‘Defenders of Friendship’.. Did the friends return home after the military exercises?

The Egyptian-Russian relations have witnessed a remarkable progress towards strengthening the political, economic, and military relations, especially after Al-Sisi’s access to power.

On the political level, there were several mutual visits between Egyptian and Russian leaders, and many agreements were signed.

On the economic level, Egypt and Russia have agreed to establish a nuclear reactor for peaceful uses in Dhabaa for power generation. Also, vast areas of land in the Suez Canal region were allocated for the establishment of a Russian industrial zone, which has been recently expanded.

But the question now is: Are these areas of land for economic uses or for other reasons, related to a Russian military presence in Egypt?

This question leads us to discuss the recent military exercises between Egypt and Russia: Defenders of Friendship-2016.

Defenders of Friendship-2016 is the second military exercise between Russia and Egypt after the navy maneuvers at the Mediterranean Sea; and both exercises were close to the Libyan border.

Units of the Russian and Egyptian Airborne troops (more than 500 servicemen in total), 6 airfields, more than 15 different aircraft, and 10 pieces of military hardware, which was to be airdropped, were involved in the exercise. The main purpose of the exercise was urban combat and fighting terrorism in populated areas.

The objective of the military exercise may be training the Russian troops on the urban combat if the Russian army decided to storm the Syrian cities revolting against the Assad regime. But, the question is:  Do the Russian forces – which have great experience in urban fighting against the Chechen fighters during the Russian occupation of Grozny, Chechnya – really need such an exercise, or the exercise is mainly aimed at training the Egyptian paratroopers on urban combat?

However, our first question remains: Did the troops that participated in the joint Russian-Egyptian counter-terrorist exercise ‘Defenders of Friendship-2016’ return to Russia? There were reports published in Russian Sputnik and Pravda newspapers that there is a Russian-Egyptian agreement for renting a military base in ‘Sidi Barrani’, west of Egypt: Were these reports true despite the Egyptian denial?

It is noteworthy that there were mutual visits between the two sides, most recently the official visit of a representative of the Russian Paratroops who arrived on an official visit in Egypt on Nov. 28, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

The importance of the existence of a Russian military base in western Egypt at the Mediterranean Sea lies in the following:

  • Russia is likely to lose its military base at Tartous, Syria if the Syrian revolution succeeded, resulting in ending the Russian presence in the Mediterranean Sea.
  • The “new” Russian military base will be near Libyan borders, especially the territories under Kalifa Haftar’s domination to provide logistic support to his troops in light of the developing importance of Haftar to Russia. There is a Russian interest to make Hafter depend on Russia completely and reduce the French influence in south Libya. France is strongly existing in south Libya to dominate the Libyan gas reserves, send it to France via its strategic route in Africa, and become an exporter of gas to Europe, competing with Russia. In fact, Russia considers the existence of the French gas project a great danger to its trade as it (Russia) is the major gas exporter to Europe. The French gas project would reduce the need for the Russian gas in the region, especially in Europe, leading to Russia’s loss of one of its major political power cards in the international system
  • Under the current cold war between Russia on the one hand and Europe and the US on the other, Russia needs a military base only 700 KM from Europe in preparation for any likely confrontation, particularly in light of Europe’s transference of sophisticated military equipment and munitions to eastern Europe countries
  • Supporting Al-Sisi if his (military) regime faced any political troubles from the Egyptian people. This is obvious in training the Egyptian paratroops (which mainly participated in crushing the anti-military coup protests in 2013) on urban fighting. In fact, this reminds us of the Syrian example in repressing the Syrian rebels in light of the statement of General Gamal Mazloum, an Egyptian military expert to Russian Sputnik website, that the Russian military base in Tartous, Syria, could play a major role in fighting  against terrorism not only in Syria but also in other Mediterranean countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Algeria.

So, did the ‘Russian friends’ return home, or they are still on the Egyptian territory – especially in light of Al-Sisi’s well-known words when he once offered to “sell” himself?


* By: Ahmed Gamal, an Egyptian jornalist.