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Written by Ramy Srour

Russia’s foreign and defense ministers have just ended a two-day visit to Cairo where they met with Egyptian leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. Many have described the visit as a historic event, in light of the fact that it was the highest-level meeting between the two countries in years.

On Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew to Cairo together with his colleague, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for a bilateral meeting that had been planned for weeks. In Cairo, the two Russian officials were warmly welcomed by Gen. al-Sissi and Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s current foreign minister.

Many are suggesting that the high-level meeting between the two countries may represent an important turning point, not just for Russian-Egyptian relations, but also for the U.S. relationship with Cairo.

There are two factors that make this bilateral visit—a seemingly normal event in foreign affairs—particularly interesting: its timing and its reception.

Warships

Let’s start with the reception. While most bilateral meetings between countries occur somehow normally and without much additional work, this week’s visit was different. On Monday, only a few days before Mr. Lavrov would land in Cairo, Russia sent its Varyag missile cruiser, the flagship of the Russian Pacific Naval Fleet, to Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast for a six-day visit. This was the first time that a Russian warship visited Egypt since 1992.

varyag

On Nov. 11, the Russian missile cruiser Varyag docked at Alexandria for a six-day visit. No Russian warship has visited Egypt since 1992 [Photo credit: Pacific Fleet Press Service]

According to Russian news reports, the Varyag docked in Alexandria primarily for the purpose of exchanging visits between Russian and Egyptian officials, including through a series of “cultural and sports events.” It is clear, however, that the underlying message was of a completely different nature.

The fact that the warship’s presence in Alexandria coincided with Lavrov and Shoigu’s visit to the capital can be seen by some as carrying an important message: Moscow and Cairo may be closer than they have been for over 40 years to reestablishing a military and security alliance. Although Russian foreign ministers have frequently visited Egypt, this was the first time that a Russian defense minister was part of an official convoy since 1971, when then-President Sadat severed ties with Moscow in order to improve ties with the West.

Filling the void

The second important factor concerning the visit is its timing. That the high-level meeting took place now, and not six months or a year ago, carries its significance. It is a well-known fact that the U.S. recently froze about a third of its $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, in addition to halting the delivery of F-16 fighter jets and other military equipment. Both U.S. and Egyptian leaders have reiterated that the relationship between the two countries is still the same, but it is clear that something is changing.

Thursday’s visit had been anticipated by talks of a possible arms deal between Russia and Egypt that could amount to as much as $2 billion, although no agreement was reached during this visit.

EGYPT-RUSSIA-DIPLOMACY

From the left: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Egyptian interim president Adly Mansour, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy [Photo credit: AFP Khaled Desouki]

The question is how the U.S. would react if such an agreement were to actually take place. For now, Washington has been publicly quiet about the issue.

And although a potential Russo-Egyptian arms deal currently faces a series of practical obstacles, one of which is Cairo’s lack of sufficient cash flow; and although the spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry reassured that Egypt is “not replacing one party with another,” it is clear that the U.S. will most likely keep a close watch on how Moscow-Cairo relations unfold over the next few months.

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