Vladimir Putin appears to be seizing on the Egyptian crisis and the U.S. response to it to expand Russia’s influence in the Arab world’s most populous country.
On Thursday afternoon President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would be cancelling a joint military exercise with the Egyptian Army over its violent crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Shortly afterwards, Egypt Independent reported that Putin had called an extraordinary session in the Kremlin to put “all Russian military facilities ‘at the Egyptian military's disposal.’" The report, which cited several sources without providing any further details about them, also said that “Putin will discuss Russian arrangements for joint-military exercises with the Egyptian army.”
Hours later Egypt Independent took down the report, although Google is still returning searches for it. A number of websites and forums had already republished the article in full before it was removed.
The Diplomat could not confirm the veracity of the report, and it’s unclear what to make of Egypt Independent’s decision to take down the article. Egypt Independent is a highly respected, privately owned English-language counterpart to the popular Arabic daily, Al-Masry Al-Youm. (see The Columbia Journalism Review’s recent profile of Egypt Independent here). It established a strong reputation for challenging Hosni Mubarak’s rule long before that became fashionable. It also won praise for its coverage of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, and faced intense pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood for its unfavorable coverage of former President Mohamed Morsi.
At the same time, it has a history of caving to pressure from the Egyptian military, raising the possibility that the article on Russia’s offer of military support might have been removed at the Egyptian military’s request.
In any case, Russia was deeply involved in the crisis in Egypt on Thursday. ITAR-TASS, a Russian newswire, reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone with his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy. Another ITAR-TASS story on Thursday said that Egypt’s embassy in Moscow had appealed to Russia to continue to provide support to Cairo during these “extremely hard times… just as it used to do in the past.”
A final report from the same outlet detailed how Russia and the United Arab Emirates had come out for a peaceful resolution of Middle East conflicts, including Egypt. A Russian Foreign Ministry source was quoted as saying: “Both sides came out for peaceful, non-violent resolution of problems of countries in the region, respect for sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs.” The source also told ITAR-TASS that the two sides intended to explore a possible partnership between Russia and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. Moscow is at odds with most of the Persian Gulf Arab states over its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Official statements and state-media reports indicate Moscow is also leaning heavily towards the military in the Egyptian crisis. Russia was previously seen as losing significant influence in Egypt during the Muslim Brotherhood’s time in power.
Along with advising Russians against visiting Egypt at this time, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement urged restraint on all sides and stated “further democratic changes and deep reforms in the interests of all Egyptians can be carried out through broad dialogue and resumption of the political process on the basis of national consensus.” Notably, this statement strongly echoes the position of the Egyptian military and interim government.
More pointedly, Igor Morozov, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the upper house of Russia’s Parliament, told Interfax on Thursday that there is a real possibility that Egypt will slip into civil war, something Putin warned about earlier this week before the military began its crackdown.
While critical of all sides, Morozov said he believed the Egyptian army was trying to slow the breakdown of order in Egypt.
“The [Egyptian] army has always been playing an important and even crucial role in every political crisis in Egypt,” Morozov was quoted by Interfax as saying. “The army is a very serious institution in Egypt and top-ranking military commanders are its most significant owners.”
He went on to blame the U.S. and the EU for Egypt’s current situation because of their support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The United States and the European Union rendered full support to the Muslim Brotherhood even after the toppling of Muhammad Morsi,” Morozov said. “They do not understand what negative consequences this unilateral support of the Islamists has for Egypt.”
At the top of its website Friday morning Moscow time, state-owned Russia Today also carried a lengthy story detailing alleged incidents of violence perpetrated by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
While events in Egypt are constantly in flux, it therefore appears Russia is betting on the Egyptian military prevailing in the current standoff, and is already busy acting on that assumption. With the U.S. having already cancelled its joint biannual exercise with the Egyptian military, and additional sanctions against the army likely to be forthcoming, this gamble could have a handsome payoff for Moscow should it prove accurate.