In 1955, young Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser took a bold step by making an arms deal with Czechoslovakia. At that time, the world was going through the Cold War, with countries of “the East” led by the Soviet Union and those in “the West” led by the United States.
Although the Cold War, which lasted from 1949 to 1989, saw no bloodshed in Europe, it was the cause of bloody clashes in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Until 1955, Egypt was under Western influence and relied mainly on Britain, the imperial presence since 1882, for its arms. However, a series of Israeli raids on the Gaza Strip, which was administered by Egypt from 1948 until 1967, revealed the poor quality of the Egyptian army’s weapons, both light and heavy. Nasser knew that he could not get what he wanted from Britain or France, and that the US was still a newcomer to the international arena, so he opened-up lines of communication with the Soviet Union via China.
Soviet sensibilities dictated that Czechoslovakia, not the USSR, would provide the weapons requested by Egypt. With hindsight, there is no doubt that Egypt’s resort to the Eastern bloc was not only necessary for its weapons requirements but also for Nasser’s desire to emphasise his country’s independence and international options; this came to be known as a policy of “non-alignment” and an attempt to establish a military balance between Egypt and Israel.
Over the past few weeks, events in the Arab world have prompted writers and commentators with nationalist or Nasserite tendencies to revive memories of 1955, which paved the way for a relationship that lasted nearly two decades. To some of them, history is repeating itself, with the visit to Cairo of the Russian Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs and the beginning of negotiations over Russian arms, including anti-aircraft and anti-tank equipment, as well as naval missiles, spare parts and an update of Egypt’s old Soviet weapons; all told, the deal will be worth $2 billion. We need to be cautious about this, though, and not read too much into the thaw in Arab-Russia relations; hard facts should not be replaced by delusions.
For a start, the Cold War is over and there is no arms race or power struggle of the type we witnessed in decades past. Since 1989, the Warsaw Pact has disappeared and NATO and EU countries now reach to the borders of the Russian Federation; indeed, Russia struggles to secure strategic routes to the Russian plains in the North Caucasus, Central Asia and Ukraine. In addition to this, Russia is not the Soviet Union; the steady decline in its population and serious technological underdevelopment compared to Western Europe and the United States makes Russia a second-class superpower. Moreover, Russia has abandoned communism and the missionary incentive which formed the Soviet worldview. Russia’s nationalist tendencies have been tempered by the need to maintain its own identity and the stability of the multi-national federation.
The Cold War did not end in a crushing military defeat for the Soviet Union, which allowed Russia to retain nuclear and conventional arms, enhanced by the great increase in oil and gas prices over the past few years. Its arms industry and strong nationalism under a powerful regime have, however, made Russia a considerable force in the international arena. Post-Cold War the international system limits Russia’s competition to its near neighbours, not only with the US, but also with China, Japan, Germany, Britain and France.
Such limited competition is conditioned by Russia’s strategic and security needs within its fragile borders, as well as Western technology and global capitalism, which is still under Western control. Unlike the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation cannot finance areas of influence around the world, and has no motive to do so. Its dealings with what it calls the “near abroad” states, such as Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine, differ only slightly from dealings between France, Germany or China. In a fluid world system Turkey, for example, a member of NATO, has almost made a deal to buy a Chinese air defence system rather than getting one from America; quite simply, the Chinese offered a better deal and in a capitalist market that matters.
Similarly, we now see closer relations between the Israelis, Saudis and the French at the expense of Tel Aviv’s and Riyadh’s relations with the United States, after France emerged as the most determined Western country during the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear programme and Syria. This is a multi-polar international system, and although the sizes and degrees of influence of the poles differ, it still witnesses a degree of multi-faceted competition rather than a division into two distinct camps, as was the case in the Cold War.
Furthermore, President Putin’s Russia is obsessed with the increase in Muslim minorities in the Russian Federation, at the expense of Orthodox Russians. In addition to the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime, its foreign policy is characterised by a bias towards other authoritarian regimes and those against the recent Islamic revival, not only in Syria with Bashar Al-Assad but also in other Arab and non-Arab counties. This makes Russia’s current policy anti-democratic, or at least indifferent towards democracy, and wary of Islam and Islamists. The policies of the Soviet Union leaned more towards the people and national liberation movements, as well as independence for third world countries. A relationship with the Soviet Union was an expression of the desire for freedom from Western imperialist control and the reassurance of national independence; a relationship with the Russian Federation today implies a reassurance, albeit small, of maintaining conditions necessary for a tyrannical regime.
Egypt is not alone in turning towards Russia; Saudi Arabia has also done so, as has the UAE, largely due to the conflict in Syria. If the reports about Saudi Arabia pledging to fund an Egypt-Russia arms deal are true, then we must look for a deal over Syria’s future and Russian policy in Syria as the Arabs are convinced that Assad’s survival over the past three years has been due to Russia’s support. Russian weapons for Egypt and the rumours about joint Russia-Egypt and Russia-Saudi naval exercises are not aimed at establishing a power balance with Israel, as it was in Nasser’s time; they are intended to make sure that peace is maintained with Israel, which is in any case also gravitating towards Moscow.
The escalation of the Syrian crisis is attributed to the transitional and unstable nature of the geo-political map of the Arab and Islamic world, which was created by the Arab revolution on one hand and the change in America’s priorities on the other. A number of Arab countries sensed the danger of the revolutions and stood in the path of change. However, these same countries are now supporting the efforts to overthrow the Assad regime, not in sympathy with the Syrian people and their ambitions of freedom and democracy, but out of hatred of Iran and the fear that it may control the northern Arab Peninsula, from Basra to Latakia. Due to the fact that the Middle East is no longer an American strategic priority, and because the US has no interest in intervening in the Syrian crisis, Russia has emerged as the most influential superpower in this crisis. This is what angered some countries such as Saudi Arabia with regards to the American position on Iran’s nuclear programme; turning to Russia was Riyadh’s way of sending a message to the US. Saudi’s problem is that this message will do no good if the US and Iran reach an agreement on the nuclear issue and relations develop and are restored to what they were pre-Islamic revolution.
Even if the US is partially and perceptibly withdrawing from the Middle East and is losing its interest in the oil and countries of the region, relations between the US and its Arab allies are deeper than the current political conflicts; they are based on personal, educational, economic, financial, cultural, security and military ties. In short, the United States is deeply rooted in these countries and freedom from the relationship will take strong political will and a long time. The real alternative is not resorting to Russia, but building a new regional system altogether. There appears to be no indications at all that the current Arab regimes are inclined to go down that route.