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Russia 'offers Egypt MiG-29s in $2B arms deal'

Nov. 15, 2013 at 3:24 PM   |   Comments

CAIRO, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- Russia has reportedly offered to sell Egypt MiG-29 interceptor jets, helicopters and air-defense systems worth at least $2 billion as Moscow moves to exploit the U.S. rift with the Arab world's most populous nation and regain the regional influence it had during the Cold War.

The offer emerged from two days of talks in Cairo between Egypt's de facto ruler, Defense Minister and army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

They arrived Wednesday on the highest level mission from Russia in many years, a clear signal Moscow seeks to revive its former ties with Egypt as Washington's relations with Cairo become increasingly strained following the army's July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

There was speculation the talks will pave the way for a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is determined to restore Moscow's influence in the Middle East that was a Cold War arena between the United States and the Soviet Union.

There were also reports a top-ranking official of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence, was also in Cairo recently for consultations with military and intelligence chiefs, the first such talks since the 1970s.

On Monday, the Russian navy's Slava-class guided missile cruiser Varyag, the 11,490-ton flagship of the Pacific Fleet, docked in Alexandria on the Mediterranean for a six-day visit, the first Russian warship to visit Egypt since 1992. It was greeted with a 21-gun salute.

Its presence underlined the new era of military cooperation -- and arms sales -- that Moscow seeks with Egypt four decades after the late President Anwar Sadat booted out 20,000 Soviet military advisers in July 1972, strategically realigned Egypt with the United States and signed a historic peace treaty with Israel in March 1979.

Lavrov said Russia is "ready to help Egypt in all the fields where it seeks cooperation," referring specifically to the "military and military-technical field."

Russian officials said although potential military sales were discussed -- one report mentioned deals worth $4 billion -- no contracts were negotiated.

But it seems a deal of some size is shaping up, "certainly the largest and most important between the countries since the 1970s," the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor said.

"A package of this size would have to be not just equipment sales but go hand in hand with a broader cooperation, including on foreign policy goals," said Ruslan Pukhov, a member of the Russian Defense Ministry's advisory board.

He said among the weapons Cairo was looking at were MiG-29M/M2 fighters. Russian media reports also listed, attack helicopters, low-range air-defense systems and Kornet anti-tank missiles, as well as upgrading old Soviet systems Egypt still has.

Egypt was armed by the Soviets throughout the 1960s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Arab nationalist icon, was president. Its military doctrine was Soviet. After Sadat succeeded Nasser and took Egypt into the Western camp after the 1973 war with Israel, the country's military has been re-equipping with U.S. weapons systems worth billions of dollars.

It still has sizeable inventories of Soviet equipment, but these are now obsolete and it's questionable whether it's worth upgrading it.

If Sisi is serious about renewed large-scale procurement of Russian equipment -- and that fits into Putin's doctrine of using arms sales to bolster Moscow's foreign policy strategy -- Cairo will find itself with the thorny problem of not only re-equipping Egypt's armed forces, but retraining its 438,000 military personnel.

That's a time-consuming and immensely expensive task, and right now Egypt's economy is in deep trouble with plummeting energy production and rampant inflation.

Sisi has little hard cash to spare for big-ticket arms buys from Moscow.

The Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf have pledged Cairo $12 billion in financial aid, and Moscow, flush with energy wealth, could also help Egypt out financially.

The Russians clearly seek to exploit the waning power of the United States across the Middle East and the rift between Washington and Sisi's military regime in Cairo toppled Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president.

That angered Washington. President Barack Obama suspended a large portion of the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid Egypt received annually and blocked delivery of Lockheed Martin F-16 jets and other weapons pending progress toward restoring democracy.

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