by D. R. HAFEZ
European leaders must be kicking themselves for such a missed opportunity and for such a public display of scorn. A bit more than a week after Hollande and Merkel’s trilateral meeting with President Putin in Moscow, in a desperate bid to find a solution to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, President Al-Sisi, greets his Russian counterpart with all the pomp and ceremony normally befitting a monarch, or at the very least, a liberator. Yet Russia’s actions in the Middle East in the last few years can hardly be called soothing – the small matters of Libya and Syria spring to mind. So the question remains – what is Russia playing at, and how do the humiliated European powers respond?
Kalashnikov’s new pants can’t hide Russia’s economic nudity
President Putin was given a 21-gun salute as he landed in Cairo – one wonders whether the artillery crews were decked out in Kalashnikov’s new clothing range, part of a new strategy to win over even more customers. In all seriousness, the assault rifle brand has posted a revenue of $45 million in 2014, up by 28% compared with 2013. Yet behind the rosy figures and obvious glee that Kalashnikov general director Alexei Krivoruchko had when he announced that despite the western sanctions, his firm had reported a net profit for the first time in 7 years, one must not be fooled. Indeed, Russia’s economic situation seems in a pretty poor condition, if one goes by the recent report from the world bank entitled Russia Economy Report 32: Policy Uncertainty Clouds Medium-Term Prospects. In it, the experts confirm Russia’s economic stagnation and the fact the increasing uncertainty has “impacted investor and consumer decisions”. Without economic diversification, prosperity prospects are very limited indeed. It therefore makes sense that Russia is looking to other partners outside of its immediate circle of neighbours for trade agreements. What is less obvious is why Egypt, traditionally heavily dependent on US aid (according to the US Department of State, the foreign assistance for 2014 is $1.5 billion, of which $1.3 billion is in military aid) has started up talks with Moscow on weapons trade.
A remake of “Aswan Dam II – the movie”?
President Al-Sisi, let us not forget, came to power following a coup against the democratically elected Morsi. True, Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood friends were not the west’s first choice of partnership, but any doubts over radical Islam taking over and revolutionising Egypt were quickly dashed – first, by Morsi’s acceptance of the peace treaty with Israel, and secondly, through the amateurish handling of constitutional reform, which saw thousands of Egyptians take to the streets. As has been pointed out by the less scaremongering Middle-East commentators in the past, the structural difficulties of many countries in the region (mass unemployment, corruption, demographics etc) makes it very difficult for any government to rule effectively – ultimately, incompetence is a sure protection against any form of change. With Al-Sisi’s ascension to the presidential throne, the western powers groaned and “voiced concerns” over the resolutely undemocratic seizing of power, but that was about it – Al-Sisi was seen as yet another pro-western general, one keen on maintaining good links with the US, if only in terms of weapons contracts. This very public display of mutual respect between Putin and Al-Sisi cannot be solely the result of international criticism for the heavy-handed crackdown on internal political dissent – Al-Sisi has too much to lose from playing that game. Rather, it would make more sense to hypothesise that Al-Sisi wishes to remind his western allies of his strategic worth – the planned talks around Russia building Egypt’s first nuclear plant is reminiscent of the Aswan Dam affair, though judging by Russia’s previous efforts in Iran, one might feel sceptical as to the speedy delivery of the project.
Putin’s sales skit flies in the face of Hollande and Merkel
From a Russian point of view, Putin’s latest trip flies straight in the face of both Hollande and Merkel, and is a clear signal send to all – Putin wishes to make known that he is not impressed by the current international pressure that has been placed upon him due to his country’s involvement in Ukraine and to a lesser degree Syria. As the authors of this blog have remarked on numerous occasions, there is no grand tactic behind President Putin’s behaviour, but rather a simple one common to many presidential strongmen – when in doubt and trapped, attack. When in a position of strength, be generous to increase your aura.
From Hollande and Merkel, and indeed Europe’s point of view, this was to be expected. However, the fact that Putin has had the audacity to go into the Middle East yet again (instead of choosing an ex-Republic) is useful in that it clearly shows Russia’s intentions of becoming increasingly involved as a major player in the region, and therefore the geostrategic importance that Egypt, Syria, Iran and others have in the minds of the Kremlin strategists. It perhaps also subtly signals the admission by Moscow that those states geographically closest to it are either already under its thumb, or unlikely to be swayed into coming back into the fold – turning towards the middle east could therefore be an attempt to showcase Russia’s diplomatic and military power away from the traditional scenes, which makes sense if one is to assume that Putin wishes Russia to be reconsidered as the great superpower of old
Where’s a good arms dealer when you need one?
From a European point of view, Putin’s visit to Cairo is very significant – for starters, it indicates not only how fragile Putin’s own stance is with regards to Ukraine or other issues, but is very revealing of the type of relationship that Al-Sisi has with the US as well as the gamble that he is willing to take. As Europe desperately tries to conjure up a veneer of political unity, this information is crucial – indeed, though separate European powers undoubtedly play major roles in the middle east and around Europe’s fringes, it is fair to state that Europe as an entity has had very little impact on the whole. However, in economic terms, the fact that Al-Sisi is willing to overlook the traditional go-to ally and turn to Russia is perhaps a godsend. Indeed, Europe is blessed with top-of-the-range weapons manufacturers and has even ventured over the last decade in jointly-developed projects. The fact that fellow Arab countries, most notably in the gulf have been seduced by various European armament propositions is also encouraging – in short, Al-Sisi’s bargain-hunting away from US firms should be seized upon by the European powers, not least as a way of indicating its seriousness vis-à-vis the Russian bear in matters closer to home.