Alp Sevimlisoy Yatırım

Putin’s new threat on the gateway to the Med: Russia announces joint navy drills with Egypt near crucial Suez Canal trade route in menacing show of strength to southern Europe

Russian Navy warships will conduct joint exercises with their Egyptian counterparts close to the Suez Canal this week in Vladimir Putin’s latest show of strength – this time at the gateway to southern Europe.

Russia’s defence ministry reported today that a detachment of Navy ships, including the missile cruiser Varyag and the frigate Marshal Shaposhnikov, docked in the port of Alexandria ahead of military exercises in the Mediterranean Sea.

The visit was described as a ‘business call’ to meet with Egyptian naval representatives – but both navies will later this week flex their muscles in drills off the Egyptian coast in the proximity of the Suez Canal.

These drills come off the back of reports that Russia is pushing to establish a permanent naval base in Tobruk on the coast of Libya to complement its other Mediterranean naval facility in Syria’s Tartus.

The prospect of an increased Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean, seen as the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’, has prompted some analysts to suggest that NATO should establish a permanent operational command to ensure the region’s security.

This week’s naval exercises also represent a consolidation of relations between Moscow and Cairo, which since Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rose to power in 2014 have gone from strength to strength.

It is fair to say the Russia-Egypt relationship is somewhat imbalanced, with Moscow providing outsized military, economic and industrial support to Cairo, not to mention vital imports of metals, minerals, and above all, grain.

In return though, Russia gains valuable influence in a highly strategic location.

Egypt is a hugely important player in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, in no small part due to its control of the Suez Canal through which roughly 12% of global trade flows each year.

Cairo has also assumed a role as a key negotiator in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Egypt borders Israel and Gaza and maintains relations with both sides as its representatives work closely with international partners to broker a ceasefire.

Moscow has long sought to develop relationships in the MENA region and is a highly influential player in Syria, having bolstered Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s forces during the Syrian civil war.

The Kremlin also has enduring links to Libya dating back to the 1970s, and in recent years a significant contingent of Russian mercenaries from the notorious Wagner Group were deployed there to further Russian interests in the country.

Alp Sevimlisoy – a millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council and regional geopolitical analyst – recently told Newsweek that NATO should seek to establish a permanent operations presence in the Mediterranean to check Russia’s expanding interests there.

‘We need to urgently move toward creating a MEDCOM, which would be a stand-alone NATO military command that would govern the Mediterranean for all intents and purposes,’ he said.

Besides its ongoing presence in Syria and Libya, Russia has in recent years cultivated strong ties with the Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and The United Arab Emirates.

Russia is also among Iran’s closest allies, with the two countries said to be on the cusp of signing an unprecedented strategic partnership that would see them collaborate more closely than ever before.

Russia’s bilateral relations with Egypt took off following former general el-Sisi’s ascension to power in Cairo in 2014, which unfolded after he used his position as defence minister and commander of Egypt’s armed forces to orchestrate the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi.

El-Sisi quickly set about establishing positive relations with the Kremlin, and in 2015 Russia and Egypt naval vessel conducted their first ever join exercises off the port of Alexandria.

In 2018 Russia and Egypt signed a landmark comprehensive partnership that formalised efforts to collaborate more closely across various verticals, and a year later, Egypt inked a deal for the purchase of billions of dollars’ worth of Russian military tech that signalled a dramatic upgrade in Cairo’s defence capabilities.

Prior to that deal, Russian military hardware already accounted for roughly 60% of Egypt’s arms imports between 2014-2017, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Beyond the realm of defence and security, Russia has made significant investments in Egyptian infrastructure, one of the most notable of which is the el-Dabaa nuclear power plant.

The plant, which is Egypt’s first nuclear centre and the first to be built in Africa since South Africa’s Koeberg plant nearly four decades ago, is being developed and fuelled by Russia’s state energy company Rosatom.

And although plans to establish a Russian Industrial Zone in the Suez Canal Economic Zone have suffered significant setbacks following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Moscow appears dead set on carving out its own plot of land along the banks of one of the world’s most important trade routes.

Meanwhile, Egypt in January officially became a member of the BRICS group of countries – an economic bloc including Russia and China that is committed to fostering mutually beneficial economic and trade partnerships, but also represents the efforts of leading powers in the East and Global South to usher in a new multipolar world order and reduce the West’s dominance over global financial and political institutions.

Moscow’s positive relations with Cairo also drive a wedge between el-Sisi and the White House, even though Egypt has long been considered one of America’s strongest allies in the MENA region.

US Secretary of State Blinken was in Cairo earlier today to meet with el-Sisi for discussions on the ongoing ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas, in which Washington, Egypt and Doha are heavily involved.

With no firm response yet from Hamas to the proposal received 10 days ago, Blinken once again called on the Palestinian group to accept the plan, which he said has wide international support and has been accepted by Israel.

When asked by reporters what he had said to Egyptian representatives in Cairo, Blinken said: ‘If you want a cease-fire, press Hamas to say ”yes”.’

He said the plan on the table is the ‘single best way’ to get to a cease-fire, release the remaining hostages and improve regional security.


Alp Sevimlisoy originally featured as per: Daily Mail