CAIRO, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Russia's discussions with Egypt on a $3 billion arms deal underlines a major drive by Moscow to boost arms sales in the Middle East as it strives to upgrade its once powerful defense industry with a 10-year, $755 billion spending program.
Russia secured a $4.3 billion arms deal with Iraq in October 2012 and is currently holding discussions with Iran on boosting military cooperation. Russian arms supplies to Syria's embattled regime, a key Arab ally, play a vital role in keeping President Bashar Assad in power.
Throughout the Cold War, Syria under Assad's father, Hafez Assad, was a major buyer of Soviet weapons, and maintained military ties through the years that followed the Soviet collapse.
But Russia's arms deal with Iraq, which has ordered U.S. weapons worth around $10 billion in the last few years, and the prospect of a breakthrough defense contract with Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally, illustrates how the arms business in the Middle East is undergoing profound change amid the political turmoil gripping the Arab world.
With the United States seeking detente with Iran, its adversary for the last 35 years, and perceived to be withdrawing from the region as the political order that's prevailed since the 1960s falls apart, even the Persian Gulf monarchies, who have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on U.S. arms, are keeping an eye on Moscow.
Last year, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, reportedly offered to buy Russian weapons systems worth $5 billion if Moscow would step back from its support of Syria's Assad, Riyadh's enemy.
The Saudis have a key role in the emerging prospect of a big Egyptian agreement with Russia: The kingdom and the United Arab Emirates would finance the deal, the Russian daily Vedomosti reported Friday.
"While Egypt is not completely breaking with the United States, its move to enhance its ties with Moscow shows that Cairo feels it should no longer depend on Washington as its sole powerful ally," the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor said.
"It is somewhat odd that while the Saudis and the Russians are at loggerheads over Moscow's support for the Syrian regime, Riyadh has encouraged Cairo to purchase arms from Moscow.
"Paying for weapons that Egypt is trying to purchase from Russia is a way for Saudi Arabia to try to manage the divergence of Riyadh's and Washington's interests in the region ...
"It is unclear whether the arms deal will be finalized, but if it is it will underscore Egypt's efforts to diversify the pool of suppliers for its defense needs as the country's armed forces already field weaponry from the United States, France and Russia -- another example of decreasing dependency on Washington," Stratfor noted.
For its part, Russia may be further motivated to intensify its arms sales in the Middle East because a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, a significant buyer of Russian weapons over the last decades, could result in a reduction in Moscow's arms sales to the Islamic Republic.
The prospect of a Russian arms deal with Cairo emerged from a visit to Moscow by the Egyptian strongman, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, last week in an apparent effort to diversify Cairo's diplomatic allegiances.
That was the result, in part, of the U.S. President Barack Obama's administration withholding much of the annual $1.5 billion in U.S. military aid provided to Cairo every year following the Egyptian military's overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, July 3, 2013, amid widespread political unrest.
Sisi is expected to run for president in April elections -- and win. Russian President Vladimir Putin's endorsement of Sisi's as-yet undeclared candidacy underlined Moscow's hopes of restoring the close ties the Soviet Union had with the Arab world's most populous nation until 1972.
The Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm reported Friday the arms deal includes unspecified numbers of MiG-29 interceptors, Mi-35 attack helicopters and coastal defense systems. These could be P-800 Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, like those Moscow delivered to Syria in 2013.
With Libya, a major buyer of Soviet weapons during the Cold War, now reorienting toward the United States and the West following the downfall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, the Russians may feel that winning back Egypt evens the score.