In arms race for air superiority, Russia challenges US hegemony

Moscow’s expanding sales bring money and geopolitical influence, with clients such as Egypt, Turkey and Algeria.

Russian fighter jets
Sukhoi Su-35 jet fighters of the Sokoly Rossii (Falcons of Russia) aerobatic team fly in formation during a rehearsal for an airshow in Krasnoyarsk, Russia [File: Ilya Naymushin/Reuters]

Athens, Greece – 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.

“There is a position of the US against human rights problems in Egypt,” retired Egyptian army general Gamal Mazloum told 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 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.

In 2019, after Trump allegedly went back on his word at the United Nations, 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 seeks to avoid Libya’s fate

Between 2010 and 2014, Algeria’s defence budget almost doubled to $10bn.

The North African country, which also saw uprisings during that period, is responsible for half of all defence spending on the African continent.

Perhaps this response is due to experience.

In 1991, the Algerian 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 armed uprising by the FIS and other groups.

During a visit to Algiers in 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin forgave the country’s $4.7bn debt in return for armaments contracts worth $7.5bn.

Algeria, which spends 15.5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defence, now appears to have geopolitical ambitions of its own in the Mediterranean, powered almost exclusively by Russian weaponry.

Turkey seeks new friends

Turkey is transforming itself into a regional player through weapons exports, much like Russia.

Its drones turned the tide of the Libyan war and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan last year.

In December 2019, the US Congress sanctioned Turkey for purchasing Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missiles, saying they posed a threat to the F-35 Turkey was contracted to co-produce with Lockheed Martin.

Turkey will not be allowed to purchase 100 planes, and its defence industry will lose an estimated $10bn in contracts to produce parts.

Military vehicles and equipment, parts of the S-400 air defence systems, are unloaded from a Russian transport aircraft, at Murted military airport in Ankara, Turkey [File: Turkish Defence Ministry via AP, Pool]

Meanwhile, Turkey has been in an open conflict with Greece over parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean, and Athens is rearming as a result.

Between June this year and June 2022, Greece will take delivery of 18 fourth-generation Rafale fighters from France.

Another six may follow.

Hellenic Aerospace Industry (HAI) has also begun upgrading 85 of Greece’s F-16 Block 52 fighters to Block-72 Viper level, essentially making them fourth-generation planes.

Both the Rafale and the Viper will outclass Turkey’s standing fleet of an estimated 236 ageing F-16s.

Rafale fighter jet
A French Navy Rafale fighter jet is seen on board the upgraded Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier off the coast of Toulon, southern France, on November 14, 2018 [Christophe Simon/EPA-EFE]

“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,” said Grivas.

“If it buys Sukhoi it will be a much more decisive step away from the Western architecture than the S-400 purchase … We are at the start of a Cold War. Turkey’s move may be an irreversible rift with the West.”

But he also believes there is an opportunity for peace.

While Greece enjoys a competitive edge in the Aegean, the two countries could yet settle their outstanding maritime differences, he said.

As the Mediterranean conflict simmers, however, has Russia sensed an opportunity to coax a key NATO ally into its own 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,” said Alobeid.

Source: Al Jazeera