Thursday, 17 June 2021

In arms race for air superiority, Russia challenges US hegemony

This article was published by Al Jazeera

ATHENS, Greece – Half a decade since its return to the Middle East with a military base in Syria, Russia is aggressively moving into weapons markets left vacant by the United States and boosting sales to traditional clients. Its 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 twenty-four. Egypt ordered the planes despite threats of US sanctions after the US refused to sell Egypt 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 fourteen upgraded Sukhoi-34 light bomber this year, and is also reportedly interested in the SU-57. 

Iran, a 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 it expired in October. 

In part, Russia is aggressively marketing its weapons because they are a major source of foreign currency. “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,” says Kostas Grivas, Prof. of weapons systems at the Hellenic Army Academy. 

Russia’s share of global weapons exports was 21% 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). 

Russian sales are proving successful on the other side of Asia as well. China became the first overseas customer of the SU-35 six years ago. Indonesia signed an agreement for eleven SU-35s in 2018, and India, which already operates 240 SU-30MKI fighters, is said to be interested in the newest edition. 

It is in the MENA that the biggest geopolitical shifts are taking place, though. This is partly because the Obama administration demoted its six decade-long primacy in foreign policy, and partly because the Arab Spring of 2011 created new political instability. 

Egypt feels second-best 

The Camp David Accords of 1979, which brought diplomatic recognition to Israel 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 president Hosni Mubarak was deposed by a popular uprising and a 2012 election produced Mohammed Morsi, the Arab world’s first popularly elected islamist president. The US withheld deliveries of weapons systems fearing a threat to Israel. 

Morsi’s ouster by military coup after a year in office did little to assuage US concerns about underlying political instability, and added concerns over president Fattah al-Sisi’s trampling of human rights, as he pursued the Muslim Brotherhood Morsi hailed from. The US suspended military aid to Egypt for two years, worth an estimated $1.3bn a year.

Relations remain chilly. “There is a position of the US against human rights problems in Egypt,” retired army general Gamal Mazloum tells Al Jazeera, adding, “They must drop it.” 

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

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

Egypt’s embarrassing 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 nineteen F-35s. The first two arrived in December 2016. 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. 

On 24 September 2018, US president Donald Trump and Fattah al-Sisi met at the UN General Assembly. Egypt says Trump pledged to sell it twenty F-35 aircraft, but reneged.      

Increasing Egypt’s embarrassment, Washington appears to have replaced it 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 UAE for up to $10.4bn, after Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly gave the sale a nod. The UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said the peace deal should remove "any hurdle" towards the purchase of F-35s from the Americans. 

During this period, Russia seized the diplomatic initiative and became al-Sisi’s new interlocutor among the major powers. “Russia doesn’t speak as if she expects something from human rights and so on,” says general Mazloum. 

In 2014, with US military suspended, Egypt and Russia agreed a $3.5bn deal to supply Egypt with forty-six Ka-52 attack helicopters and forty-six Mig-29 fighters. In 2019, after Trump allegedly went back on his word at the UN, Egypt signed a $2bn deal to buy SU-35 fighters.  

The Biden administration has now frozen the sale of F-35s to the UAE, a possible sign of alarm at the prospect of a new arms race in the Middle East that creates openings for Russia. 

Algeria wants to avoid Libya’s fate 

Algeria was also affected by the Arab Spring. Between 2010 and 2014, its defence budget almost doubled to $10bn. Between 2015 and 2019, Algeria was responsible for half of all defence spending on the African continent. 

Algeria had faced an islamic uprising before. In 1991 the government cancelled elections that would likely have been won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), declared a state of emergency and installed a military government to fight an insurgency by the FIS and other islamist groups. The Algerian Civil War lasted over a decade and claimed thousands of lives. 

When Russian president Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, he revived arms sales to former Soviet clients. In 2006, during a visit to Algiers, he forgave the country’s $4.7bn debt to Russia in return for armaments contracts worth $7.5. Algeria, which spends 15.5% of its GDP on defence according to SIPRI, now appears to have geopolitical ambitions of its own in the Mediterranean, powered almost exclusively by Russian weaponry. 

Turkey is running out of friends

Turkey is in a hurry to acquire new fighter planes in order to maintain a competitive edge in the Aegean and to lend credibility to its expansionist foreign policy. 

In December 2019, the US Congress sanctioned Turkey for its purchase of Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missiles. The US said they posed a threat to the F-35 Turkey was contracted to co-produce with Lockheed Martin. It was to purchase 100 of the planes. Turkey has now been evicted from the F-35 programme and its defence industry will stop producing parts for the F-35 next March – at an estimated loss of $10bn. 

Stung by an increasingly assertive and irredentist Turkish foreign policy in the east Mediterranean and Aegean, Greece has rearmed. Between June this year and June 2022, Greece will take delivery of eighteen fourth-generation Rafale fighters from France. Hellenic Aerospace (HAS) has also begun upgrading 85 of Greece’s F-16 Block 52 fighters to Block-72 Viper level. A prototype conversion flew to Houston in February, where the work is under review by Lockheed Martin. The US company will begin to supply parts for HAS to complete all 85 conversions over seven years. Both the Rafale and the Viper will outclass Turkey’s standing fleet of an estimated 236 ageing F-16s. 

“When the Rafale enter service in a few months, Turkey will have a serious problem in the balance of power vis-a-vis Greece. And if the Americans embargo spare parts for their existing F-16s, then the problem will become extremely serious, at least for the medium term,” says Prof. Grivas. 

Russia has sensed an opportunity to not only sell weapons, but to coax a key NATO ally into its own sphere of orbit. “Russia is offering to co-develop the SU-57 with Turkey, which is Russia’s most advanced plane. They’re going to pull out all the stops when it comes to military cooperation with Turkey,” says Prof. Alobeid. 

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