Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Egypt on Sunday on the first stop of a four-nation African tour as part of a perceived effort to cement Moscow’s ties with allies that have resisted the West’s narrative of its war in Ukraine.
Mr Lavrov, who arrived in Cairo late on Saturday, met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and later held talks with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. The Russian minister also met Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit and addressed the organisation's permanent representatives at the league's headquarters in central Cairo.
Throughout the day, Mr Lavrov went to great lengths to explain Russia's narrative on the war in Ukraine, lavishly complementing his hosts — Egypt and Arab League member-states — on the balanced approach they've taken on the conflict.
He also pledged unwavering support for Russia's Arab and African friends and sought to reassure Egypt that Moscow was doing everything it could to ensure the resumption from Ukraine of its vital grain exports to Egypt.
"The president emphasised the importance of dialogue and diplomatic solutions to end the [Ukraine] crisis, as well as Egypt's support for a speedy political settlement of the conflict," said a statement by the Egyptian leader's office after his talks with Mr Lavrov.
"Egypt is prepared to support this track through its international contacts with all the relevant parties," the statement quoted Mr El Sisi as saying to the Russian minister.
Mr Lavrov, however, took a dim view of the prospect of negotiations with Ukraine to end the war.
“We do not have any prejudices about resuming negotiations on a wider range of issues, but the matter does not depend on us,” he told a news conference after talks with Mr Shoukry, his Egyptian counterpart.
“Ukrainian authorities, from the president to his innumerable advisers, constantly say that there will be no negotiations until Ukraine defeats Russia on the battlefield.”
The Russian minister, who was last in Egypt 15 months ago, will travel on from Egypt to Ethiopia and Uganda — two countries whose ties with the West are strained — and wind up his whirlwind tour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
An Arab league statement said Mr Abul Gheit welcomed the deal reached last week in Istanbul between Russia, Turkey and the United Nations on grain exports from Ukraine's Black Sea ports. If "implemented, in good faith," he told Mr Lavrov, it would spare many countries the "grave consequences" of the food crisis resulting from the war.
Addressing the Arab League delegates later, Mr Lavrov said he appreciated the "balanced, fair and responsible" position of the Arab League on the Ukraine war.
He also offered Moscow's ideological take on its differences with Western powers.
"The world is much, much richer than just Western civilisation. And, many of you representing the ancient civilisations, should know about this," he told the delegates in English.
"And I think the movement is unstoppable. Trying to put it on breaks is going against the objective process of history. And this would only delay for some time the eventual formation of the true, multi-polar, democratic world," he said.
Egypt, a founding member of the Arab League viewed as a regional heavyweight, has so far struck a delicate balance in maintaining close and beneficial ties with both Russia and the US, at a time when Washington is leading a concerted global effort to isolate and punish the Kremlin for invading Ukraine in February.
Egypt accepted the US as its main foreign backer in the 1970s, ending two decades of alliance with the Soviet Union. Relations with the US remain close to this day, with Cairo receiving $1.3 billion of American military aid annually. The two countries also have close economic ties and co-ordinate foreign policy and counterterrorism efforts.
Since taking office in 2014, Mr El Sisi has moved to thaw Cairo’s frosty relations with Moscow, with Egypt buying cutting-edge weapons from Russia, staging regular joint war games and procuring a large portion of its vast wheat imports — about 10 million tonnes a year — from its ally.
Last week, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom broke ground at a site on the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria for the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power station, at the cost of $30 billion.
The US and the EU have sought to pull Egypt away from Russia and persuade the most populous Arab nation to join western sanctions against the Kremlin over the war in Ukraine.
However, Cairo has steered a course that appears not to have harmed its relations with Moscow. It voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned the Ukraine invasion, but has since called repeatedly for a political settlement of the conflict.
Egypt also turned away at least one Russian shipment of wheat that Ukraine said had been stolen from farmlands occupied by Russian forces. It has also pledged to try to help Europe deal with the energy crisis caused by the war, saying it intends to increase its exports of liquefied natural gas.
The fallout of the Ukraine war has had a devastating effect on Egypt's economy. The impact of higher energy prices and shipping costs has hit the country as it was recovering from the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, prompting double-digit inflation.
Besides disrupting its large wheat imports from Ukraine — another major source — the conflict halted the arrival of Russian and Ukrainian tourists, who between them accounted for more than 30 per cent of all foreign visitors on the eve of the war.
On Sunday, Mr Lavrov denied that the Ukraine war has deepened the food crisis, blaming Western sanctions for slowing its own food and fertiliser exports and Ukraine for mining its Black Sea ports.
"There can be safe corridors that guarantee the export of Ukrainian grain and food, but the Ukrainian side must first remove the mines," he told the news conference.
He explained that under last week's Istanbul agreement, Turkey's Navy will guarantee the safety of ships leaving Ukrainian Black Sea ports and will also ensure that no weapons are smuggled into Ukraine.
Following Russia's air strike on Saturday on the port of Odesa, Ukraine's major Black Sea hub, it was not immediately clear how plans to resume shipping Ukrainian grain by sea in safe corridors would be affected. Russian officials said on Sunday the air strike was aimed at a military target.
Ukraine and Russia are among the world's top food exporters, and Ukraine's ports have been blockaded by Russia's Black Sea fleet. Combined, the two warring nations account for 80 per cent of Egypt's wheat imports.
An estimated 20 million tonnes of grain are stuck in silos at Odesa, with dozens of ships stranded by Moscow's offensive, which it calls a "special military operation".