Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi, right, meets with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, left, on Nov. 14 in Cairo. Sergei Lavrov and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu held talks with Egyptian counterparts on weapons sales and political relations during an official visit. (Khaled Desouki / AFP)
CAIRO — Egypt and Russia’s defense ministers have discussed military collaboration between their countries, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday during a landmark visit to Cairo.
Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu led a high-level delegation on a visit in the wake of a diplomatic spat between Egypt and long-time ally the United States triggered by the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
Shoigu and “his counterpart (Gen. Abdel Fattah al-) Sisi talked on military collaboration” between the two nations, Lavrov told a Cairo news conference, without elaborating.
Last week, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the discussions would touch on “military and technical cooperation” — a Russian euphemism for arms sales — as well as political and economic ties.
Sisi, who is both defense minister and army chief, led a military ouster of Morsi in July, after which he installed an interim government and promised elections.
Lavrov told the news conference with Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy that talks had also touched on boosting economic and trade ties.
Fahmy said “bilateral ties between Russia and Egypt are old, in particular in military areas, and this was discussed by the Russian defense minister with his Egyptian counterpart yesterday.”
The talks came as a Russian warship docked at an Egyptian base on the Red Sea, army sources said, adding that it was the second such vessel to arrive this week.
The unofficial visit was aimed at “strengthening links between the navies of the two countries”, they said.
Lavrov declined to be drawn into commenting on political developments in Egypt, where the new government has launched a massive crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and put most of its leaders, including Morsi, on trial.
“Russia is against any foreign intervention in internal affairs and we respect Egypt’s sovereignty and the rights of Egyptian people to determine their future,” he said.
Before ending their visit, the Russians also met interim president Adly Mansour, when Lavrov offered “the support of Russia to the people of Egypt during this difficult transitional period,” state news agency MENA reported.
Egypt had close ties with Russia before then president Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979, bringing in roughly $1.3 billion in yearly US military aid over the subsequent decades.
Diplomatic ties between Egypt and the United States soured after Washington suspended some of its military aid to Cairo after Morsi’s ouster.
Since then, Egypt has taken a more “independent” tack and broadened its foreign policy, Fahmy told AFP on Saturday.
'Smart move' by Egypt
Analysts said Egypt’s strategy to reach out to Russia was a “smart move” but it would not lead to any fundamental change in the near term.
“Egypt’s weapons system is entirely US supplied. We must understand that there won’t be a fundamental shift in Egypt’s military machinery as you can’t have Russian arms operating on US weapons systems,” said Shadi Hamid, research director at Brookings Doha Center.
“A fundamental shift from US weapons systems to Russian systems will take a long time and there is no indication that this is planned. The US will still remain the prime provider (of arms) to Egypt’s military,” he told AFP.
In a move that angered Cairo, Washington said in October it was “recalibrating” its aid to Egypt and suspending the delivery of Apache helicopters, F-16 aircraft, M1A1 Abrams tank parts and Harpoon missiles.
President Barack Obama has led US calls for Egypt to rein in the bloodshed that erupted in Cairo and across the country after Morsi’s ouster.
Clashes in Cairo and its suburbs have killed at least 989 people since security forces launched an August 14 crackdown on Morsi supporters, a forensic official told AFP Thursday.
Thousands have been arrested, mostly Islamists, including the Brotherhood’s top leadership.
US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to warm relations between the two countries during a visit to Egypt this month — his first since Morsi’s ouster.
“We are committed to work with and we will continue our cooperation with the interim government,” Kerry said in Cairo.
His visit “left better sentiments here in Egypt,” Fahmy said on Saturday, while adding that not everything had been resolved.