On October 9, 2020, Russian news agency TASS reported that Egypt would participate in joint naval exercises with Russia in the Black Sea before the end of the year. According to a statement issued by the press office of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, delegations from the Russian and Egyptian navies had held three-day consultations in Novorossiysk on preparations for the 2020 Friendship Bridge Exercise and that the two countries were working together to develop “a programme of exercises to take place in the Black Sea for the first time.”[1]

According to published information, warships from the Black Sea fleets of the Russian and Egyptian navies, supported by aircraft, will conduct exercises in how to defend sea lanes against various threats. The exercises will cover troop deployment, replenishment at sea, and suspicious vessel searches. Members of the Russian and Egyptian navies will carry out training on all forms of defence and protection at sea and on using ship-borne weapons to launch missiles and fire artillery.

Turbulent context

These joint Egyptian–Russian naval exercises are of particularly important as they are the first of their kind that either party has conducted in the Black Sea. The context of the exercises is also important for both sides:

1. Russia is experiencing turbulent regional and international conditions. Its relations with the USA are strained, as are those with the European Union, the members of which – the United Kingdom included – imposed a package of sanctions on officials close to President Vladimir Putin following the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.[2] The international community is also placing pressure on Moscow for its extensive role in the Syrian crisis, the most recent manifestations of which – the Russian–Syrian attacks on Idlib[3] – have been described as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Furthermore, Russia–Turkey relations have also recently become strained in several areas, such as the Syrian crisis and the Libya issue, in which Russia appears far more closely aligned to the Egyptian position. This has been exacerbated by the outbreak of the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict, Turkey’s immediate expression of support for Azerbaijan, and other subsequent developments such as the downing of an Armenian Russian-made Su-25 fighter jet.[4] Concerns have grown about the possibility of open war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which would ultimately pave the way for further conflict between Russia and Turkey, given Russia’s close alliance with Armenia, especially within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

2. For Egypt, these joint exercises with Russia in the Black Sea come following a series of regional threats and crucial political challenges, such as the Renaissance Dam crisis, tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Libya conflict. Naturally, these have led to overlap in Cairo’s foreign policy priorities, with Egypt operating on an increasing number of fronts.

Motivations

  • Russia’s interest in the Black Sea region is twofold. First, the core of Russia’s foreign policy in the post-Soviet period has been based around the fact that the scope of its essential national security interests inevitably includes former Soviet countries and those in the Black Sea region. Second, the Black Sea is of great strategic importance for Russia, as it connects Russia to the Mediterranean Sea via the Bosporus and to a number of Eastern European countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, which Russia is keen to prevent from falling into the hostile sphere of Western policy.
  • For Egypt, these exercises are part of its new foreign policy in various areas, as reflected in its efforts to strengthen Gulf security, settle the Libyan crisis, resolve the conflict in Yemen, promote a diplomatic solution in Syria, develop relations with Iraq and Jordan, promote the return to the Palestinian–Israeli peace process, restore its influence in Africa, and achieve progress in the Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt is also making efforts to gain influence in Asia, as evidenced by the Egyptian president’s visits to several Asian countries. Egypt is now attempting to use its relations with Russia to gain traction in the Black Sea region in a clear attempt to diversify its foreign policy and areas of activity and to achieve a balance between them all.

Implications

Recent Egypt–Russia activities, in particular the announcement of joint maneuvers in the Black Sea, have various implications, most importantly:

1. Russia:

  • Russia wants to emphasise the strategic importance that it places on the Black Sea region, in particular after NATO expanded to include Romania and Bulgaria, both of which bordered the Black Sea. The USA has also been carrying out a number of activities in the region that have worried Russia, in particular the appearance of two US reconnaissance planes over the Black Sea, one of which flew near the Krasnodar region of Russia and the southern coast of Crimea for several hours, while the other was spotted along the western and southern coast of Crimea and even the Kerch Strait.[5] In addition, between April 5 and 13, 2019, five NATO warships carried out military exercises and maneuvers in the region, led by Romania and with the participation of Canada, Greece, Turkey, and the Netherlands. In response to Moscow’s strict policies, US and NATO officials have also pledged to increase their presence in the Black Sea, and in particular in the waters near Crimea following the region’s annexation in 2014. In 2018, NATO ships spent four months in the Black Sea, compared with 80 days in 2017, and US fleet destroyers have been sent to carry out long-term reconnaissance and exploration missions.[6]
  • These planned exercises demonstrate Russia’s close relationship with Egypt, its willingness to overcome differences regarding certain issues of shared importance, and its determination to resist Ankara’s attempts to turn it against Egyptian policy and interests.
  • Russia is attempting to place indirect pressure on Turkey, especially considering the developments in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Turkey’s direct involvement on the part of Azerbaijan to the detriment of Russia’s ally Armenia.

2. Egypt:

  • Egypt is keen to emphasize its ability to protect and expand its interests and those of its allies outside its traditional borders, in response to growing Egyptian interests and increasing threats against the Egyptian State. This explains both Egypt’s activities in the Black Sea and its strategic efforts to secure new projects in the Red Sea region. Cairo is evidently becoming somewhat less cautious and defensive, while stopping short of engaging in direct military escalation; instead it is relying on deterrent weapons, which it could use offensively if required.
  • Egypt is sending an indirect message to Ankara regarding its ability to reach the Turkish border and to conduct training exercises in areas of vital importance to Turkey, while at the same time sending an indirect message of solidarity to Armenia, which Turkey is opposing in the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Egypt was one of the first countries to recognize Armenia following its independence, and it condemned the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire at the Munich Security Conference. In addition, Armenia recently announced its support for Egypt and the East Mediterranean Gas Forum project.

Conclusion

The Friendship Bridge exercise agreed on between Russia and Egypt represents a major turning point in the growing relations between the two countries, based on their shared strategic interests and agreement on several issues, including areas of Egyptian foreign policy.

These moves have had important repercussions, in particular for Turkey; Egypt’s recent activities and its growing closeness to Russia are inevitably tied to Turkey’s renewed desire to repair relations with Egypt, expressed recently by Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın in an interview with a local television channel.[7] Turkey’s announcement that it is planning to test its S-400 missile defence system in the Black Sea also cannot be separated from this context.[8] Despite Western and US warnings, including the threat of sanctions, Turkey appears determined to go ahead with these plans; Ankara is aware that it needs to build regional military relations and alliances with Russia and is keen not to allow further disagreements with Moscow to arise, especially in light of growing Western and US pressure against it.

References

[1] “للمرة الأولى .. مصر وروسيا تجريان مناورات في البحر الأسود”, Sky News Arabia, 9 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3lYiXBs

[2] “الاتحاد الأوروبي يفرض عقوبات على رجال بوتين”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 16 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/357849P

[3] “الضربات السورية الروسية على إدلب ترقى لجرائم حرب”, Middle East Online, 15 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/348lsv9

[4] “تركيا تسقط طائرة أرمينية .. ومقتل قائدها”, Al-Ain, 29 September 2020. Available at: https://al-ain.com/article/1601388338

[5] “طائرات استطلاع غربية تتجسس على الشواطئ الروسية”, RT Online, 11 June 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/3dzDw4r

[6] See: “Russian navy tracks U.S. destroyer as it reaches Black Sea”, Ahval News, 15 April 2019. Available at: https://ahvalnews.com/black-sea/russian-navy-tracks-us-destroyer-it-reaches-black-sea

[7] “رئاسة تركيا توضح سبيل التقارب مع مصر وما لا يمكن تجاهله”, CNN Arabic, 14 October 2020. Available at: https://arabic.cnn.com/middle-east/article/2020/10/14/turkey-egypt-relations

[8] “الإعلام الروسي: تركيا تُسقِط خلال تدريبات ثلاثة أهداف بـ’إس-400’”, RT Online, 16 October 2020. Available at: https://cutt.us/oQ9Z0

 

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