Russia has a major role in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The world’s geographically largest country has extensively worked to rebuild its influence in the region after its 25-year absence following the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
It has been using a range of economic, military, and diplomatic efforts and soft power methods to increase this influence, and has managed to expand its presence across the MENA region over the last decade.
Russia has played a key role in mediating talks between the warring parties in Libya, an oil-rich country that has been divided between two governments since 2014. With the propensity of militias and armed groups in Libya, Russia has allegedly leant its support to the Eastern-based Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), headed by Commander Khalifa Haftar. Moscow, however, denies any involvement in the conflict in Libya.
In recent years, Egypt and Russia have been ever closer and have enhanced their cooperation, most importantly on the military and economic levels. This closeness is best seen in the back-and-forth visits made between the two countries by, on the one hand, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi since taking office in 2014, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on the other hand.
Daily News Egypt sat down with Russia’s Ambassador to Cairo, Georgiy Borisenko, to discuss the efforts made by both sides to boost bilateral cooperation. The ambassador reviewed the resumption of Russian flights to Egyptian resorts, and the joint mega projects such as the El Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant, among others.
The interview also touched upon the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the long-time Libyan conflict, the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, among other issues.
Russia welcomed the coordinated ceasefire deal between Libya’s warring rivals on 21 August. Could you tell us more about the Russian position on this agreement, and the efforts to support a political solution in Libya?
Russia is working hard with all parties in the Libyan conflict, and is in direct touch with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the government in Benghazi. At the beginning of this year, we hosted several delegations of Libyan politicians and strongmen in Moscow, trying to find a way for reconciliation between the major parties.
Russia’s position is that Libya should be unified in a territorial and integrated country as it was before. Libya was one country and was not divided into two or three parts, which happened after 2011, when the country was destroyed by NATO intervention.
Meanwhile, we are also working with our Turkish partners, who are playing a role especially in the western parts of Libya, after they concluded some agreements with the GNA. The ceasefire should exist along the current frontline in Libya, without moving the forces there either to the east or to the west.
The GNA previously said that the LAAF should withdraw to the east, but our position since the beginning of our talks with Turkish partners is that LAAF should stay in the position it currently has.
We have been conducting such consultations with our Turkish partners since 13 June, and as can be seen, since then, there have been no offensive actions in Libya, and the GNA did not start any offensive toward Sirte, Jufra or elsewhere. We hope that our efforts to help calm down the situation will pay off, and we will continue our talks with both sides in Tripoli and Benghazi, as well as with our Turkish partners.
On Monday, a new Turkish delegation visited Moscow to discuss Libyan affairs. The next step should be a political settlement, but at the same time, we know and understand it will be a difficult process. As we said, Libya should have one government, one central bank, and one national oil company. We hope that the Libyan people will be able to find a political solution in the dialogue between all political forces in the country.
Do you think the Libyan ceasefire will be respected?
We hope so. We hope the GNA will follow its promise not to conduct any offensive actions, and we also believe that the LAAF will do the same.
How do you view reports of Russian military interference, such as sending weapons and mercenaries, into Libya to back Haftar?
Russia does not have any military forces in Libya. We may have some kind of cooperation with authorities there, like the legitimate Parliament in Tobruk. There are some talks about Russian mercenaries, but if they really exist, like those in the private military company Wagner Group, they are private persons. Such a company, if it really exists, is not registered in Russia, because to be a mercenary is against the law. If there are Russian nationals who are employed in this company they are private persons.
We do not have any information about who other employees in this company, there may be some Russians, Ukrainians, Americans, and British nationals, but this is not a company that belongs to the Russian government.
Moreover, we do not have any plans to establish a military base in Libya. First of all, we want Libya to become a unified country with one government. Any decisions regarding with whom the country makes military cooperation, with whom it will trade or sell its oil, should be decided upon by the Libyan people and by this (future united) Libyan government.
We recognise and respect Egypt’s concerns about its national security. We are aware that there are many members of different terrorist groups currently in the western parts of Libya, with some of them having arrived there by themselves and some having been transported from different parts of this region and the world.
These people are really threatening Egypt’s national security, therefore, we recognise Egypt’s rights to protect its own territories and national security. We remember the difficult time Egypt experienced about seven years ago, and we understand that the Egyptian authorities do not want to repeat this situation again.
We see that many members of the Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other terrorist organisations, settled in Libya after 2011, and some parts of the country had been recaptured by IS and Al-Qaeda fighters.
We believe this is a very dangerous situation because there are radical people who can threaten Egypt and other countries in northern Africa, Europe, Russia, and the US as well. We believe that all foreign fighters who are brought to Libya should be withdrawn from this country. We also are against bringing any terrorists to Libya.
What is Russia’s position on the conflict over maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean?
Russia is following this situation very closely, and in general, is trying to conduct balanced policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. We are trying to maintain good ties with all countries here, including Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and Israel. Sure, we have concerns that the current instability between Turkey and Greece, two NATO members, can have some dangerous consequences. It is important for Russia to have peace in this region.
Russia offered its mediation during GERD talks and in providing technical assistance to Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Could you tell us more about these efforts?
Russia believes it is necessary for all sides in the dispute to find a mutual and agreeable solution to this situation, because it is clear that all countries on the River Nile should live close to each other given that they are neighbours. We think this is why Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia should recognise the rights of each other in developing economy, but at the same time, the rights of their neighbours to have enough waters for themselves.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has, on Russia’s behalf, asked our Ethiopian friends several times to think about a good solution with Egypt and Sudan, and to recognise the rights of both countries to have the access to water they need. We understand that Egypt is dependent on River Nile water, which I understand accounts for approximately 97% of its water needs. We also understand the right of Ethiopia to develop its own economy, including the energy field.
We made a proposal that we hope all sides would agree on it. We would, for instance, share satellite photos of this dam to all sides to help them see what is happening there, and we have Russian satellites located there. But first of all, it is necessary that all sides accept these photos, and the mediators cannot impose their views on the countries in the dispute. Meanwhile, we are following negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and we hope that they find a mutually beneficial solution.
A Russian security team has previously inspected measures at Egyptian airports. When shall we expect the resumption of Russian flights to Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada?
The charter flights were stopped in 2015 after a Russian aeroplane exploded over Sinai in a terrorist attack. This occurred soon after the beginning of Russia’s military operations in Syria, and it was a revenge attack. The Russian military operation in Syria is ongoing, and there are still some radical men who would like to do the same, to hurt Russia’s interests and its nationals in the region and elsewhere, and that is why it is very important to install all security mechanisms in the airports and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Egypt has, until now, been conducting counterterrorism operations in North Sinai and there are still some bad guys in the same area, and this should be taken into consideration by Russian security agencies. They are working very closely with their Egyptian partners, and they have inspected the Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada airports several times. We can only complement the Egyptian government for its big success in installing new security measures at these airports.
We hope that we will be able to resume these flights sometime soon, but we cannot confirm a specific timeframe for when this will happen. Many Russians would like to fly directly from Russia to these resorts, and pre-2015, there were more than 3 million Russians travelling every year to these places. Last year, many Russians arrived here, but significantly less than 150,000, because they have to use flights through third countries.
The security of our people is our major concern, and we understand that Egypt is waiting for Russian tourists to return, and Russian tourists love Egypt. But security is our main concern, because we lost 224 people in the 2015 crash, and we cannot repeat this situation.
Cairo and Moscow enjoy close ties and enhanced mutual cooperation. Can you tell us about the Russian investments in Egypt, the trade exchange and mutual projects?
Russia foreign direct investments in the Egyptian economy have been growing fast in the past few years, reaching $7.4bn by 2020. There are good prospects for increasing this volume in the coming period, especially in the fields of oil and gas exploration, agriculture, food industry and mechanical engineering.
The volume of bilateral trade was $6.2bn in 2019, which puts Russia among Egypt’s top 10 foreign trade partners. The main Russian export items to Egypt are wheat, metals, oil and gas, transportation goods, wood, while Egyptian exports to Russia include agricultural crops and chemical and food industry products.
Unfortunately, due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the trade exchange between Egypt and Russia has suffered a significant downturn, standing at only $1bn in the first quarter (Q1) of 2020.
We are now working on different new economic projects, like the Russian Industrial Zone in the new Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZone). If these projects will be realised, Egypt can receive more than $7bn of new Russian investments, but these projects are still being implemented.
Egypt will gain new technologies and new jobs, because according to the agreements, 90% of jobs in the Russian Industrial Zone will go to local staff. Meanwhile, major Russian companies, including Rosneft and Lukoil as well as car manufacture LADA, operate in the Egyptian market.
In June this year, the Russian company, Transmashholding, started supplying 1,300 railway wagons to Egypt, for the latter to develop its railway sector. We believe this will change the interface of Egyptian railroads.
There is also the El Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant, which is expected to be constructed by the Russian State Corporation for atomic energy, Rosatom, and it is anticipated that this will bring top-notch Russian technologies to Egypt.
Construction on the El Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant was supposed to begin this year. Has COVID-19 affected these plans?
This is true. From the beginning of the pandemic in March, much on-the-ground work in the future nuclear power plant was stopped, and this has for sure delayed construction. We hope that we will be able to resume the full scale of works there as soon as the pandemic is over.
We are also waiting for final confirmation for the project from the Egyptian regulatory authorities, because this is a nuclear power plant and all safety measures should be taken in order to secure this plant and the area around it. Right now, the Egyptian side is considering the technical solutions which should be implemented at this plant, and as soon they signal their approval, it will be possible to start the construction works if the situation allows us to do this.
Will the postponement affect the first nuclear reactor’s operations? And what are the safety standards in place?
Sure it will affect the operations as there will be some delay, but we hope that this project can be implemented by the end of the decade. Regarding the safety standards, I am not an expert in these things, as there are Egyptian and Russian experts who are working on the required safety measures. However, I can assure you that Russia is proposing the highest levels of safety of nuclear safety for our Egyptian friends.
Does Russia plan to expand its energy field cooperation with Egypt, particularly in the oil and gas sector?
We would be happy to boost cooperation in this field. For now, we have mega Russian oil and gas companies working on the Egyptian shelf of the Mediterranean Sea, such as Gazprom and Rosneft. Russian companies are seeking ways to set up mutually beneficial cooperation with Egyptian businesspersons, as the local market is very attractive in terms of investments.
Can you tell us more on the cooperation between Egypt and Russia’s intelligence services and security agencies in counterterrorism and other issues?
Our country is a close partner to Egypt in counterterrorism, and our special intelligence services are in direct contact as they are working closely, and sharing information on terrorist threats.
They are also participating in a special joint working group for counterterrorism issues, which is headed by deputy ministries of foreign affairs of both sides. The first meeting was in 2019 in Moscow and the second meeting was supposed to be held in Cairo but it had to be postponed due to COVID-19 pandemic.
In this group, we can share best practices on how to prevent people from joining terrorist organisations, avoid the emerging of new terrorist groups, and discuss what should be done on the economy, social and political life. This is a very important field of cooperation, because both Egypt and Russia have had bad experiences with terrorism.
Moreover, we are working together on an information security convention, which focuses on a range of topics rather than just the usual cybercrimes. There are many problems with the use of the internet by terrorists, or other radical people, and this convention should regulate how the information sphere should be used by different countries. It will also look at how to prevent radical people from using the internet and other means of communications for criminal purposes, such as terrorism.