Putin hands Egyptian president a rifle - and an alternative to US?

The Soviet Union was once Egypt's main military ally, and the Russian president's gift may be a hint to Abdul Fattah al-Sisi that the US isn't the only diplomatic option today.

The Egyptian Presidency/Courtesy of Reuters
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (l.) looks on as Russian President Vladimir Putin (c.) presents him with a Kalishnikov assault rifle on Monday during Putin's two-day visit to Cairo.

A Kalashnikov rifle was Vladimir Putin's gift to Egyptian leader Abdul Fattah al-Sisi as he arrived in Cairo to start a two-day state visit Monday.

That seems logical, since the two leaders are likely to ramp up Russian arms sales and military cooperation with Egypt, and will reportedly agree on a joint strategy to combat Islamist extremism.

But the venerable Kalashnikov is also a potent symbol of Moscow's backing for anti-Western allies over the past century. As Russia's relations with the West spiral to post-cold war lows, Mr. Putin may be reminding Egypt, a US ally whose bonds with Washington have been fraying, that there are potential alternatives to American support.

"There are new conditions in the world, so there is a new Russian foreign policy strategy. If the West will not work with Russia, we will find new partners and do whatever it takes to ensure that Russian national interests are taken care of," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle East Studies in Moscow.

More room for Russian diplomacy

The former Soviet Union was once Egypt's main supporter and arms supplier. But 40 years ago, former Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat dealt the USSR one of its most humiliating foreign policy defeats by cutting ties and expelling 20,000 Soviet advisers. Egypt subsequently became a keystone regional client state of the US and the second-largest recipient after Israel of American military aid. 

But the turmoil in Egypt of the past four years, including the overthrow of a dictator and a coup against an Islamist president, has thrown those former certainties into question.

While no one thinks Russia is poised to replace the US as Egypt's main partner, particularly in the military sphere, Putin is dangling an array of modern weaponry, including MiG-29 fighters and late-model air defense systems, in addition to a $3.5 billion arms deal finalized last year. In an interview with Al-Ahram newspaper he said Russia's trade with Egypt increased by nearly half last year to about $4.6 billion, including about 40 percent of the grain consumed by Egyptians.

The trade deals may sound mundane, but Putin also reiterated his vision of a financial alternative to the Western order by proposing Russia and Egypt conduct trade in their own currencies, not the US dollar. Last year the central banks of Russia and China signed a $24 billion currency swap deal, which would enable businesses in both countries to trade goods priced in rubles or yuan. 

"We already use national currencies for trade with a number of the [post-Soviet] States, and China. This practice proves its worth; we are ready to adopt it in our relations with Egypt as well," he said. 

'Let's get together and work out alternatives'

Pro-regime change US policies have left Egypt out in the cold since 2011, Putin said. In a familiar complaint, he accused the US of messing up the entire Middle East and bringing mayhem to Russia's neighbor Ukraine. "Today’s developments in Syria and Iraq stem, among other things, from a heavy-handed and irresponsible interference from the outside into the affairs of the region and unilateral use of force, ‘double standards,’ and differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists," he said.

That message will resonate with many Egyptians who are disillusioned about the US role in their region, Mr. Satanovsky says.

"Putin is being careful. He isn't saying Russia can push out the US, or even wants to," he says. "Putin's just making these points, which seem self-evident to a lot of people in the Middle East these days. He's saying that the US doesn't know what it's doing and can't be trusted to be consistent about anything. That's what Russia has learned from its experience, and if others are having the same experience, well, Putin is saying, let's get together and work out alternatives."

Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Russian parliament's international affairs committee, says Russia has pursued consistent policies, played a long game, and may now be ready to reap the benefits.

"The West has a persecution mania if they think we're doing everything to spite them," he says. "Russia is pursuing its own interests, and that includes helping to restore stability in the Middle East."

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