Russian bear hug in the Middle East

Russian bear hug in the Middle East
Egypt's Army Chief and Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) shakes hands with Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu after he arrived at the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence in Cairo in this picture released by the Ministry of Defence on November 14, 2013.

Officials in Egypt have hailed as "historic" a visit by a high-level Russian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu, the first of its kind in decades.

The communique at the end of the talks provided no specifics, but General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian army and the country's de facto leader, said the Russians' visit signalled the start of "a new era of enhanced military cooperation".

Mr Shoigu indicated on Sunday that a reputed US$2 billion (S$2.5 billion) arms deal was in the works: "We agreed that in the nearest future, we will take steps for the legal implementation of our deals."

Russia's potential breakthrough is part of a pattern. After having been marginalised for the better part of half a century, it is now being courted in the Middle East. The only question is whether Moscow is able to meet the often contradictory expectations of its newly found Arab partners.

Historically, the Middle East has given Russia more grief than gain. It was there that the Soviet Union made its first global inroads after World War II, but it was also there that the Soviets registered their first strategic defeats.

During the late 1940s, Moscow actually saw newly independent Israel as its chief anchor in the Middle East, but it then quickly switched its attention to Egypt's charismatic leader, Mr Gamal Abdel Nasser, who wanted to overthrow all the region's pro-Western monarchies.

The Russians invested lavishly in Egypt's big infrastructure projects, including the Aswan Dam on the Nile River and in the military. By the late 1960s, the Soviet Union had no fewer than 20,000 military advisers in the country.

But Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Mr Nasser, expelled them all, and forged instead a strong partnership with the United States.

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