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Russia set to stage military exercises in Egypt within days

'Protectors of Friendship' drills will involve 500 Russian paratroopers, 15 planes and helicopters
Russian President Putin (R) shakes hands with his Egyptian counterpart al-Sisi after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on 26 August, 2015 (AFP)

Russia and Egypt will hold joint military drills involving airborne troops on Egyptian territory for the first time within days, the Russian defence ministry said on Tuesday.

"The joint Russian-Egyptian drills will happen in mid-October 2016 on the territory of Egypt," it said, without specifying their start date.

The drills, called "Protectors of Friendship-2016", will include 500 troops, 15 planes and helicopters and 10 military hardware units, the ministry said, describing the exercises as "anti-terrorist".

"The airborne delivery by parachute of several Russian airborne troops' сombat vehicles to the desert climate of Egypt will occur for the first time in history," the ministry said.

The Soviet Union, led by Russia, did post hundreds of "military advisers" in Egypt during the Cold War.

Last year Russia and Egypt held their first-ever joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean, which included the Black Sea fleet's flagship Moskva missile cruiser.

The decision comes a day after Russian media reported that Egypt is in talks to allow Russia use of military bases across the country, including an air base on the Mediterranean coast close to the border with Libya.

On Friday, Egypt voted in favour of a Russian-sponsored UN Security Council resolution regarding the bombardment of Aleppo.

Saudi oil supplies to Egypt have been halted since the beginning of the month, an Egyptian official told Reuters

Egypt's tilt toward Russia in the Syrian conflict is unlikely to have gone down well in Riyadh, a major financial backer of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. 

Relations between Cairo and Washington have been tense since Sisi's military coup against Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, when the US briefly suspended arms sales over human rights abuses.

A 2016 report commissioned by the Congressional Research Service found that between 1948 and 2015, the United States provided Egypt with $76bn in bilateral foreign aid (not adjusted for inflation), including $1.3bn a year in military aid from 1987 to the present.

Russia is especially keen to renovate an ex-Soviet naval base in the coastal town of Sidi Barani, which was used until 1972 to monitor US warships in the Mediterranean, Russian foreign and defence ministry sources told local daily Izvestia.

According to the source, an agreement could see the Sidi Barani base be renovated and ready for use as an air base by 2019.

Cairo is “ready to agree to lease to Moscow to address primary geopolitical issues, if the needs of the Egyptian side are met,” the paper quoted a defence ministry source as saying.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has long said that he is keen to see Russia maintain a permanent presence in the Mediterranean.

Russia already has the Hmeimim air base in the Syrian province on the Mediterranean coast of Latakia.

It also operates a naval base from Tartus, some 80km to the south.

The Russian defence ministry said on Monday that it aims to make the Tartus naval base “permanent”, and is drawing up the necessary paperwork to achieve a longer-term deal.

“At Tartus, we will have a permanent naval base in Syria,” Russian Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov told parliament on Monday.

The announcement came days after Moscow announced it was sending an S-300 air defence missile system to the Tartus naval base in a bid to beef up its security.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.