Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in Moscow, on February 13, 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in Moscow, on February 13, 2014. RIA Novosti, Mikhail Metzel/AP

The U.S. Must Deny Russian Influence in Egypt

Washington can hit two birds with one stone by re-engaging Cairo: combat Moscow's influence and fight terrorism. By Melissa Hersh

In the violent aftermath of the Egyptian military’s removal of Mohamed Morsi from power, the United States has tried to send a message with limited suspensions of aid. As the security situation on the Sinai Peninsula continues to deteriorate, re-engaging Egypt in counterterrorism efforts is warranted. The administration's oscillating decisions to maintain, halt, and then reinstate this type of security assistance have been confusing at best and harmful at worst. Egypt’s need for satellite services (including launch capabilities) to address the growing problem of insurgents in the Sinai is a key national security concern to Egypt, Israel, and the U.S.

On the geopolitical stage, the fact that Russia has stepped in to solve Egypt’s technology services gap should further motivate the U.S. to action.The Egyptian sentiment that the U.S. has turned its back on them in their hour of need has left an opening for other players to provide financial and technical military assistance. Attempting to preserve the appearance of propriety and support a democratically elected leader, exert regional influence, and keep radical Islamists out of office, Washington has fallen short and created a vacuum whereby a pro-Syrian Russia has moved in to further its strategic regional interests.

Cash-strapped, resource-poor, and unsure of its status with the U.S., Egypt has turned to the Russians to launch a reconnaissance satellite, EgyptSat 2, to assist with their imminent counter-terrorism needs in the Sinai. Whether Egypt has accepted Russian support to launch their satellite and acquire weapons to meet their existential rather than strategic needs or to provide an inducement to push Washington's hand to make a declarative foreign policy decision is inconsequential. The impact is the same.

The development and launch campaign for EgyptSat-2 was conducted largely in secret. Only one visual of the operational spacecraft was released to the public by its manufacturer RKK Energia. Notably, in its post-launch press release, the company avoided the use of name EgyptSat-2, instead identifying the satellite as a "spacecraft for optical-electronic observation developed for the foreign customer."

The national security implications of this Russian maneuver for the U.S. should not be overlooked. For the Russians, providing intelligence for the Egyptians to target Syrian insurgents (anti-Assad rebels) in the Sinai while also providing support to Assad in Damascus, quite literally, means one hand washes the other. Russian policy, therefore, remains something of a mystery.

Moreover, the days of cosmic détente may well be over as evidenced by the Russian decision to withdraw from the International Space Station and instead pursue cooperation with the Chinese. Russia has also prevented U.S. Global Positioning System ground stations from operating on Russian territories while at the same time expanding its national, space-based global navigation system, GLONASS, operations into Iran and Cuba. With Russian participation in Iranian space activities blossoming and no sign of Syrian atrocities winding down, limiting Moscow’s regional influence through reducing Egypt’s reliance on Russia seems critical.

With the aftertaste of the Soviet legacy still lingering on the palate of Egypt’s institutional memory, it is doubtful that Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi sees Russia as a replacement for U.S. support. Cairo is aware of the limitations it faces by a key benefactor, Saudi Arabia, if it pursues stronger ties with Moscow. Seemingly, the only way for Egypt to emerge from this morass is for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to come together. This calls for a strategic plan for compatible and complimentary Saudi financial support and American technical assistance. The recent elections in Cairo provide an opportunity for Washington to recover its influence in this way. 

In spite of the mission creep that the U.S. faces with respect to its involvement in the Middle East and North Africa region, American foreign policy must rebound in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Washington’s unwavering support for a time-tested but autocratic ally, Mubarak, was at odds with its desire to promote democratic ideals. Moving away from this gritty realism is a laudable goal, but security issues must still at least be on the administration’s radar. Space engagement is a key way to maintain the administration’s policy of counterterrorism engagement while also edging the Russians out.

The Sinai has it all – shipping lanes, satellites, sectarianism, and Syrians. Even if contemplating broader support for Egypt is still anathema to the Obama administration, keeping space de-politicized is crucial. Denying Russia influence in Egypt and deterring their access to vital intelligence regarding Syria and the possibility of the U.S. naval fleet in the Red Sea should provide sufficient incentive for action. Washington can hit two birds with one stone by re-engaging Cairo:  it can both deny Moscow further regional influence and assist Egypt in countering the threat of terrorism. 

Melissa Hersh is a Washington D.C.-based risk analyst and a Fellow of the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are her own