In arms race for air superiority, Russia challenges US hegemony

Five years since its return to the Middle East with a military base in Syria, Russia is moving into weapons markets left vacant by the United States and boosting sales to traditional clients.

Moscow’s expanding arms sales bring money and geopolitical influence, as it seeks to challenge US hegemony.

On February 25, Russia officially announced that Egypt had received five Sukhoi Su-35 advanced multi-role fighter aircraft, the first of an order of 24.

Egypt ordered the planes despite threats of US sanctions after Washington refused to sell Cairo its fifth-generation F-35 fighter-bomber.

Turkey, a NATO ally, is in talks with Russia to buy the Su-35 and eventually the state-of-the-art Su-57 fifth generation combat plane, after being shut out of the US’s F-35 programme.

On March 12, Russia announced it was ready to open official negotiations with Ankara, and to help Turkey develop its own fifth-generation fighter, the TF-X.

Algeria, Russia’s biggest customer in the MENA, is to receive 14 upgraded Sukhoi-34 light bomber jets this year, and is also reportedly interested in the Su-57.

Iran, an historic client of Russian weaponry since the days of the Shah, is free to consider Russian goods again, since a decade-long UN arms embargo against the Islamic republic expired in October.

In part, Russia is marketing its weapons because they are a major source of foreign currency, experts said.

“Weapons exports are critical for the Russian economy, unlike the US which is such a huge market on its own that it doesn’t really care about exports,” said Kostas Grivas, professor of weapons systems at the Hellenic Military Academy.

Russia’s share of global weapons exports was 21 percent in 2015-19, making it the world’s second largest exporter after the US, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Egypt feels second best

The 1979 Camp David Accords, which awarded Israel diplomatic recognition from an Arab country for the first time, elevated Egypt to the status of a key US ally.

Since then, the US provided more than $80bn in military and economic aid to Egypt.

That changed in 2011, when then-President Hosni Mubarak was deposed by a popular uprising and a 2012 election saw Mohamed Morsi win.

The US then withheld deliveries of weapons systems, fearing a threat to Israel.

Morsi’s removal by a military coup after a year in office did little to assuage US concerns about underlying political instability, and there were added worries over President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood Morsi hailed from.

Citing human rights abuses, the US suspended military aid to Egypt for two years, worth an estimated $1.3bn a year.

“Since the new president [Biden] of the United States [took office] he did not call president al-Fattah el-Sisi. There is no connection between them at all … It is not good.”

Egypt’s fall from grace now contrasts with the US-Israeli relationship.

In March 2011, as revolutions swept across North Africa and Syria, Israel announced it would buy 19 F-35s.

Israel now has two combat-ready squadrons of 24 aircraft each, and in February approved the purchase of a third, along with airborne tankers to increase their range.

Egypt says former US President Donald Trump pledged to sell Cairo 20 F-35 aircraft when he met el-Sisi at the UN General Assembly on 24 September 2018, but reneged.

“There is a danger of a coup that would produce a leader that threatens Israel. That’s why the Americans are proceeding slowly,” said Aref Alobeid, professor of Geostrategy in the Middle East at the Hellenic Military Academy.

Meanwhile, Washington appears to have replaced Egypt as the exemplary friend of Israel in the Arab world.

Normalising relations with Israel last September is unlocking diplomatic doors for the United Arab Emirates in Washington.

The Trump administration informally notified Congress last year of its plans to sell 50 F-35 fighters to the UAE, for up to $10.4bn, after Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly gave the sale a nod.

During this period, Russia seized the diplomatic initiative and became el-Sisi’s new interlocutor.

“Russia doesn’t speak as if she expects something from human rights and so on,” said the former general, Mazloum.

In 2014, with US military purchases suspended, Egypt and Russia agreed on a $3.5bn deal to supply Egypt with 46 Ka-52 attack helicopters and 46 MiG-29 fighters.

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