russian and western diplomats struggle to reach a peace deal over the conflict in Ukraine, Putin will spend Monday evening at Cairo’s opera house. In meetings on Tuesday, the day before the resumption of Ukraine peace talks, Putin is expected to hold discussions about ending the use of the US dollar in bilateral trade between Egypt and Russia. Collaboration between a Russian and Egyptian newspaper is also reported to be scheduled for discussion.
Analysts believe both sides, though interested in forming stronger relations, primarily seek to signal to the international community that their foreign policies are not to be dictated by others. In the middle of negotiations that have left him with few friends, Putin wants to show that he still has allies, said Ben Judah, a chronicler of Putin’s life, and the author of Fragile Empire, a book about Putin’s Russia.
“He’s making a show of highlighting how he’s not isolated,” said Judah, who noted how Putin has visited China and India when previously under pressure. “It’s also a way of undermining the US, since Cairo is piece of America’s imperium.
“Russia would like more of a relationship with Egypt. But right now building a stronger relationship is not one of the top 500 priorities for Russia when they’ve got so much else going on.”
For its part, Egypt may desire some kind of small-scale arms deal with Russia, but its primary interest in hosting Putin is to show that it is not beholden to US foreign policy, said HA Hellyer, an Egypt specialist at Harvard University’s Kennedy school. “There are going to be political benefits to showing that they don’t need to be tied and bound to US – they can look to China, and they can look to Russia,” said Hellyer.
In a telling development, hundreds of posters of Putin were put up across Cairo this weekend, emblazoned with the word “Welcome”. Many pro-regime Egyptians are fond of Putin for his unconditional public support for Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, and this weekend Egypt’s flagship state newspaper printed a long feature about Putin that called him “a hero of our era”. But the fact that the posters were mostly written in English, rather than Russian or Arabic, suggested their target audience lies overseas.
Though the US has ultimately stood by Egypt’s authoritarian government, it has angered Egypt by holding up the delivery of several Apache helicopters coveted by Egypt’s army – and Egypt may hope Russia could fill the gap at some point in the future. “But the main issue with arms deals with Russia is that this is primarily an American-built military and to change that would take substantial amounts of time and investment,” said Hellyer. “If you’re sitting in the Egyptian military, you want the best – which means you want US arms, not Russian. And for all their huffing and puffing, the Egyptian establishment wants to be a part of the western axis.”
An arms deal has continually been mooted between Egypt and Russia over the past two years, but has not been conclusively sealed.