Why the cold war is (really) over

Why the cold war is (really) over
6 min read
27 August, 2015
Analysis: As the Ukraine crisis developed, many analysts speculated a new "cold war" was looming. Russia's pragmatic rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and backing of Egypt tells a different story.
Gamal Abdul Nasser and Nikita Khrushchev during visit to the Aswan Dam,1964 [Getty]
Watching an Egyptian president gazing at the opening of a new Suez canal, later discussing weapons deals over dinner with a Russian president in the Cairo Tower - purportedly built by Gamal Abdel Nasser with a US bribe as a rude gesture - one could almost think we've slipped back to the 1960s, the pinnacle of Russian-Egyptian relations.

"Old-fashioned power plays are back in international relations," wrote Walter Russel Mead in Foreign Policy last year.

"In very different ways, with very different objectives, China, Iran, and Russia are all pushing back against the political settlement of the Cold War," he added.

Watani Habibi: an anthem of Nasser's era,

with strong Soviet influence

This reflects the nostalgic discourse in sections of the Egyptian media following the Russia-Egypt rapprochement after Sisi came into power more than a year ago.

During an Egyptian delegation's trip to Moscow in November, actor Ezzat Al-Alayli spoke in a TV interview about the visit - and how it rekindled past memories of his time in Russia in the 1960s.

Yet the sound of the Egyptian army band playing a warped version of the Russian national anthem echoed the parodic nature of the contemporary "cold war", in which, as many have pointed out, Sisi - despite similar dictatorial qualities - is no Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Russia is no longer the USSR.

Putin pledged renewed support for Egypt this week, following a meeting in Moscow with Sisi and leaders from Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Far from being reflective of the 1960s, Russia is now following the US in its backing of Egypt, with the US government continuing to fund the Egyptian military to the tune of $1.3 billion a year.

Additionally, since the most recent meeting between Putin and Sisi, Russia has continued to change policy in the Middle East - with the important exception of Syria - most notably towards Saudi Arabia, further demonstrating alliences built on pragmatism, not the ideological wars of the Soviet era.

Alliances of oil, not ideology

One of the factors that might explain Russia's change of heart in the Middle East is oil prices.

"Saudis and Russians in recent weeks have found the need to co-operate with regards to oil prices. The two countries are very dependent on oil," said Marwan Qabalan from the Doha Institute.

Russia is an oil producer and exporter, therefore its currency is pegged to the oil price and foreign currency. As the oil price crashes, Russia has less cash coming into the country.

Additionally, Western sanctions following the Ukraine crisis also had a negative impact on the Russian economy, while the ruble lost 11 percent of its value against the US dollar in April alone.

     Saudis and Russians in recent weeks have found the need to co-operate with regards to oil prices
In November 2014, OPEC decided to fix the daily production ceiling at 30 million barrels, reducing demand because there was an expectation that oil would be available at a lower price in the future.

"There are those who believe that the recent OPEC decision was shaped by political reasons, using the preservation of market share as a pretext," said a Doha Institute policy brief.

"Russia… may be a target on account of its positions regarding the Ukraine crisis, Middle East issues, and its use of energy supplies to European states as a tool for political blackmail."

Where it was a political tool or not, following the price crash, Russia appeared to be more co-operative towards Saudi Arabia, unexpectedly declining to veto the UN Security Council resolution supporting Saudi-led strikes on the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Ali al-Naimi, the CEO of the Saudi National Oil Company, publicly praised the enhanced bilateral cooperation between Riyadh and Moscow, stating that, "this, in turn, will lead to creating a petroleum alliance between the two countries for the benefit of the international oil market".

These meetings culminated in the June signing of an agreement to build 16 nuclear power plants in Saudi territory.

Countering Islamism and Iran

"We underline the fundamental importance of the formation of a broad anti-terrorist front involving key international players and regional countries, including Syria," Putin said on Wednesday.

Qabalan maintains there is an overlap between Sisi and Putin over ideas towards political Islam, with neither able to distinguish between moderate and radical Islamists

"Everyone is concerned with the rise of IS and the potential collapse of Syria," he said.

"Russia sees Sisi as a secular regime… [Putin] is was not happy with the Muslim Brotherhood in power."

Speaking after the June meeting, Putin suggested the formation of a broad-based coalition to combat terrorism, and specifically IS, which would include both Saudi Arabia and the Syrian regime.

However, after what was described as a "miracle meeting" between Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Major General Ali Mamlouk - the director of National Security in Syria - in Moscow, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad re-emphasised his commitment towards Iran and support of Hizballah.

"As hope for a joint Saudi-Russian initiative that could resolve the crisis in Syria were evaporating, the Assad regime's bear hug of Tehran was growing increasingly tight," said Qabalan.

Sisi and Putin have dinner in the Cairo Tower [Anadolu]
Additionally, with the end of sanctions following the Iran deal expected to allow Tehran to massively increase its oil output, and Iran's reported co-ordinated oil strategy with Iraq, one of the largest oil producers in the region, economic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia over oil prices is almost certain to increase.

Saudi concerns following the Iran deal are also felt by Russia.

"The Russians are concerned about Iran replacing them as the major oil and gas exporter to Europe," said Qabalan.

Despite Western analysts' panic following the Ukraine crisis, Russia's policy in the Middle East further demonstrates that we are not in a new cold war, Moscow's backing of the Sisi regime in Egypt reflects US policy, rather than an anti-Western alliance.

Egypt will seek to "balance" Russian and US support, says Qabalan, as Russia would be unable to compete with the financial incentives the US has to offer.

Yet was the Egyptian-Soviet allience of the 1960s all that genuine anyway? For the history of Cairo Tower was not also as simple as the legend of Nasser, but tied to the building of the High Dam.

When Nasser came into power, the building of the dam was one of his formative policies. Although Nasser would eventually become known as an anti-imperialist Arab nationalist, he was initially seeking both US and Soviet support for the dam.​  While they reportedly considered funding Nasser - as a useful ally against communism in the region - Washington refused to release the cash, whereas the Soviets lent support, thus initiating years of temperamental Egypt-Russia relations.

A last-minute US handout was used to finance the Cairo Tower, which was not built as a gesture against imperial meddling, but possibly as a protest against the imperialists not paying up.