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Why did Putin turn against Sisi in the Renaissance Dam file?

CAIRO, EGYPT - APRIL 12: Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry (R) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) hold a joint press conference following the committee lateral meeting in Cairo, Egypt on April 12, 2021. ( Stringer - Anadolu Agency )
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry (R) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) hold a joint press conference following the committee lateral meeting in Cairo, Egypt on April 12, 2021. [Stringer - Anadolu Agency]

The Russian reaction to the Nile water crisis, during the UN Security Council's discussion last Thursday, raised questions about the reasons for the absence of Moscow's support for Cairo.

Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, announced in the extraordinary session called for by Egypt and Sudan, its support for Ethiopia's position on the Renaissance Dam crisis.

The speech of the permanent Russian representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, rejected the threatening messages from Egypt and Sudan. He stressed that his country would not allow any military action against Ethiopia, and that it was concerned about the growing threatening rhetoric in the crisis.

READ: Guaranteed impunity, Sisi has increased his violations

The Russian position comes despite good relations with Cairo since the coup by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who visited Moscow repeatedly and awarded its companies giant projects, the most important of which is the El-Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant built by his counterpart Vladimir Putin, as well as the Su-35 fighter deal.

In response to the Russian delegate, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told Egyptian TV on Saturday: "Maybe he will speak to Ethiopia about their threats of filling and protecting the dam from a hypothetical danger."

The Ethiopians responded by praising the Russian position. At the meeting of the two countries' joint military technical committee in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian Minister of Defence, Marta Luigi, confirmed that Moscow supports her country in various international issues and arenas, including the Renaissance Dam file, and she thanked Putin.

Interests

In an interview with Arabi21, the Director of the International Institute of Political Science and Strategy, Mamdouh Munir, said: "The Russian position on the Renaissance Dam crisis is old, and they are keener on their relationship with Ethiopia than on their relationship with Egypt."

"They are well aware that the American influence on Egypt does not give them enough space to control it, while the great Chinese support for Ethiopia and the Chinese-Russian consensus give greater opportunities for Moscow to strengthen its presence in the Horn of Africa."

The Egyptian expert added: "Moscow is good at playing between the big players, Washington and Beijing, and is trying to find a path between them, often towards China."

READ: Since when has the UN Security Council supported Arab issues?

"Politics is a game of interests and pressure cards, and Cairo does not hold any Russian pressure cards or interests that would be affected by its siding with Ethiopia," added Munir.

Munir expressed his belief that "Russian anger towards Sudan over the naval base does not have a significant impact because Russia knows very well that its position will not change anything in the equation with the presence of China or Washington. Therefore it preferred to bet on Ethiopia's winning horse instead of Cairo, which lost its water rights in the Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) agreement."

Historical and political

Writer and political analyst Dr Ashraf Al-Sabbagh says Russia's shift is a result of "historical, ideological, and political" reasons.

He noted to Arabi21: "Russia is not the Soviet Union that collapsed in 1991, and for the past 30 years, the Russian Federation has been ruled by extreme right-wing nationalists who developed a new combative, strategic and social doctrine for it, away from the remnant theoretical model of the Soviet Union."

"Russia, as a major and nuclear country, and a permanent member of the Security Council, has its interests, and it is not ashamed of selling weapons, wheat and wiring, and looking out for its interests."

"The far-right nationalist leadership in Russia has not forgotten the expulsion of Russian experts in 1972 and Cairo signing the Camp David accords without Moscow," added Al-Sabbagh.

"Russia understood that the West is not satisfied with the way Sisi came to power, and this is where the desires of Cairo and Moscow connected. Moscow had stated that it would stand by Cairo against the West on files of democracy, freedoms, human rights and civil society, and that it would support the ruling regime as long as there is hostility between it and the West."

"The cooperation of the two parties took place on the basis of hostility towards the West, but the Russian side expressed its desire to obtain military bases and facilities and to build infrastructure, railways, roads, and bridges."

"Moscow wanted to take control of Egypt, even in terms of exporting weapons, fighters and missiles. Russia pushed its media to launch a campaign on rapprochement and strategic relations in order to drive wedges between Egypt and the West, isolate Cairo, and deal with it as Damascus deals with Tehran."

READ: UN Security Council backs African Union mediation over Renaissance Dam

Al-Sabbagh added: "The volume of economic exchange between them is very weak. They have added the prices of weapons to make it appear to be larger than it is, but Russia only receives a few tonnes of potatoes and vegetables from Egypt that it can get from Turkey, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, and Uzbekistan."

Regarding the implications of the Russian delegate's speech at the UN, Al-Sabbagh says: "They hope investments open up to the Russians, and hope to establish military bases there, after Russia failed to establish bases in Egypt, Djibouti and Sudan.

He stresses that "Moscow has indications of a Western tendency to settle the dam file, and there is a rapprochement between Cairo, Western capitals and Washington, so Russia began to oppose everything and take sides with those against the Western desire."

"Russian state media is pouring oil on the fire and provoking the Ethiopian public opinion, as the Egyptian statements are highlighted in provocative formulations to portray Egypt's growing threatening discourse."

He explains that Moscow is trying to maintain relations with Egypt by showing flexibility with useless and non-urgent files, while being tough on important files, and taking malicious positions that include forms of pressure and bargaining.

He also notes that Russia is "also trying to maintain relations with Ethiopia and give it a Russian media platform, relying on the possibility of gaining any interest from it and using it in its conflicts with the Americans and Europeans."

"In light of Moscow's attempts to maintain balanced relations with Cairo and Addis Ababa, it has not forgotten to drive wedges between Cairo and Washington, Cairo and Brussels, and seek military facilities that have been rejected more than once. However, Moscow is manoeuvring and insisting through many channels, and exchanging files for others," he added.

Al-Sabbagh believes that "the positions of the Americans and Europeans on the dam crisis are more moderate and logical than Russia and China."

Russian base in Sudan

As for the impact of Sudan freezing the agreement to allow the establishment of a Russian military base in the Red Sea after pressure from the US, the expert on Russia said: "This base was a conspiracy by Russia, which took advantage of the conditions of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his bad relations with the West."

He adds, "As usual, Moscow pushed its media to launch campaigns of confusion, exaggeration and misinformation to drive wedges between Sudan and the West. Al-Bashir was deposed, and Russia did not fulfil its promises to protect him, and therefore Khartoum began to reconsider its relations with all the countries of the world."

He does not believe there are American or European pressures on Sudan, as these are major interests, and Sudan has the right to decide its fate and stick to the interests of its people.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 11 July 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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