Russia may be on the verge of concluding a major arms deal with Egypt, a one-time Soviet client state that might be drifting back into Moscow's orbit as allegiances shift with bewildering speed in the post-uprising Middle East.
The outlines of the deal were reportedly inked during a meeting Thursday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Egypt's presumed future president came to Moscow to broaden his regime's international legitimacy – and perhaps send a warning signal to the US, which has been trimming aid to Egypt, especially since Field Marshal Sisi headed a military takeover last July.
Citing Russian defense ministry sources, the Moscow business daily Vedomosti reported that nearly $3 billion in arms contracts have been signed, including deals for MiG-29M fighter planes, advanced air defense systems, Mi-35 helicopters, coastal anti-shipping missiles, and small arms. The paper also quotes sources as saying the tab for Egypt's Russian arms will be picked up by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
There's been no official confirmation of the deal, but following his meeting with Mr. Putin Thursday, Sisi told journalists that "our visit offers a new start to the development of military and technological co-operation between Egypt and Russia. We hope to speed up this co-operation."
For his part, Putin said he was aware of Sisi's bid to win Egypt's presidency in upcoming elections and wished him luck "both from myself personally and from the Russian people."
The apparently warm new relationship comes more than 40 years after former Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat dealt the USSR one of its most humiliating foreign policy defeats by cutting ties and kicking 20,000 Soviet advisers out of Egypt. But expert opinions differ over whether it is a sign that Russia is seeking to take advantage of ebbing US power in the Middle East by reoccupying positions formerly held by Moscow.
Some argue that Putin, who enjoyed personal success last September by convincing Barack Obama to shelve airstrikes against Syria in favor of an international operation to disarm the country of chemical weapons, is hungry for more diplomatic victories that would expand Russian influence in the region.
"Moscow certainly wants to gain a new foothold in the Middle East, to fill the USSR's former niche," says Vladimir Sotnikov, a Middle East expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.
"Egypt's [military leaders] want more than Russian moral support, they want to diversify supplies of weaponry and other goods. They are disappointed in the US attitude since the overthrow of [the elected president Mohammed] Morsi by the military last July, and want to compensate for the cooling of relations with Washington. As for Putin, he's a realist, he can see that al-Sisi's the inevitable next president of Egypt, so he's the man to cultivate. Russia does want to return to the Middle East," Mr. Sotnikov says.
But others say that despite the apparent payoff for Russia's stubborn consistency supporting its last Soviet-era client, Syria, throughout the last three years of tumult, Moscow has little appetite for more of the same.
"This [arms] deal is mainly about the cash," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.
"It's a bit of a paradox, because many countries in the Middle East have acknowledged that Putin is tough and realistic, where the US has proven to be indecisive, and they seem to be hoping for great things. We've seen Saudis, Egyptians, and Iraqis come to Moscow with expectations lately. Even the news that the Saudis are paying for this Egyptian arms deal suggests that they are angling to improve their standing with Moscow," he says.
"But the cold fact is that Russia has no grand plan, no appetite to replace the Americans in the Middle East and not the slightest idea what to do about all the turmoil that's blighting that region."